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VOL. 43 | NO. 23 | Friday, June 7, 2019

Before CMA Fest, ‘Nashville,’ the Titans or Preds, there was Hee Haw

50 years ago, modern Nashville sprouted from Kornfield Kounty

By Tim Ghianni

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Nashville’s road to prominence didn’t begin with the ongoing demolition of historic buildings and gutting of neighborhoods. It began 50 years ago with animated dancing pigs and a braying donkey, plenty of big boobs – like Junior Samples and Gunilla Hutton’s – in a “Kornfield,” the greatest country comedians and musicians and guests like Johnny Cash, Mickey Mantle, Ray Charles, Ethel Merman, Garth Brooks and Billy Graham.

Pickin’ and grinnin’ through their ringmaster’s roles were two of America’s greatest guitar-toting entertainers, Buck Owens and Roy Clark.

And while we’re on the subject: Grandpa, what’s for supper?

“Hee Haw,’’ the Nashville-based comedy and variety show, a country spin on groundbreaking series “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” – which featured dancing girls, blackout sketches and evil Richard Nixon saying “Sock it to me” – focused Hollywood’s bright lights on a Nashville studio, exposing the then near-mythic “Music City” to the rest of the country on network TV and then in syndication.

Most people remember the “Hee Haw’’ Honeys, who dressed up each scene (even as they were invitingly dressed down), kudzu-flavored quips from the Kornfield, cornbread and hay bales.

It could be said that by exposing Nashville’s treasures to a national TV audience, the city no longer was just known as the home of the venerable Grand Ole Opry radio show and clear-channel 650 WSM-AM. The city began to develop an image of down-home television fun and friendliness, laying the early groundwork for what it has become.

The success of the show sparked stars from New York and Hollywood to line up as guest stars among the hay bales, hoedowns and honeys of Kornfield Kounty.

“It wasn’t all cornball country music,” says Nashville treasure Charlie McCoy, who swears by the show’s importance in the history of Nashville and country music, a reputation he helped construct.

The great musician – best known for the harmonica but can play just about anything – was “Hee Haw’s’’ music director for most of its 585-episode run, recruiting the band from the army of his superb cohorts among the Nashville Cats. He joined them by night in session work for Dylan, Elvis, Waylon, Simon and Garfunkel – just about any giants worshiping and wowing in the studios of what was a vibrant Music Row.

“It was key,” McCoy says of “Hee Haw’s’’ contribution to the national and international status of Nashville and country music. “It came along at a great time, and I think it was one of the best things that happened to country music.” And Nashville.

“The thing that impressed me most was they (producer Sam Lovullo and his Hollywood squadron) would go from the most cornball comedy to the hit music of the day, with a great set, great sound. It was presented like it was special,” Charlie recalls.

“Yeah, we had our pickin’ and our grinnin’ when we are all layin’ around on hay bales,” he says, but that informality ended when it was time to set up for special guests like Brother Ray Charles, Dolly, Sammy Davis Jr., John Denver, George Strait, Roy Rogers and Big Bird.

Charley Pride and Loretta Lynn guested June 15, 1969, the first episode.

“I cannot tell you how many people say to me – I play for a lot of seniors – ‘we couldn’t wait for “Hee Haw’’ to come on Saturdays,’ especially out in rural America, where there wasn’t a lot going on,” says Charlie, the kindest musical genius you’ll ever meet.

“It was like the Grand Ole Opry was years before that. It became a tradition” for families to gather around the TV set back when a big screen was 25 inches and a speaker 3 inches. It was time for Hee Haw to chase away the week’s gloom, despair and agony.

The popularity of the show became such, Charlie adds, that if America’s biggest stars didn’t have conflicts and were asked to do “Hee Haw,’’ “they’d say ‘absolutely.’ It was more promotion for them.”

Besides the big-name guests, the cameras focused closely on the great music and musicians and personalities who regularly populated Kornfield Kounty.

