Roy Clark, who brought country music and laughter to homes in Jackson County and across the country, died Nov. 15 from complications due to pneumonia. He was 85.
Clark played the banjo on “Hee Haw” for the show’s more than 20-year run; the show’s fans will likely best remember him from the weekly “pickin’ and grinnin’” segments with his co-host, the late singer/guitarist Buck Owens, that featured Owens and Clark trading rural-themed jokes.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Clark by telephone a dozen years ago, in September 2006, as he was preparing for a show at Western Carolina University. Despite the many demands on his time, he acted like he had all the time in the world to talk to yet another newspaper.
“Hee Haw” was a huge hit in Jackson County, and Clark seemed happy to reminisce about the show. The cast, which appeared so tight and close-knit when they arrived in our living rooms on Saturday nights, actually only got together for a month or so each year. They’d gather in Nashville for two or three weeks each June and October and tape 13 episodes each time.
“That’s what kept us fresh,” Clark said. “We didn’t get tired of each other. I’d be there two weeks and then I’d be back doing concerts.”
Clark spoke fondly of a certain car lot back in ‘Kornfield Kounty.’
“Junior Samples, bless his heart, he’s the only one I’ve ever known who came out of the hills of Georgia and didn’t try to adapt – he became more Junior as time went on,” Clark said. “He really was a character.”
According to Clark, Junior wasn’t initially supposed to be a permanent addition to the cast.
“Archie Campbell brought him by for a one-time thing, but when they put Junior on camera, everything stopped,” Clark said. The directors said ‘this is it, this is the image we hoped we’d find.’”
Lots of the era’s big stars – including Sammy Davis Jr. and Vic Damone – asked to be guests on “Hee Haw,” Clark said.
“They didn’t want to sing – they wanted to come out of the cornfield and tell a joke. They wanted to wear bib overalls.”
When Davis came to tape a show, producer Sam Lovullo told him his clothes weren’t quite right and asked him to go over to the costume office and get something more suitable.
“When Sammy came out in overalls and a plaid shirt, he still had all his gold jewelry on,” Clark said. “Sam told him that didn’t look right, but Sammy said he didn’t care. ‘I’ll wear the overalls, but the jewelry stays,’ he said, and that’s the way he did the show – in bib overalls and gold jewelry.”
Legendary musicians like Chet Atkins also graced the “Hee Haw” set. Clark remembered that he and Atkins, along with Floyd Kramer, Charlie McCoy, Boots Randolph, Jethro Burns, Willie Ackerman and Johnny Gimble formed a show ensemble they dubbed the “Million Dollar Band.”
“We used to say, ‘We’re the Million Dollar Band, but on a good night we can be had for $14.95,’” Clark said.
When CBS canceled “Hee Haw” after the 1971 season, the show was at the height of its popularity. Word of CBS’ decision came while the cast was scattered, but they were all told to come back to Nashville for the next scheduled sessions. The producers had formed a syndicate by the time the musicians and actors arrived, and the show was picked up by 227 stations as opposed to the 165 that carried the show when it was on CBS.
“We never missed a lick,” Clark said. “In fact, everything got bigger when our producers were more free to do things than they had been with CBS.”
Clark told me he didn’t mind being best known for his years on “Hee Haw.”
“It doesn’t bother me a bit to be known as cornball and hick – at least they remember me for something.”
The acting and skits that were part of “Hee Haw’s” charm came easily to Clark. “Playing and singing is really what I am, but playing the clown, doing the jokes, that’s me also,” Clark said. “I’ve always wanted to make people laugh. You know, there’s two ways you can look at almost anything. A bright way or a ‘gloom, despair and agony on me’ way. I’ve been blessed with a great sense of humor, and it was a joy to do those skits.”
According to Clark, a lot of the cornfield humor was spontaneous.
“We never memorized things. It was all on cue cards, and we didn’t see them until it was time to film,” he said.
The producers used that to a real advantage with Junior, Clark said.
“Junior didn’t read all that well, so they purposely put in long words. That was so funny.”
Over the years, as audiences bonded with the show, he received all sorts of presents, including an assortment of visors for him to wear as the hotel clerk.
“We got lots of gifts – even things like home-canned beans or jelly,” Clark said. “That’s how much of a family we became ... people would be putting up food for their families and say ‘I bet ol’ Buck and Roy would like some of these tomatoes.’”
Though he had played music from an early age, Clark considered a sports career for awhile. He played high school football and baseball and then got interested in boxing. “I had dreams I’d be the light heavyweight champ,” he said. I had 16 fights, and I won 15. I was serious about becoming a champion until the night I ran into a guy who really wanted to be a champion. After that one, I said, ‘where’s my guitar, I think I’m through with this.’”
In those days before cable television and the Internet broadened our entertainment options, “Hee Haw” was a bright spot we could look forward to all week. Clark’s passing reminded me of just how special those shows were.
Lynn Hotaling was editor of The Sylva Herald for 18 years, retiring in January 2016. She is the author of two books on local history.