A version this story appears in Monday’s Life section of The Oklahoman.
Oklahoma History Center salutes “Hee Haw”
The new exhibit “Pickin’ and Grinnin’: Roy Clark, ‘Hee Haw’ & Country Humor” explores the legacy of the long-running country variety show.
Easton Corbin still remembers vividly the Saturday TV lineup from childhood weekends spent on his grandparents’ Florida farm.
It started with “Hee Haw,” followed by “Opry Backstage” and “Opry Live.”
Although none of his kin played an instrument, the country singer-songwriter who has been dubbed “the second coming of George Strait” was raised in a musical family because of the “pickin’ and grinnin’” beaming out of his grandparents’ television set.
“One of my earliest memories is music … you know, just being around it. And that’s what I’ve always wanted to do,” Corbin, 29, told The Oklahoman in a recent phone interview. “I grew up around them a lot, so their influences (are mine).”
The “A Little More Country than That” hitmaker isn’t the only one who laughs nostalgically as he recalls gathering around the TV to watch “Hee Haw” with his family.
“Sitting with grandparents on a Saturday afternoon watching ‘Hee Haw’: The first few times, you know, you hate it. And then it just kind of grows on you. It’s just so goofy and funny, and the music was great,” said Larry O’Dell, director of collections at the Oklahoma History Center, with a wide grin.
“There’s a shared memory of ‘Hee Haw.’ Three generations of people really — it was on from 1969 to ’93 — we all remember ‘Hee Haw.’”
The Oklahoma History Center is giving a “salute!” to the long-running country variety show with the new exhibition “Pickin’ and Grinnin’: Roy Clark, ‘Hee Haw’ & Country Humor,” which opens to the public Tuesday and will be on view for a year. The 3,000-square-foot exhibit features recreations of the “Hee Haw” cornfield, barbershop and porch sets, spotlights the more than 40 Oklahoma stars who performed on the series, and traces the roots of the show’s rural humor back to 1920s tent shows and the early days of radio and television.
“Hee Haw” co-host Roy Clark and Friends will perform and tour the exhibit tonight at an invitation-only opening event that will also feature longtime “Hee Haw” producer Sam Lovullo. The exhibit is part of the Oklahoma Historical Society’s ongoing development of an Oklahoma Museum of Music and Popular Culture in Tulsa.
“Hee Haw” history
The exhibit tracks the history of “Hee Haw’s” development back to traveling tent shows put on by folks like the Standley Players. Beginning with Jack and Myrtle Standley, who got their start on the vaudeville stage, three generations of the Oklahoma family have been in the entertainment business.
“In the 1920s, Jack and Myrtle had a tent show that traveled the wheat harvest in Oklahoma, going to all the small towns. And it was like ‘Hee-Haw,’ it was music, skits, humor, and that’s what the rural people of Oklahoma enjoyed. So that’s what they catered to,” O’Dell said, noting that the Standleys’ grandson, Robert Knott, wrote and produced the film “Appaloosa.”
Their daughter, Martha Standley Knott, had a radio show on Oklahoma City’s KBYE called “Cousin Nellie,” starring a character similar to “Hee Haw” mainstay Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon, better known as Minnie Pearl.
“Then, we talk about television in Oklahoma and how it was kind of pioneering for country music,” O’Dell said. “On WKY-TV, Hank Thompson had the first country music variety show in color … and Buck Owens shot his nationally syndicated show here in Oklahoma City.”
When CBS set out to create a country version of “Laugh-In,” show creators Frank Peppiatt and John Aylesworth and producer Sam Lovullo found the ideal co-hosts in Owens, and Roy Clark, who has lived in Tulsa since 1971. A virtuoso guitar and banjo player, Clark had previously showcased his musical and comedic skills on “The Tonight Show,” “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Jonathan Winters Show.”
“He was the heart of the show. He was there from the beginning to the very end,” O’Dell said. “He was perfect for ‘Hee Haw.’ … He was a triple threat because he could play, sing and do comedy.”
“Hee Haw” debuted on CBS on June 15, 1969, as a summer replacement for the “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” and it was such a success it earned a mid-season debut. Despite solid ratings, the network canceled the show in 1971 because executives felt it was “too rural.”
“They said ‘Hee-Haw’ wouldn’t last,” Clark quipped recently while being honored by the state legislature. “But we were in production for over 25 years.”
The producers put together a syndication deal for “Hee Haw” and continued the show in much the same format for another 20 years, making it one of the longest-running syndicated series in TV history. From 1981 to 1993, the show was kept on the air by broadcasting companies associated with The Oklahoma Publishing Co., which publishes The Oklahoman.
“I’m convinced that without the Gaylord family involvement, ‘Hee Haw’ would have ended its
run much earlier,” said Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, which operates the history center. “When E.L. and Thelma bought that … Mr. Gaylord’s first instructions to Sam Lovullo … were ‘don’t change a thing.’”
“Hee Haw,” which still airs in reruns on the cable channel RFD-TV, has been honored by the Country Music Hall of Fame, Museum of Broadcast Communications and Museum of Television and Radio. Many of the show’s skits — “The Cornfield,” “Pickin’ and Grinnin’,” “Pfft You Was Gone,” “Hee Haw Salutes” and “Gloom, Despair and Agony on Me,” to name a few — have become etched in the cultural consciousness and are highlighted in the exhibit.
But “Hee Haw” is perhaps best remembered for the long list of top-notch country, gospel and bluegrass musicians who performed on it. Among the Oklahoma music stars who played the show are Roger Miller, Sheb Wooley, Wanda Jackson, Vince Gill, Reba McEntire and Garth Brooks.
“The biggest country music stars went on ‘Hee Haw’ because it had a national audience,” O’Dell said.
Along with audio and video clips from the series, the exhibit will feature a documentary about “Hee Haw” that includes interviews with the cast, crew and guests.
“‘Hee Haw’ was as much a part of our family — I hate to say it — as going to church,” Brooks says in the documentary. “That was just a must.”
Easton Corbin attributes his unabashedly old-school country sound in part to those formative years watching “Hee Haw” and “Opry Live.”
“That’s the type of music that I grew up listening to and love and I just want to keep on doing if they’ll let me,” he said with a laugh.
“Pickin’ and Grinnin’: Roy Clark, ‘Hee Haw’ & Country Humor”
When: Opens Tuesday.
Where: Oklahoma History Center, 800 Nazih Zuhdi Drive.
Information: 522-5248 or www.okhistorycenter.org.