“Every day you walked in the studio, you were surrounded by legends,” Charlie says. “There was Roy (Clark) and Buck (Owens). Grandpa Jones. Minnie Pearl. Roy Acuff …” And then guests like Richard Petty and Amy Grant and the San Diego Chicken dropped by to visit.

On the subject of legends: “When we got down to around Season 20, Sam (Lovullo) got this idea for the Million Dollar Band: Chet (Atkins), Boots (“Yakety Sax” Randolph), Floyd (Cramer), Danny Davis, Johnny Gimble, Jethro Burns (of Homer and Jethro, aka ‘The Thinking Man’s Hillbillies’), Roy Clark and me,” Charlie says, pausing to see if he’s forgotten members of the supergroup.

“That was one of the coolest segments we did down there,” he says, of the gathering of Nashville’s best. “It was done five or six times, over a three- or four-year period.”

He throws a serious nod to the audio engineers, folks who made it comfortable for the world’s best musicians and biggest stars to make fruitful visits to Kornfield Kounty.

“We were going direct to videotape. There was no remixing. If somebody hit a sour note, there wasn’t any going back and fixing it,” he remembers. “It was like the old days of making records here. The audio guys had to be on their toes.”

Charlie says he still pulls out the old DVDs on occasion to watch the shows. “They’re great,” he adds, with pride and proclamation.

In an attempt to explain “Hee Haw’’ – at least for the young among you or those who don’t catch reruns on RFD-TV – and its importance to Nashville, I not only visited with one of our most important musicians. I also took time to prod the “Hee Haw’’ Honeys for their memories.

But before I get to Gunilla Hutton, LuLu Roman, Misty Rowe and their adventures in Kornfield Kounty, I want to introduce you to someone you never heard of, but who is instrumental in keeping the “Hee Haw’’ legend alive.

You see, “Hee Haw’s’’ biggest fan is a former feed-and-coal store worker from Long Island, New York, who wasn’t even born when the show launched 50 years ago this June 15.

“It’s been one of the biggest blessings,” says Danny Forbes, 46, who moved his life from Long Island to Nashville 14 years ago because his love affair with the show made him at least a kissin’ kousin in Kornfield Kounty.

Well, it gets a little bit more complicated than that, perhaps, as it was the feed store’s closing that really sent him packing. But the fact he pretty much had been adopted by the cast, the crew and especially legendary producer Lovullo made Danny choose Music City as his home.

Danny is helping to organize the June 15 Golden Anniversary get-together picnic and reunion out in Donelson for cast and crew who survive. Time and, in one case, unexplainable violence, have taken their toll.

LuLu Roman tells me 41 members of the cast and crew are gone. Misty Rowe says 24. Regardless, that’s a lot of hay bales replaced by cemetery markers.

Pffft! They are gone, but their tomfoolery and camaraderie will still be celebrated.

Danny acquired his almost religious devotion to “Hee Haw’’ when he was growing up in the shadow of Gotham, close in mileage but far removed in sensibilities from the uptown girls and the New York state of mind as painted in song by that island’s most famous resident, Billy Joel.

“I began watching it when I was 10 or 11,” Danny says.

“I think at first I started watching it because it was such a colorful show,” he recalls as he relaxes in his home off Murfreesboro Road, near the airport.

“I had to shovel an awful lot of coal and chicken manure to buy this house,” he says of the abode filled with mementos of his beloved TV cast and show. “I am the “Hee Haw’’ historian,” simply because of his passion for that program.

Buck Owens, left, Roy Clark and the Hee Haw cast during its first season. It debuted June 15, 1969.

 

-- Photograph Provided

His pathway to love of “Hee Haw’’ and, eventually to Nashville, where he works at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, began one Saturday evening when he was just a feed store family’s youngster searching for something to watch on pre-cable television.

