From its 1969 network debut until its syndication run ended in 1992, the TV variety show Hee Haw introduced an incalculable number of households and multiple generations of listeners to Roy Clark’s talents as a singer, actor and multi-instrumentalist. Fans willing to dig deeper than the show's cornball humor and old-fashioned “a-pickin’ and a-grinnin’” bluegrass and country breakdowns uncovered much more from one of the most gifted guitarslingers to ever pass through Nashville.
In the grander scheme of things, Clark excelled as more than just a country musician and vocalist. As a roots artist should, the “superpicker” with lightning fingers strummed furiously through the songs of his blues, old-time and pop music predecessors. The following 10 recordings capture how Clark redefined lead guitar for country music by often ignoring the genre’s sonic and creative boundaries.
“Through the Eyes of a Fool”Single (1963)
At times, Clark was positioned more as a capable Nashville crooner than a guitar-picking icon. Some of those early sides include gems such as this rendition of a Bobby Bare-penned classic. Only Lefty Frizzell sang it better. Furthermore, this single established the song-interpreting talents that helped make Clark a genuine celebrity.
“Yesterday, When I Was Young”From: 'Yesterday, When I Was Young' (1969)
Clark mostly plays by the Nashville Sound rules here, filling the crooner role while backed by string accompaniment. Still, even on what got structured like a Glen Campbell crossover hit, Clark sprinkled in something out of the ordinary. In this case, it’s those brief moments of Spanish-style picking that set this rendition apart from versions by Andy Williams and other easy-listening icons.
“Dueling Banjos” (featuring Buck Trent)From: 'A Pair of Fives (Banjos, That Is)' (1975)
A 1950s bluegrass standard by Guitar “Boogie” Smith became a permanent part of pop culture following the 1972 release of the film Deliverance. It soon became a showpiece for banjo prodigy Clark and fellow Hee Haw regular Trent. Beyond this timeless rendition, Clark’s bluegrass-leaning material with Trent and other collaborators is a bottomless well of incredible material.
“Racing the Mule”From: 'The Roy Clark Guitar Spectacular!' (1965)
Clark held his own singing old standards and new hits, but he really soared when his guitar told the full story. Such intricate races to the finish by a one-man string band include this lightning-quick number that sounds like a down-home instrumental took something to stay up all night and drive to the next gig. It and other instrumentals from the mid-‘60s teased Clark’s contributions to his long-running onscreen partnership with Buck Owens.
“The Drifter” (featuring Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown)From: 'Makin’ Music' (1979)
No list that demonstrates Clark’s multi-genre palette would be complete without a selection from his collaborative album with blues and folk multi-instrumentalist Brown. The Oklahoma-born country boy and the Texas- and Louisiana-style blues singer and picker go together like biscuits and gravy on this seven-plus-minute multi-genre jam that sounds more natural in this era of boundary-free Americana.
“Ghost Riders in the Sky”From: 'Superpicker' (1973)
Clark flipped through country music’s back pages for inspiration at times, finding this familiar tune in that early chapter about singing cowboys; it takes a song baby boomers knew from Saturday matinees down an unfamiliar trail. There’s always something invigorating about hearing a personalized touch on an old standard, whether it’s heard at a downtown Nashville bar or on a new purchase from the local record shop.
“Thank God and Greyhound”From: 'I Never Picked Cotton' (1970)
Thanks to Hank Williams, country love ballads and breakup songs often include a snarky edge. In this case, a seemingly dim worldview changes when the narrator’s old flame boards a Greyhound bus. This fun song’s surprise twist captures the same sense of humor that popularized Clark’s charming small-screen persona and, in years past, injected some levity into the Grand Ole Opry’s on-air proceedings.
“Twelfth Street Rag”From: 'The Lightning Fingers of Roy Clark' (1963)
As county went uptown in the 1960s, Clark introduced an old standby by jazz bandleader Pee Wee Hunt to the genre’s growing throng of fans. It exemplifies how the dynamic guitarist countrified songs from different genres while building his legacy as a guitar phenom and a well-rounded entertainer. Plus, it made for pre-Hee Haw television magic for Jimmy Dean and other variety show hosts.
“I Never Picked Cotton”From: 'I Never Picked Cotton' (1970)
This Top 5 hit defines Clark as a lyrical storyteller. The first-person tale sounded relatable to the children of that last huge wave of rural farmers and sharecroppers — until it turned into a murder ballad. Even after Johnny Cash worked wonders with his gravely voiced rendition, it remained one of the few lyrical masterpieces primarily associated with Clark.
“Malaguena”From: 'The Roy Clark Guitar Spectacular!' (1965)
If Pee Wee Hunt seems highfalutin for folks expecting a celebration of Hee Haw’s Kornfield Kounty, try this on for size. The greatest example of Clark’s gobsmacking guitar greatness came from the mind of Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona. The sixth movement of his Suite Andalucía seems at home atop this list when slightly reinterpreted by one of the most dynamic, gifted and beloved country stars in the genre’s storied history.