By Ted Olson
A small independent label, Rich-R-Tone Records has generally received attention among scholars and serious music fans for being a pioneering “bluegrass label.” The Tennessee Historical Commission put the state’s official stamp on that recognition with a historical marker dedicated on Nov. 4 at the marker’s location on the West Main Street side of the Johnson City Farmer’s Market pavilion in downtown Johnson City.
Family members of the record label’s founder, the late James Hobart Stanton, were recognized during the dedication ceremony, which included performances by Ralph Stanley II and the Clinch Mountain Boys and the ETSU Pride Band. Johnson City Mayor Joe Wise read a proclamation recognizing Stanton and presented it to his family.
Operated from its 1946 founding through the early 1950s out of a record store at 113 W. Main Street in Johnson City, Rich-R-Tone has primarily been recognized in recent years for 14 sides from 78 RPM discs released by the label between 1947 and 1952 by the Stanley Brothers. Several of the discs constituted the initial recordings of that legendary bluegrass band’s stellar career. But the label was much more than a one-band wonder, having released records by several other first-generation bluegrass acts. And Rich-R-Tone Records (and its subsidiary label Folk-Star Records) released numerous recordings of compelling music by other overlooked Appalachian musicians performing in a range of other music genres.
Those recordings by the Stanleys (Carter and Ralph Stanley) have been reissued on more than one occasion. Several other Rich-R-Tone sides, originally released on 78 RPM during the late 1940s and early 1950s, were reissued during the mid-1970s on the Rounder Records LP series The Early Days of Bluegrass. But Rich-R-Tone’s full story has never been told, and the majority of the label’s releases remain obscure, known only to a few collectors. For the most part, the original Rich-R-Tone 78s were produced in limited runs. Today, with the original masters for those records no longer extant, and with the generally substandard material used to press the company’s commercial releases frequently not holding up over time, many Rich-R-Tone 78s exist today in only a handful of copies, and other titles cannot be accounted for anywhere.
The scarcity of many of that company’s original 78s, combined with scholarly focus on the label’s specifically bluegrass sides, has led to general neglect of much Rich-R-Tone’s original catalog. The label was eclectic in its approach, releasing records featuring plaintive country songs, up-tempo honky-tonk and hillbilly boogie songs, White and Black gospel, and revivalist folk music, as well as all manner of oddities and one-offs, including Irish tenor singing, boogie-woogie piano, blues, and novelty songs.
Rich-R-Tone Records was the brainchild of James Hobart Stanton, who was born April 4, 1919, the son of Dana G. and Ida B. Yates Stanton. Dana Stanton, who earlier had worked as a coal miner, moved to Johnson City from rural Washington County, Tennessee, to work on a community newspaper when his son was 6 years old. While in high school, “Jim” or “Hobe” (he answered to two nicknames) befriended a local jukebox operator, and Stanton took over that man’s Morristown, Tennessee, route, distributing records to various venues around that section of East Tennessee. In 1939, Stanton went into the jukebox business for himself.
Three years later, Stanton sold the business and moved to Cincinnati to work for the Wurlitzer Jukebox company. He soon met Syd Nathan, who was then establishing King Records, and Nathan inspired Stanton to found his own label, though that plan would have to wait until after World War II.
In 1944 Stanton met Tommy Grinnell, a jukebox operator based in Richmond, Virginia, and the two men set up a joint jukebox business in Charlottesville, Virginia. In early 1946, Stanton sold his share of that company to Grinnell and moved back to Johnson City. There, he opened a record store and launched Rich-R-Tone Records, which, the Nashville Tennessean would ultimately laud as the “oldest bluegrass label” in the world.
To generate recording activity, Stanton began spreading the word about his new endeavor. Two local musicians, DJ/musician Jim Hall and bandleader/country singer Wayne “Buffalo” Johnson, promptly answered the call to record. Stanton cut masters of both acts at the WOPI radio station in Bristol, Tennessee, and in December 1946 the inaugural Rich-R-Tone 78, Johnson’s “I’ll Always Find A Way” backed with “Come Back Again,” were released. Over the next several months, Stanton recorded a succession of straight-ahead country acts, with the label’s more experimental direction beginning in earnest by the Fall of 1947 with the first Stanley Brothers recording session. Stanton signed the Stanleys after witnessing their passionate fan support, evident in the number of letters they received in response to local radio appearances.
