I know I mentioned synchronicity a coupla weeks ago, but this is more unfortunate type: after admitting I had been watching Hee Haw, i spent a week, off and on, trying to quantify why. and now I find that Buck Owens has passed away. So time to stop massaging and start messaging. Here’s that piece:
So why, one might ask, am I subjecting myself to Hee Haw? That’s a good, a really good question.
Country music was a very large part of my childhood, through no choice of my own. It was inescapable, a constant presence. I recall having a radio that allowed me, as I drifted off to sleep, to pull in rock radio stations from Corpus Christi and later, San Antonio. But in the home of my parents and grandparents, country music radio was always on.
Country music should not be dismissed out of hand, as I had tendency to do in my youth. Sturgeon’s Law – that 95% of everything is crap – certainly holds, but there is much there to like. Hell, even in my staunchest anti-country days I still held Johnny Cash Live at San Quentin close to my heart, along with Marty Robbins gunslinger classics like El Paso and Running Gun. Time-Life put out some discs of “Country Gold” that I tracked down, buying the years germane to my youth, and as the song says, Bob Wills is still the King. Porter Waggoner did some incredibly dark stuff. The list goes on.
In 1970-71 – in a year marked by the deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison – my family moved closer to Houston, where Hell got cranked up a notch, as the UHF station Channel 39 played nothing but country music programs all Saturday evening. The memory is mainly of pompadours and sequins – I wasn’t really watching, I was reading or writing. The whole situation was made much more tolerable by the Austin station that played two horror movies in a row after the late news, under the names Shock and Aftershock (using Black Sabbath’s eponymous song as a theme!) long after everyone else had gone to bed.
So it is no surprise that Hee Haw was a staple in my household. Conceived as a countrified alternative to Rowen & Martin’s Laugh-In, Hee Haw wore that influence rather transparently, though with a devotion to music that was sadly lacking in its NBC inspiration. Hee Haw was more of a variety show than Laugh-In, and it proved to be a powerful mixture; the show ran successfully on CBS for several years, until it was purged during a move to gentrify CBS’ programming. Undaunted, it survived many, many years in syndication.
Watching the premiere episode on Time-Life DVD was an interesting experience; there was the usual bittersweet connection with my younger self, who saw this for the first time while we were still living in south Texas. My older, more cynical self notes that the first musical interlude ever for Hee Haw – besides the theme song – was Johnny B. Goode, complete with go-go dancing, not what one would consider terribly country – but as I mentioned before, Buck Owens rocks. So does Roy Clark, though in a totally different way.
As the two hosts of Hee Haw, Owens and Clark prove absolutely the best, most canny choices; they were accomplished entertainers even before this stage of their career. For instance, there is a section of the show called “Pickin’ and Grinnin'”, which features the two um, pickin’ and grinnin’. Clark on banjo, Owens on guitar, their arms and fingers flashing across their instruments, and pausing every so often to hit us with a bad joke. Like Laugh-In, Hee Haw was the second coming of vaudeville, and most of these jokes were old during that venue; to their credit, though, Owens and Clark sell the whole thing, and look like they find the jokes genuinely funny. That’s acting.
So… much of the material could be found in dog-eared paperbacks in the Humor section of any school library, but there are bits that approach true sublimity. Archie Campbell’s barber sketches – which, as he is credited as a writer, I assume he wrote himself – have a lot of fun with the English language. There’s a continuing bit with an Antebellum Southern gentleman in white linen suit and panama hat, stepping through his front door and saying something that sounds profound but is actually ridiculous, like “The only difference between an intelligent man and a fool is that the intelligent man is a lot smarter.” – and is immediately smacked in the head with a rubber chicken. Though not in and of itself funny, the true humor comes in the resulting rearrangement of wig and hat. Visual humor – describing it never works.
Another continuing piece, “The Culhanes”, is a small masterpiece of absurdity, a soap opera composed of four Hee Haw regulars sitting on a couch and dead-panning their lines directly into the camera.
There are two song-based continuing bits that any denizen of the south of a certain age can belt out letter-perfect; for lack of any other name, these would be called “Where, O Where Are You Tonight?” and “Gloom, Despair and Agony on Me”. To my dismay, though the former is on display in great numbers in this premiere episode, the latter was apparently a later addition.
The music was a mixed bag, with Owens and Clarke turning in the strongest performances; Charlie Pride (making his national TV debut) sang two Hank Williams songs well, and Loretta Lynn, sadly, does only one forgettable song. Sheb Wooley’s in there, doing a parody of “Hello Wall”, and I find the youth-bait duo The Hagers’ “Gamblin’ Man” once again stuck in my head, just as it was way back when. Grandpa Jones does a song about liking banjo music, and it is great – Jones is another entertainer I had underestimated.
So that’s why I was watching Hee Haw. Ball’s in your court, Spiro.
And back to me in the present tense saying, rest in peace, Buck – you done good.
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