The guitar player who helped change country music forever leans heavily on his cane — doctor’s orders after back surgeries — as he slowly makes it across the room and plops in a sturdy-enough desk chair. He pushes back slightly on the brim of his cowboy hat, then introduces himself. As if he needed to.
Roy Clark is one of the top entertainers ever in country music, and he has the CMA and ACM awards to prove it from back in the early 1970s.
Clark, 82, is a Virginia native who has long called Tulsa, Oklahoma, home because it puts him smack in the middle of the United States and one-day’s reach of anywhere in the nation. He made a recent stop on Nashville’s Music Row to do a day of interviews, since he’s in town on other business anyway.
“We planned this like you would plan a concert,” says the affable fellow who helped spread the gospel of country music from Kornfield Kounty into the living rooms of America.
Despite all of the well-deserved accolades for the Country Music Hall of Fame member, when people of a certain age think of Clark, they immediately think of Hee Haw.
Clark and Bakersfield legend Buck Owens co-hosted the CBS-TV production that premiered June 15, 1969. After a short stint, it was dropped by the network and did the rest of its highly-successful quarter-century run in syndication before ceasing production in 1993. (Owens left in the later years of the program, but Clark remained, co-hosting with guest performers.)
With Clark and Owens as the anchors, Hee Haw guests ranged from Loretta Lynn to a young, slender Garth Brooks. And then there was the regular supporting cast of folks like Archie Campbell, Junior Samples, David “Stringbean” Akeman, Minnie Pearl, Grandpa Jones and so many more, including the eye-pleasing, scantily clad Hee Haw Honeys.
(The Hee Haw Collection, a three-DVD set of highlights from the series, was recently released by Time Life. In addition to Clark and Owens, it also features performances by Merle Haggard, Conway Twitty, Tammy Wynette and many others.)
“It was never pre-empted for another show,” says Sam Lovullo, producer and close Clark crony who drops in on the conversation and occasionally helps his friend fill in the blanks.
Lovullo says that Owens had his strengths and, contrary to popular belief, the two hosts got along well. Still, Clark was special.
“He was a triple threat,” Lovullo says. “He could sing, do comedy and do music with his friends.”
Clark’s success, of course, neither began nor ended with Hee Haw. In the years before, he already was blazing his trail toward stardom on stages across the country and on radio and television. And it wasn’t just country. He appeared on a show fronted by Hank Williams, but he also fronted rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson’s band live and on recordings and sampled Las Vegas success by opening for her in 1960 at the Golden Nugget Hotel.
His guitar stylings made him much in demand, and his first album after signing with Capitol Records in 1960 was aptly titled The Lightning Fingers of Roy Clark.
So by all measures, he already was a success when Hee Haw launched Clark into Middle America’s mainstream consciousness. His irrepressible charm as a storyteller and his genius as a guitarist and banjo player landed him on The Tonight Show (as both guest host and as performer), The Beverly Hillbillies (he was “Cousin Roy” for several appearances), The Flip Wilson Show and Love American Style. There even were some movies.
And that’s not to mention his national banjo championships and other accolades — CMA’s entertainer of the year in 1973, ACM entertainer of the year in 1972 and 1973 and an armload of other awards, including three CMA instrumentalist of the year nods — that prove him to be one of the world’s favorite entertainers and one of the true legends of country music, a gentle soul who was welcome in every living room in America and in every big showroom from Las Vegas to Atlantic City.
He also was the first country performer to open his own venue in the heady early days of the boom in Branson, Missouri, toward becoming a live music oasis.
“I was there first,” Clark says. “And then I started having Mickey Gilley, Mel Tillis and Jim Stafford up there performing at my theater. They finally said, ‘Wait, we’re working for Roy. We should have our own theaters.’ And they did.’” He punctuates that story with his frequent laughter.
Clark pulled out of Branson a couple of decades ago because of its cost and his international popularity.
“I was on the road so much, but the theater in Branson still had to be fed.”
While the fine fellow in the cowboy hat talks about just about any subject raised during the conversation, the biggest emotion comes from when he talks about Hee Haw.
“To put it into one word is awfully hard to do,” he says of his feelings about that landmark show.
He stops and thinks a moment before continuing.
“Most of it is love,” he says, adding that when they first started production at Channel 5 (WLAC-TV back then) on James Robertson Parkway “we had no idea what was going on.”
They were thrown into something unlike anything they’d done before, with music and quick comedy sketches at a frenetic pace. And none of them — Clark, Owens, Grandpa Jones, Stringbean and the others — really was sure what this show was all about and what they needed to deliver.
“We’d meet in the men’s room — which was our dressing room — and ask each other, ‘What are we doing?’”
Finally, they asked for a rough cut of the show so they could understand it.
“Then we saw that it was a little ‘iffin’ and ‘offin’ (he says those words in the rhythm in which they were repeated in the show). Then it was ‘Howdee’ and play a tune. We saw that (rough cut) and said, ‘OK, we’re ready.’”
He adds that Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical, a Broadway-style show, is being mounted in Dallas with intentions of actually going to the Great White Way. He doesn’t know much about it other than it’s not an updated recreation of the TV series but revives the spirit of the old show.
Back when the TV show was being produced, he was flying back and forth across the country playing to packed houses. So, coming back to Nashville to do the TV show was a blessing.
“I used to rejuvenate in Hee Haw,” he says.
The newest thing on his agenda is A Conversation With Roy Clark, a stage show in which members of his band and entourage frame him on the stage while telling stories and taking questions from the crowd.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he says, noting that so far A Conversation has been onstage twice in Iowa, once in Texas and Arkansas and again in Muskogee, Oklahoma.
The format is relatively simple, and he wasn’t quick to buy in when it was presented to him. He’s a legendary storyteller, but he figured people wanted to see him play the guitar — rather than sit and listen to him talk from up on the stage.
“Why in the world would they listen to what I say?” he asked at first.
Now that he’s found out a lot of people want to hear his tales of a life in music, “I’m looking to see what else we can do to make it bigger than just listening.”
He hasn’t figured that out yet. In fact, he hasn’t figured out yet what his future holds.
But chances are a guitar and perhaps a banjo will have something to do with it.
And the audience will want to hear his hits, especially “Yesterday, When I Was Young,” the song his pal Mickey Mantle asked him to sing at his funeral.