Roy Clark, the country singer and multi-instrumentalist best known as a longtime host of “Hee Haw,” the television variety show that brought country music to millions of households each week, died on Thursday at his home in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He was 85.
A spokesman, Jeremy Westby, said the cause was complications of pneumonia.
Clark was a genial banjo-wielding presence on “Hee Haw” for the show’s entire run of more than two decades, serving as an ambassador for country music and the culture that defined it.
Most memorable, perhaps, was his role on the show’s weekly “pickin’ and grinnin'” segment with his co-host, the singer and guitarist Buck Owens. A variant of the old “Arkansas Traveler” routine — a vaudeville set piece that interspersed humor with music — the segment featured the two men trading winking rural-themed jokes, to the amusement of an audience that included many urban and suburban viewers living outside the South. (Owens died in 2006.)
“You can go and get educated, but you can come to ‘Hee Haw’ and get another education,” Clark said in discussing the show’s far-reaching popularity in a 2016 NPR interview. “The critics all said that the only listeners that we had were country. And I said, ‘Wait a minute — I was just in New York City, and I was walking down the street and a guy yells across and says, “Hey, Roy, I’m a-pickin’." ’ Well, I’m obligated to say, ‘Well, I’m a-grinnin’.' ”
Conceived as a down-home answer to “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” the NBC comedy hour that featured blackout sketches, fast-cutting edits and one-liners, “Hee Haw” aired for only two years on CBS, from 1969 to 1971, before being canceled. But it then became a hit in syndication, running from 1971 to 1992. At the peak of its popularity, in the ‘70s, it reached 30 million viewers a week.
Beyond “Hee Haw” and its fictional Kornfield Kounty, Clark brought country music to the living rooms and dens of the American public through his appearances as a regular guest and occasional guest host on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” He also appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and on sitcoms like “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “The Odd Couple,” and had a long-running stage act in Las Vegas.
In August 1983, Clark played a pivotal role in establishing Branson, Missouri, a small town in the Ozark Mountains, as a tourist destination when he became the first major country star to open a music venue there, the 1,500-seat Roy Clark Celebrity Theater.
He was also among the first country acts to perform in concert with symphony orchestras. In 1976, more than a decade before the Berlin Wall came down, he embarked on a world tour that included 18 dates in the Soviet Union.
The concert halls of Europe and North America were a far cry from the stages on which Clark got his start in the late 1940s, when he toured as a member of the band of Grandpa Jones, a banjo player and rustic comedian who would later become a regular on “Hee Haw.” On the road with Jones, Clark appeared for two weeks on a bill headed by Hank Williams.
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After performing in nightclubs, on radio and on television in and around Washington in the early 1950s, Clark was hired to play lead guitar in the house band on “Country Style,” a popular Washington TV show hosted by the singer Jimmy Dean. Dismissed for tardiness in 1957, he went on to appear on Arthur Godfrey’s “Talent Scouts” and, shortly after that, to land a job in the band of the country singer George Hamilton IV.
He moved to the West Coast in 1960 to be the leader and lead guitarist of the Party Timers, the rockabilly singer Wanda Jackson’s band. Clark’s tenure with Jackson included appearances in her revue at the Golden Nugget Hotel in Las Vegas and on recordings for Capitol like her 1960 hit “Let’s Have a Party.”
Clark’s affiliation with Jackson also helped him secure a contract of his own with Capitol, for which he released his debut album, the all-instrumental “The Lightning Fingers of Roy Clark,” in 1962. The next year he sang as well as playing guitar on a remake of Bill Anderson’s 1960 hit, “The Tip of My Fingers” (the title of Clark’s version rendered “Tip” plural), which reached the country Top 10 and peaked just outside the pop Top 40.
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During the 1960s and ‘70s Clark placed a total of 24 singles in the country Top 40, nine of them in the Top 10.
Roy Linwood Clark, the oldest of five children, was born on April 15, 1933, in Meherrin, Virginia, an unincorporated community in the central part of the state. His father, Hester, was a laborer in sawmills and on the railroad and worked sporadically as a musician, playing guitar, fiddle and banjo — instruments his son would quickly master. His mother, Lillian, played piano; his brother Dick and sister Jean both played mandolin and guitar. Neither of his other two siblings, Dwight and Susan, showed any interest in playing music.
Clark began accompanying his father at local square dances as an adolescent. By the time he was 14 he had won two national banjo championships, the second of which earned him an invitation to appear on the Grand Ole Opry.
In his late teens, Clark, who was also a gifted athlete and an amateur airplane pilot, pursued a career in boxing. He enjoyed considerable success as a professional fighter before settling into life as a musician.
After having his first hit with “The Tips of My Fingers,” Clark followed a stylistically expansive path, recording albums with artists ranging from the jazz guitarist Barney Kessel to the blues singer, fiddle player and guitarist Gatemouth Brown.
Over the next two decades he would have country hits with versions of songs recorded by artists, including Louis Armstrong, Glenn Miller, Jimmy Durante and Charles Aznavour, whose “Yesterday When I Was Young” he placed in the country Top 10 and the pop Top 20 in 1969. (Aznavour died in October.)
Clark was named entertainer of the year at the Country Music Association Awards in 1973 and musician of the year in 1977, 1978 and 1980. His recording of the country standard “Alabama Jubilee” won a Grammy Award for best country instrumental performance in 1983. Eleven years later he published his autobiography, “My Life — in Spite of Myself!”
He became a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1987 and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2009.
Clark is survived by his wife of 61 years, Barbara Joyce (Rupard) Clark; three sons, Roy Clark II, Michael Meyer and Terry Lee Meyer; two daughters, Susan Mosier and Diane Stewart; four grandchildren; and his sister, Susan Coryell. A grandson, Elijah Clark, died in September.
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Although he became known as a natural comedian, Clark was initially uncomfortable in the role of funnyman.
“All of my comedy started from the fact that I never had that much self-confidence,” he explained in 2016. “I would laugh and cut up so the audience wouldn’t think I was being too serious. But slowly but surely, I got more confidence.”