“I’m sweet on The Hagers!”
I really do remember it like it was yesterday, a TV commercial featuring the so-called “‘Hee Haw’ honeys,” who included Minnie Pearl, Misty Rowe, Lulu Roman and Marianne Gordon-Rogers (then Kenny Rogers’ wife), chirping “I’m sweet on The Hagers” after the others declared their affection for other male cast members (particularly, of course, co-hosts Buck Owens and Roy Clark).
And I always look upon my own double man-crush on the lanky, dorky-looking Hager Twins as the final frontier in my full-fledged embrace of country music in the early 1970s, a love affair which had begun unknowingly back with Tennesse Ernie Ford’s classic 1955 chart-topping country crossover pop hit “Sixteen Tons” (I was three years old then, and was later told how I mistook the climactic line “I owe my soul to the company store” for “I owe my soul to the company stove”—and had the good fortune some 40 years later to tell Tennessee Ernie so outside Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry House before a Country Music Assn. awards show, shortly before he died), then Johnny Cash, of course, and other country stars who crossed over to the pop charts in the 1960s like Roger Miller (I bought his first two albums) and Tammy Wynette. I had no idea then that they were really country stars.
But then came “Hee Haw”–which I watched religiously from the early ‘70s on until it ended in 1992—followed by a block of country syndicated programming also including the short-lived “Hee Haw Honeys” sitcom spin-off (co-starring Kathie Lee Johnson, now better known as Kathie Lee Gifford, as a member of the fictitious Honey family), “That Good Ole Nashville Music,” “Pop Goes the Country” and “The Porter Wagoner Show.”
“They were the ‘young hunk’ answer to the ‘Hee Haw’ honeys’,” Sam Lovullo, the show’s longtime producer, told me last week when I called him to commiserate on Jon Hager’s death at age 67 on Jan. 9—less than a year after Jim died. A wonderful, caring man, Sam had warmly welcomed me on the “Hee Haw” set for years during my regular Nashville visits; in return, I brought in John Hiatt as a guest, fulfilling one of John’s biggest dreams—to pop out of the “Hee Haw” haystacks and utter a juvenile joke).
“We brought them on for their music ability but they got involved with comedy,” Sam continued. “When they first came on the show, we deliberately put them in the ‘Kornfield Kounty’ haystacks with the ‘Hee Haw’ girls because they never knew which one was Jim or Jon. We didn’t use their first name in gag lines—and had a lot of fun with it.”
It should be acknowledged here that the “Hee Haw” girls/honeys—the younger ones, that is—were generally blond, busty and brainless, in keeping with the cornball nature of the show. The Hagers fit in perfectly by constantly cutting up, onstage and off.
“No matter where they went, they liked to do ‘Pfft You Were Gone’,’” said Lovullo, referring to the regular “Hee Haw” musical interlude where a cast member and guest star would pop out of the cornfield and sing Buck Owen’s lovelorn tune ending with “You met another and phht! you were gone”—the guest gobbing all over the cast member in blowing out the “phht!” sound.
That would be the Hagers, all right. Singers as well as comedians, Buck had discovered them at a gig at Disneyland. They opened for him and other top country acts including Tex Ritter, Wynn Stewart and Lefty Frizzell.
I used to see them every year at Fan Fair, when the huge country music fan-appreciation event now staged downtown was held at Nashville’s dusty Fairgrounds. They had an exhibition booth, and you’d walk by and they’d be mugging for fan photos, heads tilted and tongues lolling—much in the manner of the embroidered cartoon on my yellow “Hager Twins” ball cap.
I called Lisa Wysocky, a Nashville publicist as well as an award-winning equestrian and acclaimed author of books on horses, who worked with the Hagers at the time.
“They were wonderful guys, but from a P.R. standpoint it was like herding a pair of two-year-olds when they were at an event,” she recalled. “LOL! Neither of them had ever met a stranger so they were all over the room. They also had such huge hearts and gave a lot of their time to help others. I miss them both.”
