Country Music Hall of Fame member Roy Clark, a versatile entertainer who starred on the iconic television show “Hee Haw,” died Thursday at his Tulsa, Oklahoma, home due to complications from pneumonia, according to his publicist. He was 85 years old.
A fleet-fingered instrumentalist best known for his 24 years as co-host of the long-running country themed comedy show, the affable Clark was one of country music’s most beloved ambassadors.
“He’s honest,” said fellow Country Music Hall of Famer Harold Bradley when Clark was inducted in 2009. “Whether he’s playing guitar or singing, he’s honest. Whatever he does, he sparkles.”
He brought heart and humor to audiences around the world, guest-hosted “The Tonight Show” multiple times, worked with greats like Hank Williams and blues artist Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, and inspired countless pickers, including a young Brad Paisley, with his instructional guitar books.
“I play because of him,” Paisley said Thursday afternoon as he choked back tears. “I don’t think that, without Roy Clark and Buck Owens, my grandpa ever picks a guitar up. And if he never picks a guitar up, neither do I. I think it hits me so hard today because I’m realizing for the first time that I kind of owe him everything.”
It all started for me with the Roy Clark guitar method song book, trying to learn to play like a buckaroo… pic.twitter.com/Kj5v4KdoqN
— Brad Paisley (@BradPaisley) November 4, 2016
Roy Linwood Clark was born April 15, 1933, in Meherrin, Virginia. The oldest of five children, he grew up in a musical family.
He learned how to play banjo and mandolin at an early age, but it was the guitar that spoke to him. “When I strummed the strings for the first time, something clicked inside me,” he told The Tennessean in 1987.
Within weeks of learning his first chords, the teenage Clark was playing behind his father at area square dances. Not long after that, he was performing on local radio and television.
“The camera was very kind to me, and I consider myself to be a television baby,” Clark said in 2009. “At first, it wasn’t that I was so talented, but they had to fill time. … So they’d say, ‘Well, let’s get the kid.’ Later, I got to where when I looked at the camera, I didn’t see a mechanical device. I saw a person.”
While still in his teens, he worked briefly on a show fronted by Hank Williams, became a national banjo champion, and was invited to perform on the Grand Ole Opry.
Clark’s deft musicianship caught the ear of Jimmy Dean, who performed on television and radio in the Washington, D.C., area. Dean hired the young musician, then fired him due to his repeated tardiness. “He said, ‘Clark, you’re gonna be a big star someday, but right now I can’t afford to have someone like you around,’ ” Clark remembered in a 1988 Tennessean article.
Dean’s prediction came true, eventually, but during his early days in Nashville, the unknown Clark and banjo player David “Stringbean” Akeman worked any stage they could find. “We would play drive-in theaters, standing on top of the projection booth,” Clark told The Tennessean in 2009. “If the people liked it, they’d honk their horns.”
Las Vegas to Leningrad
In 1960, Clark joined rockabilly/country artist Wanda Jackson’s band, playing guitar and opening her shows at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas.
Jackson was on Capitol Records, and after Ken Nelson, the label’s A&R man, heard Clark at one of her concerts, he signed him.
As a solo artist, Clark’s breakout came in 1963 when his version of Bill Anderson’s “Tips of My Fingers” hit No. 10 on the country charts, and he found crossover success with the 1969 smash “Yesterday, When I Was Young.” (In 1995, he performed that song at Mickey Mantle’s funeral.)
In 1992, Steve Wariner also recorded “Tips of My Fingers,” and his rendition went higher on the charts than Clark’s had three decades earlier. Anderson still laughs when he remembers Clark’s reaction: “Steve and I were backstage at the Opry, and Roy comes walking in. He doesn’t look up, and he doesn’t say ‘Hello.’ He gets right up even with us, and he just holds his hand out and says, ‘I’ve put (the song) back in the act.’ Steve and I just hit the floor.”
When “Hee Haw” premiered in 1969, Clark’s role as Buck Owens’ comedic foil endeared him to country fans and introduced him to new audiences. This, combined with hits like “Thank God and Greyhound” and “Come Live with Me,” made him one of the genre’s most popular stars.
He won the Country Music Association’s Comedian of the Year Award in 1970 and the Entertainer of the Year Award in 1973; later in the decade he won a slew of CMA Instrumentalist of the Year Awards, both as a solo musician and with Buck Trent. At the 25th annual Grammy Awards, his recording of “Alabama Jubilee” won the Best Country Instrumentalist Performance award.
As an entertainer, Clark forged his own trail. He became one of the first country stars to tour the Soviet Union when he embarked on an 18-date excursion with the Oak Ridge Boys. Twelve years later, he returned to the USSR for a “friendship tour.”
He was also the first country star to open a theater in Branson, Missouri. The Roy Clark Celebrity Theater opened in 1983, and several other artists followed him to the tourist-friendly town.
In 1987, Clark became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2009 alongside Barbara Mandrell and Charlie McCoy.
“Roy Clark made best use of his incredible talent,” Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum CEO Kyle Young said in a statement Thursday morning. “He was both a showman and a virtuoso, with a love of music that beamed across air waves and into millions of living rooms, where families gathered to watch and listen.”
When the Country Music Association celebrated the 50th annual CMA Awards in 2016, Clark, seated with a five-string banjo on his lap, and Paisley helped kick off the show. They played a snippet of Buck Owens’ “Tiger by the Tail,” but it was their re-enactment of Owens and Clark’s famous “Hee Haw” lines that brought the loudest cheers:
“… and I’m a-grinnin’.”
After the awards, Paisley wrote on Twitter, “I will never, ever get over this moment.”
Clark is preceded in death by grandson Elijah Clark. He is survived by Barbara, his wife of 61 years; his children, Roy Clark II and wife Karen, Dr. Michael Meyer and wife Robin, Terry Lee Meyer, Susan Mosier and Diane Stewart; his grandchildren, Brittany Meyer, Michael Meyer, Caleb Clark and Josiah Clark; and his sister, Susan Coryell.
A memorial celebration will be held in the coming days in Tulsa. Details are forthcoming.