‘HEE HAW’ AIN’T REALLY BLUEGRASS, AND GRANDPA JONES WAS NOT THAT OLD

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GRAND OLD OPRY

At the Civic Center
watching George Jones sing
He Stopped Loving Her Today,
I thought, Hell he’s drunk
as a skunk! As drunk
as daddy in 1958
when the two of us out hunting
heard Roy Acuff sing
Great Speckled Bird
on the pickup radio – WSM.
That night I learned about
driving a 3 speed on the column,
but mostly I learned about
loving my daddy.

– Charles Brady

Back in the old radio days, a friend would often tell his friend Fibber, “Taint funny McGee!” Well, I tended to go along with Fibber and never thought that program was particularly funny. I did think Dagwood Bumstead was hilarious and that the funniest guy on radio was a wooden doll named Charlie McCarthy!  But, I was just a kid so what did I know?

That pretty much establishes my credentials, so you can make up your own minds about my judgment as I talk about my love for the performers and their music, and my ho-hum about some of the comic relief so often inflicted upon the listeners and viewers on early radio and television.

Back when I first heard the Grand Ole Opry on a cheap little radio hooked up to a car battery and antenna wires as high up as we could get them (and it crackled with static and frequently lost the station (WSM in Nashville, of course), I just loved the music – all of the singing and playing – and I made up my own pictures for the many performers. One thing I didn’t particularly care about, but it didn’t bother me that much, was the various comics sprinkling their brands of humor throughout the show.

Years later, “a face for radio” came to mind when I saw some of those performers on the garish television shows meant to portray them as hillbillies rather than as the gifted musicians they were.  I know that devoted Opry fans like myself were never bothered about bushy eyebrows or outlandish dress on the radio or in front of our eyes on the TV screens, but I don’t think I was ever comfortable with the portrayal of my country favorites before international audiences.

Minnie Pearl, Rod Brashfield and Bashful Brother Oswald didn’t get many giggles from me.  I thought Lonzo and Oscar were a bit silly, but I didn’t lose any sleep over any of them. Grandpa Jones built his humor into his performances and in fact, many of his songs were pretty funny.  “Old Rattler” and “I’m My Own Grandpa” come to mind.  Now that I think on it…those too were a little silly.

Now, speaking of those performances on radio and getting away from politics (and that is always a good idea), I’d like to talk about something that really burns my grits, really stomps my pond turtles, (I made that up!) That is the idea among some – and I see a lot of that in our part of California – that people who love and perform “Country” music are just simple-minded, uneducated moonshine-drinking, calico and gingham outfitted and rather ignorant compost kickers!

These are assumptions leading to feelings of superiority and often times leading to feelings of pity. Oh, those poor, ignorant people!

And how did they come to distort the picture of a proud culture of performing artists and dearly loved music which has emerged from the very soul of America’s many roots, music from the earliest of times, music of human struggles, human regrets, of love and misery and heartache and exaltation?

It may have come from a laziness in us, an unwillingness to invest a few minutes to learn that there are others living on this earth and that those others are individuals with individual lives and desires, and it may be slightly possible that they do not always agree with our tastes in music – or anything else, for that matter.  Probably enough blame to go around right here (but remember – no politics!).

I t seems there may have been other forces which have fed assumptions and have unwillingly supported the baser assumptions about OUR treasured art and artists –and those who love the stuff we call Country or Bluegrass or Folk or just simply MUSIC!   I point to immensely popular and money-making television shows like  “Hee Haw. ”  I did not watch the original showings but saw glimpses from time to time and I have to say it was hard to watch!

With no other references, what did Californians assume when they saw haystacks, corn likker jugs, and bare feet and listened to some of the cringe-worthy “down home” interchanges and barnyard humor? Did they focus on those over the top physical displays at the expense of the music and song of talented people?

The Producers of the show painted weekly pictures they wanted to show us, and wound up with that whatever it was which was a show full of great musicians and singers who dressed like and were often required to act kinda simple  – thus HEE HAW!

Some of the stars of the show later said (and Buck Owens wrote about it at length) they were embarrassed, but went for the big money. Perhaps a lot of the cast had been working for less than scale and needed the big payoff from “Hee Haw.”  I can’t fault them because they had talent and a lifetime investment in that talent.

Many of  “Hee Haw’s” guests were our most popular and established Country Music stars, some from the Grand Old Opry’s glory days, but their dress and their humor on display on television sometimes urged me to “Look away, son!”

There is a difference between clean, well-worn OVERALLS on a true-life farmer and brand new “OVER HAWLS” on a stuttering bumpkin named Junior!

On radio, how they dressed and interacted was far overshadowed by their talent.  Grandpa Jones, for example, told simple stories and sometimes acted the fool on WSM, but he could and did claw hammer to beat the band! He was a master showman long before we could see him, and once he was on TV before a national audience, his slapstick exchanges were overplayed and his talent and showmanship not on display nearly enough.

I’m not sure how big city folk responded to Cousin Minnie Pearl and her Grinders Switch and tagged straw hat routines, but never found them that funny.  However, she had something going for her, because she was a beloved member of the WSM Radio’s Opry for a long time, and I can still hear her HOW DEEEEE’s!

Sweet June Carter, who seemed not to have much talent for it, simply forced herself into a career as a comic on the Opry. Her slapstick routines were too simple, but she got away with it on radio because she was a Carter Family member and because she was well liked by others on the Opry.  Later, she and Johnny Cash found each other, and as the perfect match for him and as an anchor for him when he needed one, she may be forgiven any failings, comic or not.

Perhaps I make too much of this…NAH…maybe not!  So I have to get busy and educate an awful lot of people who do not know that Roy Clark was a great musician, that Dolly Parton is a national treasure and one of our all-time best songwriters, and that the Grand ole Opry was sometimes Grand Opera.

(PS:  And for those who didn’t know, Grandpa Jones got that name assigned to him when he was in his twenties, because he was hard to rouse in the mornings.  He liked the moniker and decided to build his act around the name and persona.  He was about 33 when I first heard him in 1946.)

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