“When you are a kid, and you are flipping through the channels, well, I said ‘This looks interesting,’” he says, recalling his virgin visit to Kornfield Kounty. “It had that cartoon feel. It caught my eye.” That love at first blush was immediately and forever consummated.

He was just a kid, so while he loved Grandpa, Mr. Acuff, Junior Samples, Archie and Minnie and their country wit, it took time (perhaps until puberty??) for him to become devoted to one of the show’s great attractions: “As I got older, I said ‘Well, these girls are real purty.’”

Gunilla, by the way, tells me it was not all laughter and joy for those purty girls in their low-cut clothing and high heels.

“It was brutal for the women,” she says, adding that the challenge wasn’t just the wearing of the heels and the propping of the breasts.

“We had 6 a.m. makeup, and we stayed around even if we only had one or two lines (that day). They loved us to be in the background for everything. They were 12-hour days.

“The guys would show up at 10 or 10:30, do their thing and then go. It was very different for the women,” she points out. “The women got along very well, and that sure made it nice. We were bleary-eyed together and hitting that coffee machine like crazy in the afternoon.”

“Hee Haw’’ Honeys couldn’t survive in this politically correct era, she adds.

“It would be labeled as sexist or misogynist ... Just parading women around in particular outfits to keep the (sexual) excitement level up. It was gratuitous.

“People call the show ‘wholesome.’ It was a tease as far as I’m concerned. But it got by the Bible Belt. There definitely was a lot of peek-a-boo stuff.”

But she obviously, with her voice, personality and accessories, was built for the show, and she stayed for the whole run. Rear-view mirror reservations aside, she still loves the program.

“Don’t make it sound like I’m bitter or critical, though. It was a different time,” she says of the bouncing in the Kornfield and Nurse Goodbody days. “That part was always uncomfortable, but it was what they wanted, and don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.”

Then this woman – who came to fame as one of the three girls skinny-dipping in the water tower at The Shady Rest on Petticoat Junction – laughs. “I liked working.”

“Hee Haw Honeys” were, along with the animated pigs and the weekly “Grandpa: What’s for Supper?” query, just part of the quick-paced, blackout comedy showcase filled with the sort of lovable characters you might find sitting on a couch on the front porch.

When he wasn’t in Kornfield Kounty or on the Grand Ole Opry or entertaining a gospel-flavored crowd, bluegrass hero Louis Marshall Jones lived in a large, cabin-like structure along a stream a jut or two off the Springfield Highway in Ridgetop.

I regarded him as a friend, and when I visited his home we sat by the fireplace and talked about “Hee Haw,’’ life and his friend, David “Stringbean” Akeman, a fellow “Hee Haw’’ and Opry star who was murdered, along with his wife, Estelle, by robbers in their home, just over the hill from the Jones’ residence.

We talked about his great friend – a former baseball player, endearing comic and banjo player – and about the loss. But Grandpa was in a more-philosophic mood, enjoying talking about freshly planted saplings, his home and Henry David Thoreau. Seems that when he wasn’t washing country ham, greens and the fixin’s down with buttermilk on TV, the gentle soul enjoyed reading the great American poets and loving his Walden-like surroundings.

Clockwise from top: The first cast  photo of Hee Haw from June 1969. Roy Clark and Buck Owens “pickin’ an grinnin’” from the same year. Misty Rowe and LuLu today performing a current Kornfield Friends show. Cathy Baker, with Beauregard, from 1972, and Junior Samples

-- Photographs Provided

The Stringbean murders happened in 1973 during a “Hee Haw’’ hiatus. Grandpa and his wife Ramona discovered the bodies. One of the killers died in jail. The other one was paroled from prison about five years ago, much to the protestations of the old-time music community.

My now-late pal, Country Music Hall of Fame bluegrass and country hero Mac Wiseman, spoke about his opposition to that parole in a story in The Tennessean: “I fully believe the Good Lord forgives us for our mistakes,” he said, adding that the parole board, however, “don’t have the authority, spiritually or otherwise, to forgive that man, I don’t think.”

