It was Sunday, June 15th, 1969. The nation was a month away from putting Neil Armstrong on the moon, but country music was about to take a giant step forward with the premiere of Hee Haw on CBS.
A summer replacement for The Smothers Brothers Show, the one-hour series was closely patterned after NBC’s Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, which was the reigning ratings champ at the time. The recipe of down-home comedy and music proved to pull in similar numbers, so the show returned to the CBS schedule in December. It stayed on the network for three seasons, before starting a 22 year run in syndication.
Hosted by Buck Owens and Roy Clark – two of the format’s biggest names, Hee Haw helped to make many of its cast members household names, such as Archie Campbell, Grandpa Jones, and Minnie Pearl – who joined the series in 1970. And there were several other ties to pop culture, some of which were a bit boundary-pushing for the family-friendly program.
Hee Haw featured two Playboy centerfolds – Anne Randall (1967), who was a “Hee Haw Honey” for a few seasons in the Seventies, and Barbi Benton (1970), who was a cast member for several years – even bringing her boyfriend and magazine owner, Hugh Hefner by the series’ “Kornfield Kounty” for a visit in March of 1974. Among other notable celebrities who spent time on the show included prominent radio personality (and 1950s blacklist victim) John Henry Faulk, Today’s Willard Scott, and another morning show icon, Kathie Lee Gifford, who appeared in a short-lived spinoff, The Hee Haw Honeys in 1978.
Musically, the show attracted top entertainers, as it was the dominant home for country music in the days pre-cable, with the format getting little exposure on the major networks. On that first episode in 1969, the guest list included Loretta Lynn, Charley Pride, and Faron Young – all future Country Music Hall of Fame members. Kenny Rogers (who was married to Hee Haw‘s Marianne Gordon at one point) debuted his classic “Lucille” on the show in 1977, and the show also played host to future legends such as Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks and George Strait.
Whether it be the “Hee Haw Honeys,” the classic “Pfft You Were Gone,” or Junior Samples’ ‘BR-549’ tag that ended his weekly automobile commercial on the show, the series definitely left its mark on pop culture. And the story continues. . . This fall, Gaylord Entertainment will launch a play called Moonshine: That Hee Haw Musical, with songs written by Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark.