Sam Lovullo–An appreciation

I always read the obituaries, mainly because the last thing I ever want to do is ask how someone’s doing and find out they’ve been dead since January–like I just did now.

I hadn’t seen my dear friend Sam Lovullo in a long time, but always called him when I visited L.A. as he lived in Encino, even though both our hearts were in Nashville. Sam, of course, was the longtime producer–24 years–of Hee Haw, while I was a longtime fan–24 years–of Hee Haw, and for the last dozen or so years up until its end in 1991, a friend.

Indeed, I was a regular on the set during its annual October and June tapings during those years, since I was in Nashville for the October “CMA Week” of Country Music Association and music performance society awards shows and June’s Country Music Fan Fair. As I was also a backstage Grand Ole Opry regular (Hee Haw was taped at the Opry House, in a studio behind the Opry backstage dressing rooms, with Sam and the production staff in a trailer just outside the building), I got especially friendly with Grandpa Jones and Minnie Pearl, the Hager Twins and Buck Owens, but I knew most everyone there, at least a bit.

And it really was thrilling, to get to be so close to my favorite country music stars–and actually stand in Kornfield Kounty! In fact, I was visiting John Hiatt one night in the dressing room at the Bottom Line, and he was blown away by my Hee Haw golf shirt and told me his dream was to be in Kornfield Kounty. Next day I got on the phone with Sam, explained who John was, and to his undying gratitude got him in a Kornifeld Kounty segment–and my picture taken with him there.

But I knew Sam best of all. The last time I actually saw him had to be one of the last times I was in Nashville, several years ago. I ran into him backstage at the Ryman Auditorium during an Opry show there. Charley Pride and Roy Clark were in the house, and they greeted each other warmly and exchanged complaints about their latest physical ailments.

I bet I was down there for CMA Music Fedstival–what Fan Fair evolved into. I was hoping to see Sam and sure enough he was there backstage, Roy being the longtime Hee Haw co-host with Buck. He told me there was a Hee Haw reunion show the next day–maybe it was a taping for a special–and I went and hung out with him and the surviving Hee Haw family members one last time.

In the last few years I’d either call Sam when I was in L.A. or when I wanted a memorial quote from him on a newly deceased Hee Haw cast member. We’d inevitably commiserate about how the business had changed and our respective places in it. He didn’t have to explain his regrets, nor did I have to explain mine.

And we’d reminisce a lot about the good old Hee Haw days, of course. He’d fill me in on the lives of those who were still alive, I’d let him know when I heard from Kathie Lee Gifford as I was lucky to get to know her, having been a huge fan ever since discovering her on Sam’s short-lived but brilliant Hee Haw sitcom spin-off Hee Haw Honeys.

People always think that country music is made by and for politically and socially conservative Americans, not without reason, obviously–think of Richard Nixon seeking refuge at the Grand Ole Opry House on its grand opening at the height of Watergate and taking a yo-yo lesson from Roy Acuff, whom I also knew from the Opry and the Hee Haw set–but as my own career began covering country music back in the late 1970s, I knew it was never so black-and-white.

Maybe my fondest memory of Sam was when I told him that when I first met him and the Hee Haw gang, my hippie-length hair was down to my shoulders. He was actually stunned, and couldn’t remember that at all. Not to suggest that he was or would have been prejudiced by my appearance, for he couldn’t have been more proud when I told him how I had met John Henry Faulk.

Texas folklorist, humorist, lecturer, and civil rights activist Faulk, friend of Alan Lomax and mentor to Molly Ivins, first found fame after World War II. He’d served as a medic and started writing radio scripts, and had his own radio shows in New York featuring his folksy characterizations. This led to TV appearances in the early ’50s, but he had also joined the American Civil Liberties Union and was blacklisted later in the decade. He then won a libel suit in 1962 after being labeled a communist by an organization led by my own Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy.

He was a semi-regular on Hee Haw from 1975 to 1982, starring in the “Story-tellin’ Time with John Henry Faulk” segment surrounded by most of the cast seated in an old country store setting.

Just before I moved to New York, John Henry participated in a folk arts festival at Madison’s Capitol Square. I figured that he wouldn’t expect a Hee Haw fan at this particular event, let alone anyone asking him about his friend Peavine Jeffries, a frequent subject of his Hee Haw stories. So I approached him as a stringer for Variety, which I was, and with the catch phrase often uttered by one of the cast at the start of “Story-tellin’ Time.”

“Hey, John Henry! I’m Jim Bessman with Variety! How’s old Peavine Jeffries?”

John Henry’s whole face lit up. “Jim, sweet Jim!” he said, beaming, then went into a warmhearted Peavine story.

John Henry died in 1990. Roy Acuff’s gone, so is ‘Pa, Minnie, Buck and both Jim and Jon Hager. But I know I could have got a whole lot of loving comments about you by those who are left had I known back in January. My apologies to you, Sam, that the only ones I can come up with now are mine.