Reinventing Roy

A half-dozen years ago, in his Tulsa office, Roy Clark told me something I’ve repeated dozens of times. To me, it remains the best explanation of an artist’s creative drive that I’ve ever heard.

It came at the end of a long interview, which I used in writing the copy for his 2007 tour book – the souvenir publication offered for sale at concerts. That year, he was celebrating the 60th anniversary of his entry into show business, and he and his management had commissioned a special tour book to mark the milestone.

The tape recorder was off, and I was getting ready to leave, when he gave me his personal spin on the old “ladder of success” metaphor. It’s stuck with me ever since.

Starting out as a green kid, he told me, he saw stardom as a ladder, stretching high into the clouds. So he began to take it a rung at a time. First rung, playing in his father’s square dance band in Washington, D.C., beginning a few months before his 14th birthday. Second rung, doing radio and television around the area. Third rung, branching out into clubs as well as square dances. Fourth rung, fronting his own group.

Higher and higher he climbed, past a lot of other aspiring stars occupied with their own ladders, as his fame spread. National television. Hit records. Big concerts. Honors and accolades. Always he climbed, his face inclined toward what he thought was the ladder’s end.

“And then, one day after all those years, I stepped up another rung and finally, finally, stuck my head through those clouds.” He grinned. “And do you know what I saw?”

I said I didn’t.

He gazed upward, gesturing toward the sky. “I saw that ladder,” he said, “going on forever.”

Pausing to let the observation sink in, he added, “When I was starting out, if somebody had said, ‘What do you want to be? Do you want to be a star?’ I would’ve said, ‘Yeah. Sure.’ But what is a star? I found out later that on the ladder of success, the higher you climb, the more rungs there are. So you never reach that absolute top. You’re never satisfied. If you’re satisfied, you quit.”

Some 65 years after he first placed a tentative, youthful foot on the very bottom rung, Roy Clark is still not satisfied, which is to say that he’s not about to quit. In fact, over the past couple of years, he’s been continuing to expand his fan base by intentionally getting before audiences that may not know very much about him at all.

A perfect example came a few months ago at Tulsa’s BOK Center, when he joined country star Brad Paisley, more than a generation removed from Clark, for a guitar duet on the classic “Ghost Riders in the Sky” that earned a standing ovation from the huge crowd.

“When Brad Paisley was a kid, 14 or so, he went to the Capitol Theatre in Roanoke, Virginia, and saw Roy,” notes Jim Halsey, the Oklahoma-based impresario who has guided Clark’s career for decades. “He even performed a number on the show with Roy. And when he invited Roy to join him onstage at the BOK, he said, ‘I learned to play guitar from your Roy Clark Big Note Songbook.’

“Roy is a universal artist,” adds Halsey, “so it’s not like he has to learn something new or do something different. We just have to have him do something that gets the attention of a different audience.”

Halsey calls that process “reinventing,” explaining that it’s something that Clark has been doing his whole career. “From the very beginning, this is something we did together. Roy would reinvent himself almost daily sometimes, depending on the situation. He’d go from a bluegrass festival to the Montreux Jazz Festival, from playing with symphony orchestras to acting in dramatic television to guest-hosting The Tonight Show. I would go any place and make a pitch with him, trying to get him into something different, someplace where he wasn’t expected to be.”

Such as, in 2010, onstage in a giant arena with a hit-country-radio act like Paisley.

“‘Reinvent’ is really a good expression,” says Clark, “because that’s the thing that I’m doing now. There are young people who are not aware of who Roy Clark is. So what we have to do now is come back and reinvent ourselves. Every concert we do, God knows how many people tell me, with that little sly smile on their faces, ‘I grew up watching you.’ But the folks who grew up watching me are getting older every concert tour, so you just have to get in there and hopefully get some of the young people to come out to the shows.”

Young artists like Paisley and one of his supporting acts at the BOK concert, Darius Rucker, are certainly helping. “Darius Rucker just went crazy over Roy,” notes Halsey. “Everybody uses a bunch of big television stuff now in their concerts, and when Darius Rucker played here (in Tulsa) a few weeks ago, on one particular song, he was showing pictures of the OU football team and stuff like that, and then suddenly, on this big 60-foot screen, is an image of Roy Clark.”

Both Clark and Halsey also credit reruns of the iconic television show Hee Haw, now playing on the cable outlet RFD-TV, with helping keep his name and face before new audiences. As Clark fans know, the show originally began airing in 1969 as a kind of countrified version of the then-hit sketch-comedy series Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.

“When they came to me with the Hee Haw idea, Frank Peppiatt and John Aylesworth, I was a guest on The Jonathan Winters Show,” recalls Clark. “They were the producers. This was September of ’68. They came to me and said, ‘We have an idea about doing this television show, not unlike Laugh-In.’ That was the way they phrased it: not unlike Laugh-In. ‘Would you be interested?’ Of course, you say yes to everything, because a lot of it never happens.”

