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Saturday, August 05, 2006

Episode 7 – The donkey that wouldn't die

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[Dylan Intro – "Mothers" episode]

[HEE HAW Theme]

"The critics are unanimous...but watch it anyway!"

This is the Dreamtime podcast - occasional commentary on Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour weekly show.

Episode 7 – The donkey that wouldn't die

Who knew Dylan loves corny old jokes? Who knew that he liked HEE HAW? Well, maybe the second is easier to understand than the first.

HEE HAW was launched in 1969 by two Canadian TV producers as a country music version of NBC’s popular Laugh-In. If you had seen Laugh-In, you immediately recognized the model: quick cuts; pretty girls wearing the minimum possible for network TV, catch phrases, stupid jokes. HEE HAW just substituted corn-pone for Laugh-In's pop references. But HEE HAW had one thing that Laugh In didn't… country music, often very good country music,

Buck Owens, with twenty Number 1 hits already under his belt, taped the pilot of HEE HAW in 1968. CBS picked it up as a summer replacement for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, canceled because of Tommy Smothers ongoing war with network censors over the shows pro-drug and anti-war humor. CBS picked up a 13 -show option for Hee Haw, and at Buck’s recommendation the producers hired singer Roy Clark as co-host. The show premiered Sunday, June 15, 1969.

Country music was enormously popular on the radio in the 60s, but had never cracked national television. Like the Smothers Brothers show, whose musical guests had included everyone from the Doors to the Beatles, HEE HAW's secret weapon, and what made it more than a hillbilly Laugh-In, was its music.

Its regulars included Buck Owens, Roy Clark, and Grandpa Jones of course, so it had Grand Ole Opry street cred right from the git-go, and it brought in a couple of big guest stars every week. Guests like Alabama, Roy Acuff, Garth Brooks, Johnny Cash, Crystal Gayle, Merle Haggard, Janis Ian, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Lyle Lovett, Loretta Lynn, Barbara Mandrell, Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Ray Price, Charley Pride, Charlie Rich, Linda Ronstadt, Kenny Rogers, Roy Rogers, George Strait, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, B.J. Thomas, Mel Tillis, Randy Travis, Travis Tritt, Ernest Tubb, Conway Twitty, Boxcar Willie, Tammy Wynette, Hank Williams Jr., and Faron Young, just to name a few.

HEE HAW was so successful during its initial summer run that CBS slotted it into the fall schedule, but it would only last on the network for two years, being killed off in the Great CBS Hillbilly Purge of 19 and 71, which also claimed The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres. CBS network suits had decided all three shows had the wrong viewer demographics – that is rural, older and with less disposable income than hipper, younger audiences.

However HEE HAW would really hit its stride in syndication, where niche programming thrives. From 1971 thorough 1997, HEE HAW was playing on some station in America every week.
A total of 585 one-hour HEE HAWs were taped in Nashville, Tennessee. The cast would tape an entire season in June and October each year, freeing them for other pursuits the other 10 months. But Buck Owens had little left to pursue after HEE HAW's success.

"Anybody that’s been on television… when you become a household name, when they can see you once a week, it reduces and diminishes your value." Owens noted in an interview on his web site. "In 1969 I was still havin’'#1 records. As I went along it degenerated into more comedy and a lot less singin’, or doin' those silly little cast songs.

"I enjoyed the Hee Haw people, but from 1980 on I didn’t enjoy it and thought about leavin’, and thought, hell, it’s an easy job and pays wonderful. I kinda just prostituted myself for their money. My music, which I loved, had suffered badly and I knew what it was from: too much ‘Phifft! You Were Gone.' I thought: ‘One more year, I’ll do one more year...'"

Owens finally left HEE HAW in 1986, stating in several other interviews before his death in 2006 that the show had effectively ruined his musical career.

In 1991, HEE HAW tried a new format with a more urban feel and pop-oriented country sound, which succeeded only in alienating its core audience. In its final 1992 season, and renamed Hee Haw Silver, the show featured Roy Clark, who remained with HEE HAW till the bitter end, hosting a mixture of classic clips and new footage.

After the show's syndication run ended, reruns aired on The Nashville Network until 1997. Its 22 years in TV syndication was the record for a U.S. program, until "Wheel of Fortune" surpassed it in 2005.

And the donkey still refuses to die. On July 17, Country Music Television, a cable channel announced that it will begin rerunning the series, starting July 29. In fact, I taped the HEE HAW segments from a CMT HEE HAW marathon last weekend. The show was just as corny as I remember… and the music just as good.

This has been Fred Bals with the Dreamtime podcast - occasional commentary on Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour.

The only association Dreamtime has is free association. Keep pickin' and a-grinnin' and keep dreaming.

Sources: "A Country Music Laugh-in"; Twangs of nostalgia; The official HEE HAW site

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