This is a biographical dictionary of a subject that has long been lacking in attention: the comic element in traditional music. Loyal Jones, former long-time director of the Appalachian Center at Berea College, is the author of
Laughter in Appalachia; A Festival of Southern Mountain Humor. Country Music Humorists and Comedians (Music in American Life) is part of the Univeristy of Illinois Press series
"Music in American Life."
Traditionally, mountain bands always featured at least one clown. Men like Stringbean, who got his start with Charlie and Bill Monroe, were capable of attaining great success not just as accomplished musicians but as clowns who were willing to wear funny clothes and make fun of hillbilly ways. Stringbean liked to turn the joke around a bit, subtly underscoring his stardom as a dumb hick: "Ever' time I buy a new Cadillac, I get me two or three new pairs of overalls." Grandpa Jones, widely recognized as a fine banjo picker, was better known as a country clown who took on the old geezer persona from an early age. June Carter wasn't the singer that the other her females in her family were, but she could add to their act by playing the naive young girl looking for "a feller"
- and when she found one, it was a doozy: Johnny Cash. Tommy Faille, a regular with Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith and a noted singer and songwriter, learned early in his career that comedy was part of the deal, especially on radio. As Charlie Louvin of the legendary duo, The Louvin Brothers, explains, "You can't just sing for a whole two hours."
Some folks came into prominence only as comics, like the hilarious tale-spinner and word-twister Junior Samples, for years a pillar of television's
Hee Haw cast. Others were musicians who enjoyed playing the buffoon, like "Spec" Rhodes, whose telephone calls to his girlfriend, Sadie, were a regular feature on
the Porter Wagoner TV shows. Others were musicians who couldn't seem to find their niche until comedy became their true calling, as was the case with lightning-fast banjo picker Roni Stoneman. After she left the family band, she found her profession as Ida Lee Nagger, a "skinny Ma Kettle" perched over an ironing board with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth who claimed that she came from such a big family because her mother was hard of hearing: "Daddy would say to Mama at bedtime every night, 'You want to go to sleep or what?' Mama would say 'What?'"
I live in Mount Airy, North Carolina, which is the childhood home of Andy Griffith and has grown into its role as "Mayberry" over the last twenty years or so. Naturally I was pleased and not surprised that Griffith, so lauded around home, was among the comedians included in this book. Not just a man who acted like a hick but a real hick with a passion for acting, Griffith achieved national fame with a comedy recording called "What It Was, Was Football." Playing the rube who outwits the city fellers came naturally to Griffith, whose starring role in
No Time for Sergeants on Broadway and then in film catapulted him to a kind of typecast stardom that would serve him well over his years as the calm but occasionally baffled sherriff of "Mayberry", a town which survived when the mills shut down largely on the incredible popularity of
The Andy Griffith Show.
Chester Lauck and Morris Goff entertained thousands over many years, beginning in 1931, with their radio broadcasts of Lum and Abner, the country philosophers who had mildly perilous hometown adventures as proprietors of the fictional "Jot'em Down" store in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Their talents and appearance were sufficiently plausible to give them a movie career in the same roles.
Some of the inclusions in this compendium do not run true to the hillbilly-turned-buffoon image. Jeff Foxworthy is admittedly not a hillbilly but has made his fortune on defining what it is to be a redneck. Garrison Keillor's phlegmatic Nordic folkways are beloved to many but do not fit the "Opry" mode. Dr. Tim Stovers with his podiatry humor (he makes house calls in a toe truck) would seem to be more mainstream than truly "country". Dolly Parton, while entertaining with her self-deprecating quips onstage and off, is not a genuine comedian in that her vast income and overwhelming popularity stem from her singing ability first and foremost; her ebullient personality is simple happenstance. However, the book is true to its purpose, going far afield to find such obscure performers as Tommy Scott, the last of the medicine show comics, and the mysterious Emmet Miller, whose early career was honed in the classical minstrel show format.
One of the useful elements of this encyclopedic look at country humor is that performers are listed by their stage name. How would you find Minnie Pearl if you had to look for Sarah Ophelia Colley? We thank the author for making the choice to avoid academic correctness in favor of popular name recognition. For those of us who live in Mount Airy, North Carolina, it sure makes reading the book a whole lot easier!