By John C. Alsedek:
As I get older (and older, and older . . . ), I’m ever more grateful for the bits of knowledge I pick up regarding things from my childhood—things that totally went right past me then. And boy oh boy, does country music legend Roy Clark fall into that category. For he is someone I’ve come to have an entirely different opinion on than I did in the 1970s.
Back then, I knew Clark for the same reason that most Americans did: he and singer/guitarist Buck Owens were the hosts of Hee Haw, a country music variety show popular in the seventies. Clark and Owens were likable enough, and while the music wasn’t really my cup of tea (I was more into Soul Train!), the corny humor, "Hee Haw Honeys," and overall good-natured vibe made it a fun watch in between monster movies on Saturday evenings. I was also aware of Clark from his hit song "Yesterday When I Was Young" and his appearances on shows such as The Hollywood Squares and The Beverly Hillbillies, but that was about it.
It wasn’t until fairly recently that I came to realize just what a gifted musician Clark was—maybe one of the best guitarists of any genre during the sixties and seventies. Look up some of his early video clips on YouTube, and you’ll see what I mean. His picking speed was in speedmetal territory (like 180 beats per minute) and amazingly clean. He was also one of the early innovators in terms of using the electric guitar to produce sound effects; listen to a legend like Jimi Hendrix and his "machine gun" riff and then realize Roy Clark was doing that almost a decade earlier—and doing it for laughs. Guy had chops for days! And the way he combined them with the jokes made them even more memorable; one of my favorite YouTube clips is of Clark and Johnny Cash performing "Folsom Prison Blues," during which the normally stolid Cash couldn’t help but burst into laughter as Clark uses Cash’s boot as a guitar slide.
Born Roy Linwood Clark in Meherrin, Virginia, on April 15, 1933, Clark inherited his musical gifts from his parents: his father, Hester, was a semi-professional musician who played guitar, banjo, and fiddle, while his mother, Lillian, played piano. The family moved to the Washington, D.C., area when Clark was eleven, and it was there that he blossomed musically. By age 14, he was proficient with the guitar, banjo, and mandolin, even winning the National Banjo Championship in 1947 and 1948. Slipping into local clubs at every opportunity, Clark was a sponge, picking up every trick and lick he possibly could. His banjo idol was Earl Scruggs of the seminal duo Flatt & Scruggs: “When I started playing, you didn’t have many choices to follow, and Earl Scruggs was both of them,” joked Clark in a 1985 interview. But his guitar playing had a very different influence: the great swing jazz guitarist George Barnes, who pioneered the use of electric guitar back in the 1930s.
Those dual influences were actually pretty consistent with what Clark would become going forward. Though best remembered as a country-western musician and singer, Clark didn’t think of himself that way; rather, he played what he liked, and whether that was country, pop, classical, Latin, or whatever, it was all fine by him. He added comedy to his act when he began performing as a teenager; naturally very shy, he found telling jokes and acting silly while on-stage really helped. If you watch some of his early performances, it’s fascinating how he could mug hysterically for the camera and tell deadpan, self-deprecating jokes while at the same time absolutely shredding his way through a song such as his famous "12th Street Rag."
Clark spent the remainder of his teenage years working his way up through the ranks as a musician, supporting big country names such as Ernest Tubb and Red Foley (and having added fiddle and 12-string guitar to his repertoire along the way). Then he got what would turn out to be his big break, when rising star Jimmy Dean (yes, the sausage guy!) recruited Clark as the lead guitarist for his band, the Texas Wildcats, in 1954. Dean already had his own radio show, Town and Country Time; that program would move to television in 1955, garnering Clark’s outstanding playing a whole new level of attention. Though Dean would end up firing Clark in 1957 for habitual tardiness (Dean was overheard to say, “He’s the most talented person I’ve ever had to fire!”), the men remained good friends, and it would be Dean who gave Clark his truly big break.
After several years of backing the likes of Western Swing artist Hank Penny and Wanda "First Lady of Rockabilly" Jackson, Clark was reunited with Dean on The Tonight Show; Dean was guest-hosting for the absent Jack Paar and graciously brought his old buddy in to perform two songs on the final night, perhaps knowing that a national spotlight was all Clark needed to take off. And he was spot-on: Clark’s combination of comedy and musical virtuosity made him an instant viewer favorite, and before long he was performing regularly on The Tonight Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, and Dean’s own The Jimmy Dean Show. That led to even more TV appearances, including a recurring role on The Beverly Hillbillies and a co-host gig on the NBC country variety series Swingin’ Country.
So, when CBS decided to produce what was in essence a country music version of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, Clark was an obvious choice as one of the two hosts. He was teamed with Buck Owens, who was a major country star in his own right: during the course of his music career, he and his band, The Buckaroos, would score 21 #1 hits on the Billboard country charts. Hee Haw lasted just two years on CBS, a victim of the network’s "rural purge" in 1971 that saw some of its most popular rural-based shows get the axe in favor of more urban programming such as All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. But Hee Haw lived on, and thrived, running a total of 26 seasons and at its height drawing more than 30 million viewers weekly; Owens left in 1986, but Clark soldiered on with a series of guest hosts.
At the same time, Clark continued recording albums and performing live, opening The Roy Clark Celebrity Theatre in Branson, Missouri, in 1983. He was made a member of the famous Grand Ole Opry in 1987 and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2009. As the decades passed, Clark’s live performance schedule began to wind down, and he passed away due to complications from pneumonia in 2018 at the age of 85. But he left behind a legacy of laughter and good times that cannot be overstated.
You know Roy Clark’s old pal Jimmy Dean and how Dean had his own TV show? Well, we’re going to take a look back at The Jimmy Dean Show and see how, even today, a certain part of its legacy remains. I’ll tell you about that next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.