Roy Clark performs his hit “I Never Picked Cotton” on “Hee Haw”
I met Roy Clark a number of times, mostly on the Hee Haw set, where I was a regular during the fall and summer tapings—which coincided with what was then called CMA Week (the Country Music Awards show and attending performing rights organizations and awards dinners) and Fan Fair (now CMA Music Festival). I never really got to know him—not like I knew Buck Owens, Grandpa Jones and Minnie Pearl—but I do have a couple great personal memories, both from the early 1980s, soon after I came to New York and got a job with the music trade magazine Cash Box as Retail Editor.
As Retail Editor, I established relationships—mostly phone—with the key record stores and chains in the country. One of the biggest was the Ohio-based Camelot Music, which had 455 stores in 37 states when it was bought out in 1998. I attended two of their conventions in or around their North Canton headquarters while I was at Cash Box, and if I remember right (never a given), it was four days at a nice hotel, with lots of meetings and recreational activities for the key home office execs and store managers, along with the major label and distributor reps who serviced them.
They also had entertainment every night, usually baby bands supplied by the majors. I vividly remember seeing John Waite perform after his split from The Babys, probably in 1982 when his solo debut album Ignition came out on Chrysalis. Ivan Kral, formerly bass player with the Patti Smith Group, was on the record and in the band, as was drummer Frankie LaROcka, whom I’d met in Madison when he was on David Johansen’s first solo album and tour, and was great friends with until his untimely death in 2005.
But the show I remember most is Roy Clark’s.
Roy was sick that night, a bad–very bad–cold. So very bad that he’d pretty much lost his voice. In fact, it probably would have been better had he lost it entirely, for then he might not have felt obligated to perform.
But ever the professional, perform that night Roy Clark did. He apologized upfront, of course, then croaked out the song lyrics like he was a big, jolly old frog with a guitar—accent on “jolly.” To this day I can’t imagine Roy—or anyone—enjoying himself more on stage. He didn’t care at all what he sounded like—or if anyone else cared. He was indeed a pro all the way and was going to give his best to the people who made and sold his records, and have a blast doing it—and so did we all. Obviously, I’ve never forgotten it.
Around the same time I got one of my first—if not the first—freelance writing gigs in New York, for Guitar World, I think. They wanted someone to talk to Roy about Merle Travis, and knew I’d written about country music and was a knowledgeable fan.
So I did a phone interview with Roy, and we talked about Merle Travis and his influence on Roy and all guitar players. It was only proper, of course, that I also ask him about himself, so I ended by asking him how he saw himself in relation to Travis as a fellow guitar great.
Like the Camelot gig, I’ve never forgotten his most humble response.
“You know, there are a lot of mailmen out there who are better guitarists than I am,” he said, then added, “I’m just glad they’re mailmen!”
As, of course, are we all.
The last time I saw Roy was some years ago already, when he appeared at the Opry, probably during CMA Music Fest, for he was also in town to join other surviving Hee Haw alumni at a reunion taping that I also attended.
Starring with Roy on the Opry bill that night was Charley Pride, and the two old Opry stars and Country Music Hall of Famers greeted each other warmly before proceeding to one-up each other—or maybe one-down each other—with their physical ailments and illnesses. It was truly hysterical, but like that long ago gig in Ohio, I guess you had to be there.
Two guitar greats: Roy Clark and Glen Campbell