Perhaps the most surprising success still thriving along the current entertainment landscape is the undeniably popular Blue Collar Comedy Tour. Featuring Southern-fried cut-ups Jeff Foxworthy, Bill Engvall, Larry the Cable Guy, and Ron White, these NASCAR numbskulls with their refried redneck humor and decidedly Red State take on life have skyrocketed to a kind of fame other comedians only dream of. While some have been part of the stand-up game for decades (Foxworthy in particular has been skirting stardom since the mid ‘80s), it wasn’t until the reinvention of motor racing as a white trash cavalcade – with lots of legitimate gearhead aficionados tossed in for good measure – that their Cracker Country callbacks were embraced. It’s as if, all at once, a certain segment of the US was ready to rediscover its quasi-Confederate roots.
There have been some casualties along the way. Perhaps the most frustrating element of their overnight superstardom is the number of Southern comedy stalwarts they stepped on. Not actually, mind you, but more or less metaphysically. To hear these hambones tell it, they were the first to come up with gap-toothed, hillbilly humor, double-wide rib ticklers, and all other Mason/Dixon merriment. Of course, this is utter nonsense, the shortsighted stance of individuals’ mining the past for their present popularity. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Alvin “Junior” Samples. For more than two decades, this fatback funnyman used his tractor pull philosophizing and moonshine mannerisms to teach an entire nation the value in double digit IQs. Without his tenure as part of television’s laugh legacy, the Blue Collar boys would be unknown novelties.
Samples never wanted to be a star, let alone the poster boy for an entire new form of cornpone funny business. He was born in Cummings, Georgia in 1926, and to say that he had a limited education is a glorious understatement. Dropping out of sixth grade due to ‘failing’ comprehension skills, a young Samples sought his path in life, and somehow, it lead into carpentry. Working with wood was merely a way to make a living. If Samples had a real passion, it was fishing. He adored the hobby, spending as much time as he could in the local lakes and rivers around his home. Aside from the obvious male bonding aspects (friendship, free talk, and fresh flowing ‘spirits’), Samples saw a kind of accomplishment in catching a slippery sea bass. In a world which frowned upon his near illiterate appearance, mastering the art of angling could surely compensate. As fate would have it, it drove him in the direction of storytelling – and the limelight.
While searching the shoreline one day in 1966, Samples’ son came across a giant fish head, obviously discarded by another outdoorsman. Realizing an opportunity to improve his own reputation, the 40-year-old family man told his drinking buddies that the remnant belonged to a record setting bass, one weighing over 22 pounds. Like all rural rumors, word spread fast among the local population, and soon Samples was being interviewed by the State Fish and Game Commission. It was obvious from the moment he took to the microphone that Samples was lying. He concocted a tale so outlandish and ridiculous that many dismissed it as the ravings of backwater buffoon. But one man, the radio personality who reported the story, found the conversation absolutely hilarious. He played it repeatedly on his program, and soon, requests were coming in for the eloquence-addled rube with the fantastic gift of endearing exaggeration.
As with most popular country comedy bits, a copy of the interview ended up at a small independent recording label. Realizing that Samples had something, Chart Records released the track. Entitled “The World’s Biggest Whopper”, it became a massive mainstream sensation. Suddenly, Samples was in demand. He left home and starting touring, making appearances on all manner of radio and television programs. Thanks to his amiable ‘aw shucks’ demeanor and malapropistic way with words, non-cosmopolitan audiences simply adored him. For them, Samples was a down home version of the village idiot, a man who could be laughed at for his uneducated takes, but laughed with for how authentic and approachable his humor really was. It wasn’t long before Chart wanted to capitalize on his newfound notoriety. Quickly hauled back into the studio, a full length LP entitled The World of Junior Samples was released near the end of 1967. Again, it was a smash.
At 42, Samples was suddenly a celebrity, following in the footsteps of previously mentioned country comedy pioneers. One such noted name was Archie Campbell. Perhaps the very antithesis of everything the Georgia bumpkin stood for, Campbell was a college educated (Vanderbilt University) fixture of the Grand Old Opry, a name in Hicksville humor since his single “Trouble in the Amen Corner” went Top 25 in ‘60. Having gotten his start in radio (like Samples), he signed to RCA Victor in 1959. But with the exception of “Trouble”, he never had major chart success – until it was suggested he hook up with that loveable liar from Peachtree Country. In 1968, Campbell paired with Samples to release Bull Session at Bull’s Creek (an ode to Campbell’s birthplace) and the public went berserk. The combination was so strong, that the next step in their pair’s repertoire seemed obvious.
Campbell had already been approached by Canadian comedy writers Frank Peppiatt and John Aylesworth, who along with New York producer Bernie Brillstein were working on a hayseed take-off on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. Their idea: move the ultra-hip urbanity of the notorious sketch show into the bumbling briar patches of the fictional Cornfield County, and populate the place with a veritable who’s who of familiar faces from the country music scene. Hosted by industry giants Roy Clark and Buck Owens, Campbell would be one of the show’s most important talents. Not only would he work behind the scenes, crafting scripts and honing jokes for his fellow performers, but he would bring his own unique brand of stand-up silliness to the series. During these pre-production meetings, the creators wanted to know if he had any other acts in mind. The response was immediate.