Hee Haw, however, did happen, and in a big way. Although Clark was already a well-known national television presence and recording artist in 1969, when the weekly show debuted, his work as co-host (with fellow country star Buck Owens) on Hee Haw made him a household name. The show originally ran for an amazing 23 years, far outliving the program that inspired it.

“I’ve gone through the grandparents, the parents, and the kids who were forced to watch Hee Haw,” laughs Clark.  “They’d sit there and say, ‘Oh Lord, do we have to watch this thing again?’”

Although the program was unabashedly and intentionally cornball, it has achieved iconic status. For proof of that, all you have to do is visit Pickin’ and Grinnin’: Roy Clark, Hee Haw, and Country Humor, an exhibition running through May at the Oklahoma History Center in Oklahoma City. Focusing on Hee Haw’s ties to our state, it’s an impressive multimedia presentation that’s already been viewed by thousands.

“It’s extremely popular, especially with the people who grew up with the show,” says Larry O’Dell, the Oklahoma History Center’s director of collections. “The school kids coming through like it, too, because we show clips and they can see how corny and funny it was.”

When the Center first approached Clark about doing an exhibition on him and his work in Hee Haw, he wasn’t entirely sure of the concept. “The first thing you wonder is if you’ve actually done enough to warrant an exhibit,” he says, chuckling again. “When somebody all of a sudden says, ‘We’re going to make an exhibit,’ you immediately start thinking, ‘Well, how much are they going to need?’

“You figure when they say they’d like to do a hysterical – as opposed to historical – exhibit, that it’s something that’s going to be way down the road,” he adds. “So they say, ‘We’d like to do this,’ and you say, ‘Yes, that’s quite an honor. Thank you.’ – figuring it’s not going to happen right now. Next thing you know, they’re saying, ‘We’re ready to go,’ and it’s like, ‘What do you mean you’re ready to go? This wasn’t supposed to happen until later.’

“The longer you’re in this business, the more you get to thinking that what you’re doing now is what you used to watch and listen to others do – and now you’re the one they’re zeroing in on.”

A case could be made that being the focus of a museum exhibition just takes him to another rung on the ladder, as do such recent career milestones as his receiving the Gene Autry Spirit of the West Award from the Autry Center in Los Angeles, being named Oklahoma’s Musical Ambassador for Children by Gov. Mary Fallin, and lending his name to what is now the Roy Clark Music School at Northeast Technology Center in Claremore.     

Halsey places these honors under the “reinvention” heading, and re-emphasizes that it’s the kind of thing his longtime client and friend has been doing throughout his professional life.

“A lot of people don’t know that Roy Clark was the first country-music artist to play with a symphony orchestra using symphony charts,” Halsey says. “The first time we did that was with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops in Oklahoma City, 1962. We had (noted music figure) Richard Hayman write the arrangements, and those arrangements could take Roy anyplace from a Tonight Show audience to a major fair. Back in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, most of the state fairs had variety-show productions, and they had a house orchestra of 18 to 25 pieces. Your Frank Sinatras, your Perry Comos, would have their arrangements and bring in their conductors and do their sets.

“We started talking to fair managers, asking, ‘Why don’t you let us come in with a country-music show?’ They’d say that wasn’t what people expected. And I’d say, ‘Well, let’s try it.’”

So Clark would bring in his charts and do the shows, and pretty soon, he and other Halsey acts like Wanda Jackson and Hank Thompson became staples of the fair circuit, paving the way for many other country performers. At the same time, Halsey was expanding into Las Vegas – and, he points out, “Roy Clark was the first country artist to really play the Vegas strip. Hank Williams had played the Last Frontier in 1952, but that was about it.”

All reinventions, all rungs on the ladder. And after six-and-a-half decades of hard, solid, work, Roy Clark is still climbing, still thinking about that ladder whose very top he’ll never see, whose end he’ll never reach.

“I don’t know of anybody – not even Garth Brooks or any of the other ones we look at now with their millions and millions of record sales – who sees the end,” he says. “There’s no end to it. You’re never satisfied. And you wonder, ‘What rung am I on now, compared to the rest?’ You know, there are the Hank Williamses and a few others who are easy for us to look at and say, ‘Well, that’s the top of the ladder.’ But the more you get into it, the more you think about you climbing that ladder, the more you realize that people have fit you into rungs you never thought you’d reach, You never thought you’d make it that far. You weren’t even counting the rungs, because you were too busy working.”

He grins again, the impish smile that’s been seen by untold millions of television watchers and concertgoers, and that will undoubtedly be seen by many more. “I’ll tell you this,” he concludes. “I don’t feel that I’ve missed a single rung. I don’t say I’ve done it all. I’m not quite sure what ‘all’ is. But what I’m aware of, I’ve done.”

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