As for Grandpa, well, in my days of conversations about “Hee Haw’s’’ half-century, Gunilla – in an interview while she’s driving from singing rehearsals in Simi Valley, California, to her home in Santa Barbara – describes him best.

“He was the sweetest person in the world,” she says. “He couldn’t have been further from show business. He and Ramona, they were these salt-of-the-earth people. He was sly. He was funny. He’d get one of those cute little giggles. We all adored him. You just had to hug Grandpa when you saw him.”

Time also has taken away many of the other regulars, including Acuff, “The King of Country Music,” with his yo-yo, fiddle and Republican quips, the wonderful Minnie Pearl, my longtime acquaintance George “Goober” Lindsey, Archie Campbell, Junior Samples, the Hager Twins, all members of the cast who would turn up in skits like the Moonshiners Cabin, Pfftt! You Was Gone, Archie’s Barbershop, Junior’s Used Car Lot, the Empty Arms Hotel, LuLu’s Truck Stop and Kornfield Kounty operator assistance.

“I adored Archie Campbell, and I learned so much about comedic timing from him,” Gunilla remembers. “And I adored Minnie Pearl. She (refined Southern woman Sarah Cannon when not wearing the hat with the price tag) was really so different from her character. We would talk about books. I would go to her house (next to the Governor’s Residence on Curtiswood Lane in Oak Hill.)

“I would sit on the rolling lawn and watch her play tennis on her own court, while her husband, Mr. Henry (Cannon, who I knew as a kind and generous soul) would serve me mint juleps. He called me ‘Miss Magnolia Blossom.’”

Miss Minnie lives on in the heart and the post-“Hee Haw’’ work of the youngest “Hee Haw’’ Honey, Misty Rowe, an actress who in recent years has added directing onto her long list of accomplishments.

“Minnie Pearl was my friend and my mentor on the show,” she says. “She taught me a lot about how to treat my friends.”

She and LuLu, banjo player Buck Trent and fiddler Jana Jae (“she was a fiddler who was married to Buck Owens. She was a Buckaroo.”) are touring in a “Hee Haw’’ tribute show called “Kornfield Friends.” (As often is the case, marriages between bosses and employees can hit snags. Jana’s marriage to Buck ended in annulment after just a few days. Perhaps the king of the Bakersfield Sound hadn’t realized he had a tiger by the tail when he professed “I do.”)

“I open the show as Minnie Pearl,” Misty says of the Kornfield Friends tour. “I say ‘Please be with me, Minnie.’ After that I come back as a “Hee Haw’’ Honey. I know things about Minnie that few people do.

“I always feel like she’s onstage with me when I put that flowered hat and that checkered dress on,” adds the Playboy model of decades ago.

Of course, there were so many skits and characters in “Hee Haw,’’ but Gunilla says the one she gets asked about most is Junior Samples, who portrayed a big, dense country fellow. She vows he wasn’t acting.

Cathy Baker and Danny Forbes at 2011 “Country’s Family Reunion: Salute to the Kornfield”

-- Photograph Provided

“He was a character, for sure,” she adds. “I didn’t believe he was for real at first. But he was the genuine deal. I’d never met anyone like that.

“He got very smart and savvy about business. We were slated to do a skit together, and he complained to the director and producer afterward and said: ‘I like Gunilla. She just steals those scenes and takes them away from me. Can you get me somebody else?’ He may not be able to read very well, but he could sure think. I took it as a compliment. He was a sweetie.”

All the players remember fondly the hosts, Buck Owens and Roy Clark, two gentlemen whose instrumental wizardry often was overlooked.

“Roy Clark and I had the same manager,” says Gunilla, explaining that relationship took the two on the road during the months “Hee Haw’’ wasn’t taping.

“I opened for him everywhere,” she says, thinking back to those road days. “We traveled all over the country for many years. We even did a musical together, ‘Paint Your Wagon.’ We did Las Vegas a couple of times. He was a wonderful fellow, a sweet disposition. You always knew what you were getting.