That’s how Junior Samples became a permanent fixture in living rooms across America. As one of the original Hee Haw cast members, the newly labeled hillbilly humorist found himself surrounded by the cream of the kudzu crop. There was Minnie Pearl and Grandpa Jones, David “Stringbean” Akeman and Gordy Tapp. Perhaps the least professional performer on the show, Samples had some rough times during the first few seasons. Easily flustered and prone to make more mistakes than the others, he cost the crew untold hours in retakes and editing. Thanks to his genial nature and down home genuineness however, many didn’t seem to care. Indeed, his bloopers were widely circulated among the studio executives, who found his personable approach and endearing nature hard to hate.
Because of his limited acting ability, Samples stayed well within the group dynamic at first. He was part of the comic “Culhanes” sketch, where soap opera like storylines were played out in deadpan delivery by a totally sedentary cast. He was also part of any shotgun shack blackout, where various white trash types would lay around, bemoaning their sorry lot in life. Looking for a way to feature the noted name, the staff soon came up with the perfect solution: Samples would play a shuffling salesman looking to unload his lot of vehicular wrecks. It was a flawless meshing of personality and premise, and soon, fans just couldn’t get enough of the newly minted “Junior’s Used Cars” skits. From the start of the series on CBS through its cancellation and syndication, this two-minute trip into the overalled icon’s indelible world of bad puns, entendres, and one-liner witticisms was a Hee Haw hallmark.
A typical scene saw Samples attempt a common commercial pitch. He would present one of the broken down automobiles sitting on the set, contradicting the obvious flaws apparent to even the untrained eye. As he bumbled and stumbled, his shill would get sidetracked, and soon, he was going off with any subject that tickled his rotund fancy. Sometimes it would be his passion for fishing. Other times, it was trouble with the wife. Presenting in an accent so thick that it occasionally felt like part of the put-on, Samples would drawl and dither, circumventing jokes like a fox casing a chicken coop. After a few more cue-card mistakes and a perplexing pause, he’d hold up a cardboard sign. Along with the visual came a concluding line that would end up one of Hee Haw’s favorite catchphrases: “and remember folks, the number to call is ‘BR-549’”.
More than any other element of the show (with, perhaps, the exception of the “Cornfield / Joke Wall” sequence and the comic “Where, Oh Where” musical number), Samples’ laidback huckster was a comic cornerstone, a facet that argued for Hee Haw’s ability to compete with the comedic big boys. Trading on both his natural charm and wit, along with his equally apparent discomfort with being on camera, he came to personify a kind of cartoon conceit regarding country folk, something that sold exceptionally well in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Indeed, you can see a lot of what Samples did in the way Larry the Cable Guy approaches his craft. Of course, Samples was more or less the real deal, a celebrity by accident and a comedian by contravention. Larry has been trying to find a way to make a name for himself since his early days as a flop funnyman in and around Tampa, Florida.
But Samples’ status is more than merely comic—it’s also mythic. Country music and the surrounding scene has come a long, long way since the days when Bluegrass battled honky-tonk for sonic salability. Back in the days B.G. – before Garth – there was no solid national platform for this particular type of roots music, and even with the eventual success of the genre throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, country is constantly marginalized by music critics as the least important category in a culture dominated by rock and rap (of course, such a position is rather bizarre, given that country is the number-one selling genre in the US). But Junior Samples suggests that somewhere beyond the line dancing and the mullets, the boot scoot boogying and the hair act histrionics, there beats a real life heritage being belittled for the sake of a dollar. He may have been many things to many people, but Samples was never a sell out.
He stayed with the show that made him a star for nearly 14 years, saw it through its peak popularity and during its initial wane. Though a relatively young man, he was not without his health problems. Like most men of his background and upbringing, Samples wasn’t into moderation. He enjoyed good old fashioned down home cooking, and lots of it. It put a lot of pressure on his heart, and with a schedule that included tapings, live appearances, and interviews, his overweight body began to break down. After a series of scares, Samples was struck with a fatal heart attack in 1983. He was only 57 years old. Though it would go on for another nine years, Hee Haw was just not the same without its Southern fried star. While other cast members stepped up to offer their own inimitable redneck perspective, the aura Samples stretched across the entire series was hard to recreate.
Sadly, his legacy has gotten lost throughout the changing dynamics in both country music and country comedy. While noted names like Jerry Clower and Minnie Pearl remain paragons of their particular fields, Samples slides further and further into the footnotes. Granted, the band BR549 took their name from his seminal skit, and they continue to cull as much meaningful goodwill out of the man as they can, but aside from a real revival of his work both on and off the small screen, he appears to be a creation without context, an afterthought celebrated only by those who’ve bothered to know his name. And that’s a shame. Junior Samples was the real deal. He was never phony, never false. He delivered his lines the best he could, and mined the mirth out of situations that seemed decidedly dumb, but we could all relate to. It takes an exceptional talent to make hick seem slick. That was this rube bard all over.