I would call them whenever I was in town, and if they were around and their schedules permitted, they’d meet me for coffee at Bongo Java in back of Belmont College, always so appreciative that I’d remembered them. As their friend Adam Dread said in the NashvillePost.com obituary, echoing Wysocky: “They were always quick with a joke and never met a stranger. Outgoing and accessible, [they] were part of what makes Nashville known as America’s friendliest city. The brothers will be dearly missed by all.”
Jim died a year ago in May, collapsing of a heart attack in a coffee shop. Jon had been in poor health since before then and was depressed over the loss of his brother ever since.
“I was very close to both of them,” Dread, who was their attorney and knew them from his previous activities in radio and TV, told me a few days after Jon’s funeral. “You hear about a couple being married for 50 years and one passes and the other can’t live without him or her, well, they were together 67 years—identical twins. You never saw one without the other—except when they were driving because they didn’t like each other’s driving! Even if it was five blocks they took separate cars.”
That the Hagers’ “never met a stranger” seems to have been their biggest attribute—that and their gift of giving.
“They were just amazing givers,” noted Dread. “They were involved in so many charities—all kinds of things and organizations you wouldn’t expect of country stars.”
One of them was the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, a non-profit organization licensed by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, that operates a 2,700-acre natural-habitat environment for old, sick or needy Asian and African elephants who have been retired from zoos and circuses. When I read that Jim had directed that memorial donations be made to the Sanctuary—which I didn’t know about—I immediately bought a t-shirt.
“Jon’s first and last time on stage after Jim passed was for the Elephant Sanctuary,” said Dread. “The irony is that humans can’t go there [it’s closed to the general public]. We did a fundraiser in October, and he asked me to co-MC because he was never onstage alone. But I don’t know of any organization they turned down once they checked it out and found out there were nice people involved. In a perfect world, Jim and Jon would have lived long lives and opened a school for celebrities: I never saw any celebrity treat their fans better than they did. They never met a stranger, and whether it was a huge producer or a paper boy, they made them feel special when they met them. When Jim passed, his memorial was at the Ryman Auditorium and state troopers from two states away that never knew him drove in to pay respects.”
Donations in Jon’s memory go to Meals on Wheels.
“One of Jon’s wishes was leaving his ‘Hee Haw’ memorabilia to the Country Music Hall of Fame, so that fans and fans’ kids and grandkids could enjoy the Hager Twins for years to come,” concluded Dread.
Jon’s funeral, compared to his brother’s, was a low-key affair. Organizer Lovullo relates: “Everybody from ‘Hee Haw’ who was still living showed up [at Jim’s funeral] and we all sang songs that they did on the show and I closed by saying ‘Saa-lute’—which I understand is on their tombstone. Jon’s was a quieter event: Everybody expected him to go before Jim because he was sick. So Jim’s funeral really included Jon, and when Jon died they buried Jim’s ashes with him.”
Lovullo’s “Saa-lute” tribute was fitting: It was taken from the regular “Hee Haw” feature where the cast would honor a selected small town (often a guest star’s) with a group shout-out “Saa-lute.” Born in Chicago August 30, 1941 and adopted by a minister and his schoolteacher wife, the Hager Twins hardly came from a small town. Yet they were without equal in exemplifying the goodness of small-town America.
They were too nutty, too fun-loving to make it really big after “Hee Haw.” A 1972 pilot produced by Lovullo, “Young Country,” never took off, he said, citing their “uncontrollable” nature. “They never had a hit record or got more involved in TV,” he said. “They were just happy with ‘Hee Haw.’”
And dearly loved. My friend Mitch Cantor, who runs the small but notable Gadfly Records label, would have been thrilled to put out a new Hagers record—if I only could have convinced them to take his offer seriously. But they weren’t serious guys, just funny—and sweet.
I’m sweet on the Hagers.