Farewell to one of the greatest pickers of all time.
Roy Linwood Clark (April 15, 1933 – November 15, 2018) was an American singer and musician. He is best known for having hosted Hee Haw, a nationally televised country variety show, from 1969 to 1997. Clark was an important and influential figure in country music, both as a performer and helping to popularize the genre.
During the 1970s, Clark frequently guest-hosted for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show and enjoyed a 30-million viewership for Hee Haw. Clark was highly regarded and renowned as a guitarist, banjo player, and fiddler. He was skilled in the traditions of many genres, including classical guitar, country music, Latin music, bluegrass, and pop. He had hit songs as a pop vocalist (e.g., “Yesterday, When I Was Young” and “Thank God and Greyhound”), and his instrumental skill had an enormous effect on generations of bluegrass and country musicians. He became a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1987, and, in 2009, was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He published his autobiography, My Life in Spite of Myself, in 1994.
Stars just didn’t come any more dazzling than the great Roy Clark in his 60s and 70s heyday. From Hee Haw to The Beverly Hillbillies to Tonight, to appearances on Johnny Cash’s old show, to who even knows what-all else, Roy Clark was more than a household name, particularly down here in the South. I actually remember seeing this one at my grandma’s house back when it aired:
If you find the comical 70s threads in that one too distracting, try this on for size instead:
And if that don’t suit ya, you’re probably a goddamned hip-hop fan or something.
I remember my dad’s side of the family, professional musicians and jazz aficionados all, watching Hee Haw and deriding Buck Owens without mercy. Buck, of course, was no also-ran himself in the music biz, having pioneered the legendary and highly-influential Bakersfield sound. No matter; my dad’s people were unmoved, seeing little of merit in poor old Buck. Hell, they turned their nose up pretty loftily indeed at country music in general, which probably explains why they didn’t think much of Owens. In a family full of hardcore jazz geeks, he never really stood a chance.
But they all absolutely loved the great Roy Clark, and respected him tremendously. They professed puzzlement at why someone of his towering ability would waste his time sharing the stage with a fumble-fingered, marble-mouthed, warbling hack like Buck Owens. It amounted to Roy lowering himself in a way they just couldn’t fathom, and didn’t much want to. But they all tuned in each and every week just the same, exclusively to watch ol’ Roy singe the neck of any of the several stringed instruments he was adept at eliciting howls for mercy from with those flyin’ fingers of his.
It’s depressing to speculate on how few people under the age of fifty or thereabouts might remember who Roy Clark was, or ever even knew in the first place. Like I said, in his heyday Clark was as famous a celebrity as celebrities came—hit records, industry awards and honors, guest shots on pretty much every 70s TV show you could name (including Love American Style, Flip Wilson’s short-lived variety show, The Muppet Show, and…uhh, The Odd Couple?!?), membership in the Grand Ole Opry, four feature films—and he remained active in the biz pretty much right up to the end. He even served as a commercial spokesman for Hunt’s ketchup in the 80s, which I had actually forgotten about my own self.
Such is fame, I reckon: gratifying, a hell of a lot of fun while it lasts, but in the end ephemeral and insubstantial. Roy Clark’s fame was based wholly on real talent, dedication, and years of hard work perfecting his craft going all the way back to his childhood—all of which seem to be increasingly rare beasts these days when it comes to attaining celebrity status.
I’ve never been one of those who cling to cheap nostalgia for an earlier time, or longed to go back and live in an idealized past myself. Nonetheless, I gotta say that in the field of entertainment and the arts…well, dammit, objectively speaking those days WERE better, in oh so many ways. I’d have to give the nod to any era that could produce a guy like Roy Clark in preference to one that foists…oh, pretty much the entirety of last week’s Billboard Hot 100—it’s doubtful in the extreme I’d recognize a single name from it, a merciful ignorance for which I am truly thankful—on us all.
I admit, that MIGHT be just me. Possibly. Could be I’m just too long in the tooth to appreciate how much “talent” it takes to manipulate turntables, shout dirty limericks, and push buttons to coax computers into emitting beeps, gurgles, screeches, and other sound effects—then calling such electronic eructations “music” when there isn’t a single actual musical instrument within twelve miles of the recording studio. Now if you rotten kids would kindly get the fuck off my lawn…
Rest easy, Roy. Ya done good.