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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 898

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This is the grave of Roy Clark.

Born in 1933 in Meherrin, Virginia, one might like to think the boy who would become one of the most legendary country guitarists of all time was a son of the South, but birthplace notwithstanding, it’s not true. He mostly grew up in New York City, where his family moved to find work and then to Washington, where his father worked in the Washington Navy Yard. So young Roy Clark may have grown up in a family dedicated to country music, but this was a time and place where he would have heard everything popular in America, which is easy enough to hear from his later work. The whole family was musical and Roy learned to play guitar and banjo as a teenager. He later openly admitted to copying the amazing players he was able to see in Washington as a teenager, but whatever. He made the music his own, especially the banjo, with which he won national championship competitions. He was evidently an awkward and unpopular kid (and you’d think banjo picking in DC in the 40s would make anyone popular!). Roy’s answer to this was to combine his increasingly skilled playing with humor.

Now, much of this was really dumb cornpone humor, which is why Roy Clark would much later be the co-host of Hee Haw. This stuff….does not age well. I have trouble imagining it being funny at the time. But it was sure popular with country music audiences. I have this old Stanley Brothers live bootleg for instance and it’s almost unlistenable because there are so many horrific “comedy” bits interspersed between the songs. So this is an unfortunate part of country music’s past, albeit a fairly harmless one I guess unless you think that Hee Haw was responsible for a generation of people thinking southerners are dumb and I’m not sure we can go that far.

But let’s be very clear here–Roy Clark might have told bad jokes but Roy Clark could also play a guitar and banjo like nearly no other living human. He was absolutely astounding. Even now and then, Clark still trends on Twitter as various video clips of his playing are uncovered. The idea that any old country guy trends on Twitter, except maybe Cash or Willie or Hank, seems extremely unlikely. But it’s Roy Clark that trends on Twitter. There’s a reason for that, as we will see in the videos below.

Now, Clark won the National Banjo Championship in both 1947 and 1948 and was touring as a teenager. When he won the banjo title for the second time, he got his first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. He also became a pilot and could make extra money this way. He was touring constantly by the early 50s, often in bands opening for big country stars on weekend package shows in whatever towns were hosting them. He even worked very briefly on a show Hank Williams was doing, so he can say he played with the great one.

Clark was already on the rise but got a big break when Jimmy Dean hired him in 1954. He was fired for being late all the time, but was also now on TV a bunch of time. He wasn’t fully committed to being a country guitarist yet and played a lot of different stuff, but the money was in country. Despite being shy, he was very good in front of a camera. He worked out of Vegas for awhile. Then when Jack Paar was on leave from The Tonight Show, Dean was the guest host. He called up Clark and asked him to play. Roy was a big hit and became a frequent guest. He also got the attention of the studios as part of Wanda Jackson’s band, where he showed up that amazing guitar. That got him a ton of session work and a contract of his own. Clark released a lot of albums beginning in the 60s. Mostly they are….OK. He wasn’t a great singer and while his guitar work is amazing, the albums don’t really hold up that well.

Again, the reason why people know Clark today is that in 1969, he and Buck Owens agreed to host Hee-Haw. This atrocity was initially supposed to be a way to get country music on network TV, which the executives had long resisted. The early years definitely did have the stupid humor, but there was a lot of good music too. After it was dropped by CBS in 1971 and became a syndicated show for the next 22 years, there was a lot more of the horrific humor and a lot less of the music. Buck Owens eventually regretted his work on it, but ol’Buck never turned down a buck as anyone unfortunate enough to do business with him found out. But Clark never really seems to have had any regrets. After all, the bad humor had been part of his deal from the beginning. And he was making a real paycheck, probably better than he would have otherwise, which was the same with Buck after Don Rich died in 1974 and Owens stopped playing much.

Clark built on his Hee-Haw fame in a way Buck did not. The show plus everything it led to made Clark the wealthiest country artist in the genre by the early 70s. By the 1980s, that meant Branson. He owned his own club there and performed there much of the year to visitors in what has to be the worst tourist attraction in America. Oddly enough, he was not made a full member of the Opry until 1987, though this probably has more to do with the byzantine politics of that place than anything about Clark.

Clark died of pneumonia in 2018, at the age of 85.

Roy Clark is buried in Memorial Park Cemetery, Tulsa, Oklahoma. His wife is from there and that’s where they eventually settled.

Let’s see Roy Clark in action:

Roy Clark was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2009. If you would like this series to visit other members of the Country Music Hall of Fame, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Harold Reid, of The Statler Brothers, who were inducted in 2008, is in Staunton, Virginia and Mel Tillis, inducted in 2007, is in Clarksville, Tennessee. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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