Hee Haw debuted on CBS television in 1969 as a summertime replacement for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, two months before the Woodstock music festival in upstate New York, before the Manson family came storming into American living rooms via harrowing television reports, and six months before the brutality and bloodshed of Altamont in Northern California. (And, of course, some years after plenty of less fortunate sons were sent off to Vietnam.) The corny, old-time humor was a throwback to radio variety shows but didn’t appear in isolation. The Beverly Hillbillies, the story of a poor mountaineer who’d struck black gold and moved to California, lasted the better part of a decade while Petticoat Junction and its spinoff, Green Acres, both became deeply embedded in the culture. As much as the image of the hippy and counterculture iconoclast are synonymous with the ’60s for many people, interest in rural images and country culture and music were as prominent as ever as were country artists.
Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell and Porter Wagoner all had primetime television shows by 1969 and the rock world was embracing that ol’ time music just fine. The Byrds had joined up with Gram Parsons and would soon give way to the more countrified Flying Burrito Brothers; the Grateful Dead was on the cusp of recording two albums that revealed its acoustic roots, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, both 1970 and Merle Haggard would unite and/or confuse audiences on both sides of the aisle with his late ’1969 hit “Okie From Muskogee”, which was either the voice of the real America or an elegy for a passing way of life (depending on who you asked and which day you asked them). Haggard in general and that song in particular became a favorite of the Grateful Dead and a handful of other acts that were straddling the line behind the good ol’ days and the seemingly imminent collapse of everything America stood for.
Buck Owens, one of the stars of Hee Haw, would get a nod from those (kinda) dirty (almost) hippies in 1970 when John Fogerty confessed to listening to Buck in the hit “Looking Out My Back Door” and for good reason: Owens had crossover appeal and a string of high-charting albums dating back to 1964 with Together Again, an album that came on the heels of his 1963 hit “Act Naturally”, which was good enough that The Beatles covered it in 1965. (And well enough that it’s often considered as much Ringo Starr’s as it is Owens’.) Owens was doing well on the charts, recording live albums in territories that were not exactly the homes of country and western, namely England and Japan, and since 1966 had been hosting his own half-hour comedy program, The Buck Owens’ Ranch Show. He was playing hip venues and found himself at the center of a profile in Rolling Stone alongside rockers such as Clapton, Garcia and just about any ne’er-do-well of the day.
His co-host, Roy Clark, a gifted multi-instrumentalist who had already been doing some acting by the time of the 1969 Hee Haw debut and was at home on both The Tonight Show and The Beverly Hillbillies, benefited a little more from appearing in the cornfield. Although he’d scored some significant singles, by that point he was only beginning to rise on the charts in 1969, thanks to albums such as Yesterday, When I Was Young and The Everlovin’ Soul of Roy Clark. As affable as he was gifted, Clark was cut from a cloth of old school entertaining, capable of swinging with audiences on a wide pendulum of emotions, ranging from the haunting story of a sharecropper in “I Never Picked Cotton” to the classic kiss off “Thank God and Greyhound”. With a broad smile and infectious laughter Clark was impossibly entertaining on Hee Haw, as he would often set aside laughter and launch into hot picking in the blink of an eye.
In his autobiography, Buck ‘Em, Owens grouses ever-so-mildly about Clark’s tendency toward upstaging his co-star, but one has to think that maybe Clark was just affable enough that he couldn’t help himself when the jokes started flying. Indeed, Clark’s ability to win people over translated into two awards for Entertainer of the Year from the Academy of Country Music, one from the Country Music Association who also gave him a Comedian of the Year nod in 1970.
Clark was never strictly a country musician, though, as much of his music veered into the territory of pop and even jazz. (He would collaborate with the highly respected Joe Pass on a 1994 release that remains a highlight of either artist’s discography.) This tendency to move easily from one style to another made him a good foil for Owens, who was prone to whipping out “Johnny B. Goode” or “Bridge Over Troubled Water” as he was leaning on gospel or the more traditional trappings of country.
If he benefited from a television career, or at least appeared to, Owens suspected that working on the box made him a victim of overexposure. He was getting quite a bit of exposure, in fact, during the show’s first two seasons. Although the program had clung to the bottom of the ratings at first, by early 1970 it was ranked higher than other favorites such as Mod Squad, Bewitched and the ever-reliable Ed Sullivan Show, with 12 million viewers tuning in each week. Despite an increase in viewership over the coming year, CBS pulled the plug on the show as part of a network makeover.
Owens wrote in his autobiography that the network cancelled plenty of shows that depicted the rural life, perhaps in an attempt to touch base with a more urbane and paisley-clad audience. But somehow the show survived. Or, more accurately, because of syndication the show survived. And why not? The humor was based on the timeless elements of home, family, gossip and sex with a little bit of alcoholism, poverty and, well, sex thrown in for good measure.
Some of the sex or, rather, sex appeal of the show, came via the scantily clad and quite comely Hee Haw Honeys, a group of young women who were as good at delivering thinly disguised innuendo as the musicians were at getting down at serious picking. Call it the Hillbilly Borscht Belt, Hillbilly Burlesque, or whatever you’d like to call, it but it worked. No matter that the jokes were corny and the show was harkening to a time that no longer existed and maybe never did, there were laughs to be had and women to ogle.
Realizing that some of his audience was trickling in from Hee Haw, Owens threw a little corn on the fire with his hit “Big Game Hunter” and then showed once more that he was a lot smarter than the average picker when he recut the Shel Silverstein-penned “The Cover of the Rolling Stone” as “On the Cover of the Music City News”. It was a hit for him just as Hee Haw continued to be.
Owens was present enough on television that his own show was eventually cast aside as he hovered at the periphery of major stardom throughout the rest of the decade. He’d have another hit or two, including a duet with Emmylou Harris, before he began focusing more and more on business in the ’80s, a trend that continued until his death. He left Hee Haw in 1986 and remained a respected figure in country music circles beyond his death in 2006.
Hee Haw, too, remains a part of the culture. It’s as much a perennial favorite as it is an artifact of the era from which it emerged. Time Life has repackaged many of the episodes on DVD in recent years, including a 2015 14-DVD set as well an eight-DVD one. Though those sets may prove a little pricey for some, smaller compilations trickled out as well, including a three disc set that featured performances from Merle Haggard, Donna Fargo, Loretta Lynn, Charlie Rich, Conway Twitty and Dottie West, among others. If the sets for some of those performances seem a little dated and maybe even a little spooky today, the music remains superb, especially the clips of Tammy Wynette performing at her absolute peak.
Fans can find bonus interviews with Roy Clark, Roni Stoneman, Lulu Roman and many others who populated this beloved cast. Owens’ autobiography is in print today and recent years have seen the Omnivore label issue two Buck ‘Em compilations, one of them bringing listeners through the years 1955-1967 and the other carrying listeners up to 1975. (A four disc set that combines those two compilations is also available now.)
The treasures to be found on those collections are impressive and Owens, like the Louvin Brothers and Johnny Cash before him, deserves all the attention that contemporary fans can throw at him because it’s his authenticity and know-how that has paved the way for the best contemporary performers, those who are country enough to know how to pick but city enough to know how to really sell a song.