Way back when a sizable chunk of the country music audience really did live on farms and in the hills, comedians shared billings with musical acts and helped rural America poke fun at itself. First the Grand Ole Opry and later the long-running television show Hee Haw made it normal to go from Roy Acuff crying while singing sentimental songs to Minnie Pearl acting the fool without the program losing its course.
To narrow down country music’s history of comic relief, The Boot has put together this list of the genre's five greatest comedians after eliminating parody artists and singers of silly songs (Cledus T. Judd, Ray Stevens, Homer & Jethro) and serious stars known in part for their funny bone (June Carter, Reba McEntire, Grandpa Jones). Even by limiting the list to stand-up comedians, we had to skip over some fine candidates, from Hee Haw’s Archie Campbell to banjo picker Steve Martin.
Read on for a Top 5 that favors classic Opry stars while offering a taste of good, clean fun from the ‘70s to today:
The pre-War Grand Ole Opry’s predominant comedian was once a banjo player billed as Whitey Ford. Eventually, he became Red Foley’s comic relief on the Renfro Valley Barn Dance, and in 1942, he became the Ryman regular known for his sign-off “I’m going back to the wagon, boys. These shoes are killing me!”
This former Mississippi State football player and fertilizer salesman caught his break in comedy well past the age of 40. Circumstances gave “The Mouth of Mississippi” a wealth of experience and worldly wisdom once he built a career off grandiose retellings of rural living.
Like bluegrass music, rural comedy has become its own entity apart from country music. Henry Cho and others appear on Grand Ole Opry lineups to this day, but hearing good, clean jokes at any sort of country event has been less of a given since the end of the 1970s. That said, Foxworthy became a celebrity during country music’s ‘90s boom and remains a valuable and visible ally for the genre. His success paved the way for a new crew of country comedians, including Tim Wilson, Bill Engvall and Larry the Cable Guy.
The first wave of comedic relief for some of country music’s earliest stars remains the best, as exemplified by not just the Duke of Paducah and Minnie Pearl but also this onstage and on-air peer. At his peak, Brasfield’s country bumpkin character fed perfectly off Pearl’s Grinder Switch gossip. Brasfield sometimes performed with a ventriloquist dummy named Bocephus: the source of Hank Williams Jr.'s nickname.
Despite her family ties to Nashville’s upper crust, Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon connected with common folks as the giddy, gossipy Minnie Pearl. From her trademark hat with its $1.98 pricetag still dangling to her laugh-inducing salutation “How-dee!” she delighted fans onstage, on the radio and on television for close to 50 years.