RIP Roy Clark, Who Played a Guitar the Way His Pal Mickey Mantle Swung a Bat

Over the last few years the sun has been setting on a glowing age of country music, with the deaths of folks like Johnny Cash, George Jones and Merle Haggard.

The sun dropped a little closer to the horizon Thursday with the passing of Roy Clark, who played in that same stratum.

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Roy Clark with Johnny Cash and June Carter.

Clark was 85 when he died in his Tulsa home from complications of pneumonia, and the regard with which he was held in his native Oklahoma can be fully appreciated by a single moment.

His fellow Oklahoman, Mickey Mantle, asked that Clark sing “Yesterday When I Was Young” at Mantle’s funeral.

Which he did.

“Yesterday When I Was Young,” a monstrously depressing song written by Charles Aznavour, was a top-10 country hit for Clark in 1969 and because it had long legs and is still heard today, some listeners might think that’s what Clark was about.

More accurately, it was a small corner of what Clark was about. Part of his musical skill and genius is that he listened to and drew from music everywhere and to be fair, his recording of “Yesterday When I Was Young” is haunting.

But Roy Clark’s greater legacy was joy. Few artists in country or any other style conveyed the exuberant pleasure of music better than Clark, whether he was playing a concert, bantering with Johnny Carson or joining in the endless stream of bad jokes on the TV show Hee Haw.

Hee Haw, for those who missed it, was the least sophisticated show ever to run for 26 seasons. The jokes were covered with barnacles and part of the fun was that everyone telling those jokes made it clear they knew it. Hee Haw, particularly in its early and best years, was a non-stop parade of short sketches involving haystacks, cornfields, hound dogs and women dressed like Daisy Duke.

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Buck Owens and Roy Clark, pickin’ and grinnin’.

Clark cohosted the show with Buck Owens for its first 17 years and he took a regular turn with the bad jokes. His characters included the proprietor of the Empty Arms Hotel, and sometimes when he was playing his banjo or guitar he’d find himself joined by animated mice, at which point the music morphed rather quickly from serious to something else.

Music, though, prominently including Roy Clark’s, was the giddy little secret of Hee Haw. It was the best showcase for country music this side of the Grand Ol’ Opry, and Clark was one of the tentpoles.

He and Owens did a segment called Pickin’ and Grinnin’, which sandwiched bad jokes between some nice guitar from Owens and some amazing banjo from Clark.

Clark had a solo segment almost every week, where he might play a jazz-infused instrumental or a country classic. The common thread was that he played it beautifully.

Hee Haw was never about country’s current radio hits, though some of those popped up at times. It took a much broader and more satisfying view of what music fans really listen to, and that included one of the show’s all-time best ideas, the Hee Haw Gospel Quartet.

Originally consisting of Clark, Owens, Grandpa Jones and Kenny Price, the Quartet sang old-time church standards like “In the Garden.” It was wonderful stuff, and a couple of dozen performances were happily released on CD a couple of years later. (Full disclosure: Owens was quite unhappy about that, because apparently the artists received no royalties. Full confession: The music still sounds great.)

Clark fit perfectly there, the same way he fit everywhere else. He grew up in a family where Dad played square dance reels and Mom played piano. He quit high school at 15 to go out on the road with any stringed instrument he could find, and over the years he toured and played with artists from a young Elvis Presley and Wanda Jackson to Tom Jones. He played three weeks of shows in the Soviet Union in 1976 and in 1973 he was named entertainer of the year by both the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association. He became a Grand Ol’ Opry member in 1987 and inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2009.

Making this more remarkable, or perhaps just reflecting the culture of an earlier time, Clark did all this without any of the look that has become essential for almost all country stars today: lean, lanky, an aw-shucks grin and the hat.

Clark had none of that. He looked kind of round and friendly, more like the guy firing up the barbeque grill in the next yard.

Maybe that’s part of the reason he scuffled for almost 15 years before he established himself. But once he did, he put more than 50 songs on the country charts, on a spectrum from the wistful “If I Had It All To Do Again” to the hilarious “Thank God and Greyhound.”

Like many of the most enduring popular musicians of the 20th century, he was never a total radio fave. Only one of his records, “Come Live With Me,” reached №1 on the country charts.

No matter. His albums sound as fresh and clean now as they did 40 years ago. He may have been a dropout, but aspiring string musicians can still go to school on his records today.

To borrow a line from Chuck Berry, “My, but that little country boy can play.”

Gonna miss him.

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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