“He was very generous about other people’s talents. He didn’t have an outsized ego. He just wanted peace in the valley. He got along with everybody.

“Buck was a nice fella, too. I was never as close to Buck as I was to Roy, though.”

LuLu laughs, as expected, when recalling her evolution on the show. “Funny thing was, they kind of hired me to be like a go-go girl because I was coming out of the Dallas night clubs and I was kinda a go-go dancer. Nobody knew I could sing. I didn’t even know I could sing back then.

“Obviously I was ‘the Round One,’” she says with a laugh. “The Round One jumped around and danced all around.”

She says that six or seven years into the show, she discovered her singing voice “thanks to the Lord,” and that changed her roles on the show.

Now, in addition to the Kornfield Friends show, she travels the country, singing in churches and doing the occasional big show.

Misty, similarly, has plenty to do besides the Kornfield show and enjoying life on an island in South Carolina. “I don’t know what happened to my career, but I’m working all the time. I was Wendy the carhop on “Happy Days’’ for a year. You remember ‘’Happy Days’’?

“Donny Most (who played Ralph Malph, one of Richie Cunningham’s idiot pals) is now Don Most, and he has a big band. He’s coming to North Carolina and he’s asked me to sing with them. It’s nice to have people in my life who I grew up with who are still in my life.”

By the way, Misty keeps a bit of “Hee Haw’’ with her wherever she goes. And not just in her heart.

“I travel with a Kornfield in my Jeep,” she says. “It weighs a lot. The front row weighs 40 pounds, the back row 45 pounds. It fills up half of my Jeep.” She’s obviously well-equipped, and besides that, a “Hee Haw’’ Honey never knows when someone will pay to see her pop her top from the crop.

Of course, it is used during the Kornfield Friends shows, which Misty and LuLu both say is an opportunity to keep the spirit of “Hee Haw’’ alive and, perhaps, coming to a town near you.

With Kornfield Friends “we’ve got a pretty good little show,” says LuLu, a Mount Juliet resident who also has achieved gospel-singing star status – “I sing anything but opera” – and who peppers her conversation with inimitable and infectious laughter.

Roy Clark poses with some of Hee Haw’s “Honeys” in this 1989 photo. Below, Gunilla Hutton, aka “Nurse Goodbody,” poses with series regular Archie Campbell in a recurring premise.

-- Photograph Provided

“Family,” is how LuLu refers to the bond between her brothers and sisters of the cornpone. “Wonderful, wonderful relationships,” she adds. “I’m an orphan kid. I never really had brothers or sisters and aunts or uncles or cousins, “Hee Haw’’ became like family to me. It is a lifetime of family.”

Gunilla agrees, adding the schedule “was nice” – they came to Nashville for a month or so two times a year, racing through production of 13 episodes at a time. “We were together long enough to be very close and love each other, but not long enough to get into arguments. Really lovely friendships.”

LuLu retreats to one of the regular skits she still adores. “LuLu’s Truck Stop was my favorite. Not only did we get to eat the food, we got to throw it. Being adults and throwing food at each other was funny.

“The guests would jump right in. They’d get into throwing food as fast as anyone.”

She remembers another Kornfield turn when she began removing the jewelry from guest Sammy Davis Jr. and “put them down in my pockets.” She sensed Sammy was a bit worried that Pffft! the jewelry was gone.

“When I look back on my life, I have been blessed, not only to be a part of this, but to have the opportunity to meet legends. Remarkable people. They brought some humdingers in there.

“They had President Jimmy Carter. He was just wonderful. He didn’t throw food with me.”

She can’t really remember who were the best food-fighters, by the way, although if Jimmy Carter sat it out, Billy Graham probably did, as well. You might, with good reason, ask about Ray Charles in this regard, but I personally would bet he let fly with truck stop cuisine. And likely with amazing accuracy.