Other Appalachian musicians had likewise been struck by the lightning bolt — excitement over the Grand Ole Opry appearances and 1945 Columbia recordings by Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys — that would later be called bluegrass. Stanton sought out such musicians and soon would record memorable sides by another brother group, the Sauceman Brothers. (Carl Sauceman became a field scout for Rich-R-Tone.) Stanton set out to record as many artists with this new sound as he could, including Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper, the Bailey Brothers, the Church Brothers, Curley King, and Jim Eanes. In 1948, by his own account, Stanton had the opportunity to record Flatt & Scruggs — then performing in Bristol on WCYB’s “Farm and Fun Time” radio show — but refrained from doing so, not wanting to alienate the Stanley Brothers.
Despite some landmark early bluegrass recordings, and counter to the widely held public perception in recent years, Rich-R-Tone was not strictly a “bluegrass label.” In a 1982 interview with music historian Charles K. Wolfe, Stanton referred to Rich-R-Tone Records as “a country label.” The label’s flagship act, “Buffalo” Johnson, was an old-school country crooner who recorded more sides for Rich-R-Tone than any other artist. While never achieving a national hit, Johnson was regionally popular, and his records caught the attention of country music legend Chet Atkins, who said that he considered Johnson as one of the finest country singers in the immediate postwar period. (Atkins allegedly invited Johnson to perform on the Grand Ole Opry, though the Opry management refused to allow Johnson on stage because the singer was physically disabled.)
Based in Johnson City through the early 1950s, Stanton was a tireless businessman who pursued every opportunity to record and distribute the vernacular music that was popular within a day’s drive of his home base. He ran a small-scale operation, using freelance sound engineers and hiring part-time help in enabling promotion and distribution. Adept at identifying localized music cultures in and near Appalachia, Stanton attempted to record key acts that defined those cultures. For instance, in the North Carolina piedmont, which Stanton rightly recognized as having a fertile gospel quartet scene, he recorded the Payne Family, who made several memorable records for Rich-R-Tone. Stanton understood the strengths and limitations of marketing regional music. Promoting Rich-R-Tone releases in every conceivable way available to him, he encountered resistance in some quarters. Once, travelling to Atlanta to try to sell Rich-R-Tone bluegrass 78s at a retail outlet, Stanton played what he called “a proven seller with banjo and fiddle on it,” but was “absolutely ridiculed” by a salesclerk and by customers. “They laughed out loud at me…,” he confessed to Wolfe; “That’s how rough it was.”
Stanton added, “The holdback in those days was the social difference. Music was as clannish as it could be. Contrary to today’s market, if bluegrass music wasn’t within a couple of walking miles of a coal mine, it wouldn’t sell. You could not sell a fiddle or a banjo unless you were in the mountains or the coal fields.”
The production run for a typical Rich-R-Tone 78 was approximately 5,000 copies, though no doubt few releases sold out their production run. Stanton, though, occasionally got lucky. In 1947 he recorded Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper in Asheville, and the couple’s recording of “Tramp On The Street” sold remarkably well when released in March 1948. A press release at the time estimated sales of that 78 at 100,000 copies, though that quantity was likely exaggerated by Stanton himself. In his interview with Wolfe, Stanton admitted to hyping sales figures to jumpstart media interest — a practice that backfired when artists and the IRS began asking Stanton to provide payment for the high number of records sold. Nonetheless, “Tramp On The Street” introduced Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper to a much broader audience, and that wife-and-husband duo later commented that recording for Stanton was among the most satisfying experiences of a long career in music.
In November 1949 Stanton initiated the custom label Folk-Star Records. He had not planned to do so, but a folk musician forced the issue. Kate Peters contacted Stanton and asked if he might record her. Balking at what he perceived as the lack of sales potential for Peters’ music, Stanton offered to record her music if she would help to subsidize it. Custom recording became an increasingly important part of Stanton’s business operation into the 1950s as country music record sales began to decline steadily after the rise of rockabilly and the emergence of televised music programming. Releases on Folk-Star by Peters and other amateur musicians may not have sold many copies, but today those many records provide broad documentation of music-making in Appalachia during that era.
Rich-R-Tone was not only ahead of its time in recording bluegrass, but it can also be seen as a prototype for many subsequent roots-music-related independent record companies that captured and marketed regional music sounds and styles to a national audience. In the case of Rich-R-Tone, the national record-buying audience of the era of its greatest activity (1946 to approximately 1953; Stanton continued to operate the label for years afterward) was not broadly responsive to the fine records released by the company. Despite its significant roles in introducing key acts in bluegrass music’s “first generation” and in documenting postwar Appalachian music, Rich-R-Tone Records has not been fully recognized for its broad-ranging documentation of vernacular Appalachian music.
Ted Olson is a professor of Appalachian Studies and Bluegrass, Old-Time and Roots Music Studies at East Tennessee State University.