Roy Clark may have found his most wide audience as the co-host of the TV comedy series Hee Haw, but it was his prowess on the guitar, banjo and fiddle that made him such a hit with music fans, including famous friends like Brad Paisley. Clark died Thursday at 85, leaving behind a legacy of thrilling live performances. Here are six of his best.
“Twelfth Street Rag”
On the 1962 Capitol LP The Lightning Fingers of Roy Clark, the guitar picker trained his dizzy digits on such familiar tunes as “Golden Slippers” and “In the Mood.” Owing to the “Twist” craze of the time, he also offered “Texas Twist,” “Wildwood Twist” (a mod take on the Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower”) and “Weepin’ Willow Twist.” But with this feverish take on the 1914 composition “Twelfth Street Rag,” it’s a wonder that Clark didn’t twist his fingers into knots.
Clark’s ability to pick and grin simultaneously was a natural gift. But to pick, grin and play three different instruments in rapid succession, with the “assistance” of TV show host Jimmy Dean, was almost otherworldly. As Dean “plays” Clark’s upper lip with a fiddle bow, the musician never misses a note (or a facial expression), even as he switches from guitar to banjo to fiddle. By the time he’s picked up speed on that last instrument, the comical entertainer’s darting eyes are following the bow’s rapid strokes — and ours are nearly falling out of our head.
“Tips of My Fingers”
Penned by Bill Anderson and released by “Whisperin’ Bill” in 1960, this was the songwriter’s first Top 10 hit as an artist — but it would also be Clark’s. A hit for Clark three years later, after firmly establishing his instrumental chops, the mournful ballad of love lost also scored for Eddy Arnold (1966), Jean Shepard (1975), and would be a major hit in 1992, reaching Number Three for a singer-songwriter and guitarist who clearly paid attention to Clark’s instrumental skill: Steve Wariner.
“Yesterday, When I Was Young”
Hee Haw episodes weren’t always all about cornfield comedy. Sometimes things could get downright melancholy, as in this Clark solo performance of the song for which he is perhaps best known. “Yesterday, When I Was Young” hit in the early days of Hee Haw, putting Clark in the pop Top 40 for the only time and also reaching country’s Top 10 (it hit Number One in Canada too). Clark’s most poignant performance of “Yesterday,” however, was at the 1995 funeral of his friend, baseball legend Mickey Mantle.
Guitar Medley With Brad Paisley
Grand Ole Opry membership came relatively late for Clark, but joining that institution in 1987 gave him the chance to share the legendary stage with newer Opry stars he inspired and influenced, including guitar wizard Brad Paisley. At the 50th CMA Awards in 2016, Paisley channeled Clark’s Hee Haw partner, Buck Owens, dressed in Owens’ famed yellow jacket featured on the cover of his 1966 Carnegie Hall Concert LP, and playing guitar as Clark sat next to him and worked magic on the banjo.
“Pickin’ and Grinnin'” With Roger Miller
In spite of its reputation for silly humor, Hee Haw‘s ability to draw a solid TV audience for three decades was one reason major country stars showed up to pick and grin, from legends like Roy Acuff to newcomers including George Strait. Madcap comedian and genius songwriter Roger Miller was among those whose high energy matched the show’s quick pace, especially within the ever-popular “Pickin’ and Grinnin'” segment. Forget polished entertainment, this was a largely unrehearsed and often uproariously funny highlight of each episode.