LuLu’s favorite guest remains Johnny Cash.

“He would set off to the side. “Hee Haw’’ was a waiting game, and you waited and you waited and you waited for your turn. Johnny always came and sat with me. He would talk about the Lord. He would tell me things God was doing in his life. He would tell me about these dreams he had … I was amazed he would share things so personal. He was a wonderful soul, he really was.

“I was pretty wonderful, too.”

The show originally aired on CBS in 1969 as a summer replacement for “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.’’ After three years on the network, it was axed.

That simply sent Lovullo and his cast and crew into syndication for more than a couple of decades. Kornfield Kounty’s lovelies and fast-talkers continue as a rerun staple on RFD-TV cable network.

Danny, the historian, can, of course, go much deeper into “Hee Haw’ ’than my own quick summation.

The amateur archivist’s life is intertwined with “Hee Haw.’’ With ease, he supplied the photographs accompanying this column … and dozens more that weren’t used.

“They had a joke contest,” he recalls. “I entered and got runner-up in the joke contest. I guess I was 14 or 15.

“Then I would write letters back and forth to them.”

And he got answers. “I loved their fan club, they loved that somebody young was watching. And they featured me in their newsletter.”

Then came his first trip from Long Island to see tapings in Kornfield Kounty.

“I was 18. I’d never met any of them in person, but they really rolled out the red carpet for me. … They adopted me. I took to them. They took to me. The writers became friends, the girls became friends.

“Especially Sam. When production was shutting down in 1993, I was 19 or 20. I said I’d come help. I spent three weeks in the office with Sam, packing up things.”

He also spent time with the producer when he was on the book tour for Lovullo’s “Life in the Kornfield” memoir, and hosted the Nashville memorial for his “Hee Haw’’ father figure after he died at 88 in 2017 at his home in Encino, California.

Danny’s also key in the effort to keep the interest up in the show.

“In 2011, I managed to get the producers of Country’s Family Reunion to do a “Hee Haw’’ show. We did a full day of taping for six episodes. Roy was there, everybody was there. It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”

And it was sprung by the mutual love between him and “Hee Haw.’’ “I don’t know any show ever that you say ‘I want to come visit’ and became part of the family.”

His real job, until he was 30, was working in the family feed and coal company. “It was on the south shore of Long Island. We sold feed, coal, wood, raised chickens and goats.

“After that company closed down …. I knew I had a lot of friends in Nashville and I took the plunge and here I am.” Carrying the “Hee Haw’’ torch.

“One of the reasons “Hee Haw’’ has lasted 50 years is it’s not pretentious,” says LuLu. “It’s funny. You don’t have to reason anything out with “Hee Haw.’’ It’s a great time for people to sit down, relax, get a good laugh, spend time with each other.”

“I think people feel comfortable with “Hee Haw,’’ adds Gunilla, a longtime Pilates instructor who is reviving her singing career. “They don’t have to think. It’s what entertainment’s about. Just sit back and be entertained.

“The pulchritude of the women has a lot to do with it: Pretty girls and country music. A lot of pop stars. Pure fun. It goes back to the days when people would sit on their porch, pick up their guitars and tell jokes. It’s comforting. There‘s not that much that’s comforting today.”

Nashville continues its evolution. Hollywood, which sort of snuck in the barnyard to do “Hee Haw,’’ has never really left. Lower Broad is gaudier than the Sunset Strip.

But “Hee Haw’’ and Kornfield Kounty never will succumb to gentrification and greed.

“’Hee Haw’’ is fun,” says Misty. “It’s a happy place. It’s this little, fantastic place, Kornfield Kounty, with a lot of characters.”

I always have taken the word of any beautiful woman who travels with a Kornfield in her car.

Except where noted, photographs for this story – many of which were taken by Dean Dixon – were provided from the collection of Danny Forbes. The Ledger is grateful for his assistance.

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