Remembering country music’s guitar god
When I saw Roy Clark had passed away, my immediate reaction was, “Not again.”
It seems like the slew of celebrity deaths over the last two years has sped up instead of slowing down: Prince, Gregg Allman, Tom Petty, Leon Russell, Leonard Cohen. I find myself looking at the icons I love, still living and touring and releasing music, and wondering how much time I have left to see them live on tour. I’m forever grateful that I cancelled all of my New Year’s Eve plans a few years ago to attend Gregg Allman’s last show in Atlanta and belt out “Midnight Rider” at the top of my lungs with everyone in attendance as we rang in the new year, and will be eternally regretful I didn’t get the chance to attend Prince’s last show in Atlanta. I played a memorial show to Tom Petty, following his death, then wrote about his post-humous release, An American Treasure. But Roy Clark…I don’t really know what to say.
I grew up with Hee Haw playing in the background of almost every family dinner at my grandparents’ house, and there he was: pink-cheeked, smiling, generally holding a guitar or a banjo, a-pickin’ and a-grinnin’, for over twenty-five years. My grandfather was the ultimate Hee Haw fan; it combined his love for variety shows, country music, and Southern humor, and he’s got all of the DVDs on his shelf and the albums downloaded to his iPod. He was the first person I called when asked to write this eulogy, and all he said was, “He was one of the last of his kind.”
That’s been the response for so many, but it’s only half true; in my opinion, he was the last of his kind, only because he, like Prince, like Gregg Allman or Tom Petty or Leon Russell, were the first of their kind. Nobody had done it before, and while it can be recreated a million times over, nobody will ever do it like they did, because they had something all of those who follow don’t: innovation.
Roy Clark was able to display his innovation, creativity, and enthusiasm for over twenty-four years on the set of Hee Haw. Born in Virginia and raised near a naval yard in Washington, D.C., Clark grew up in a musical home, and when he was in elementary school, learned to play on a four-string cigar box with a ukulele neck attached to it, then guitar, banjo, and mandolin by the time he reached his mid-teens. His early love for country and bluegrass music was apparent in his natural ability to learn and play the licks, but equally apparent was his innate sense of humor, used to combat his intense shyness.
His sense of humor stayed with him through his career and became a trademark at his performances long before he ever stepped foot on the stage at Hee Haw. As a teenager, Clark was invited to the Grand Ole Opry and toured with legends like Hank Williams; he was the first country artist to play at the Montreux Jazz Festival, and bucked tradition to record an album with artists like jazz legend, Joe Pass, jazz guitarist Barney Kessell, and blues singer Gatemouth Brown, while also recording versions of songs by Louis Armstrong and Glenn Miller. “All of my comedy started from the fact that I never had that much self-confidence,” he said in a 2016 interview. “I would laugh and cut up so the audience wouldn’t think I was being too serious. But slowly, but surely, I got more confidence.”
His big break, however, followed a chance to open for Wanda Jackson in Las Vegas. When her band broke up, he hired her former manager, igniting a series of wins for him: 1962’s The Lightning Fingers of Roy Clark and its hit single, “The Tips of My Fingers,” followed by “Yesterday, When I Was Young,” which topped both the pop and country music charts. Following seven nominations, Clark achieved the ultimate win in the music industry: a Grammy award for “Alabama Jubilee” in 1982.
And then there was Hee Haw. How do you begin to talk about a show based entirely on country music and country people that blew through the barriers, broke all genre walls, received the derision of critics and network executives, but managed to reach a viewership of thirty million people, while helping make household names out of legends like Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, and Tammy Wynette?
In 2015, in an article written for Huffington Post, Clark acknowledged that even he doubted Hee Haw’s chance of survival. “My manager, Jim Halsey, and I agreed that doing the show wouldn’t seriously damage my career. We assumed people would forget about it after its run of twelve episodes on CBS was over, and hopefully also forgive me in the process. I’m happy to say that everyone was wrong — the TV and music executives, the television critics, and me — everyone except the American public…My lukewarm-at-best initial commitment to Hee Haw turned into a career that lasted twenty-four years, amazing 585 one-hour episodes. How the show came about and how it lasted and prospered far beyond anyone’s wildest hopes foreshadowed the incredible growth in popularity country music would demonstrate over the next few decades…But first and foremost, I am most proud of how Hee Haw did its part to help pave the way for country music to burst from its regional roots to remarkable worldwide popularity.”
Now, generations of fans gather together to wish Clark a fond farewell. Whether they discovered him as children through the radio or on the screen in their living rooms, or whether they were introduced by those same children, decades later, Roy Clark’s ability to strum a guitar or pick a banjo and leave audiences breathless with laughter was topped by only one other gift: his ability to capture the hearts of all he encountered.
Roy Clark’s family has requested that all contributions be made to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, TN, in Clark’s honor. For more information, go to www.stjude.org.