Monday, March 5, 2012

Long-Lost Musical Cousins: Roy Clark and Blues / Jazz

About a week ago, a friend of mine, lead guitarist in a great rock band called Drew 6 (Kansas City), posted a YouTube link on his Facebook page.  The link showed the legendary Roy Clark, a guest star and featured artist on an episode of the popular television series, The Odd Couple (1971).  

Mr. Clark astounded the characters of the show, Oscar (Jack Klugman) and Felix (Tony Randall) when he decided to perform something different than what they expected of him (aka Felix's request for "more Bach" and Oscar's request for "Mountain Dewww!") and launched into an amazing rendition of the classic Spanish tune, MalagueñaThe expressions on Klugman and Randall's faces, together with the audience's applause mid-performance, said it all. It was obvious that in character or out, the actors were just as enthralled and moved by Clark's performance as the studio audience, who rightly exploded into monstrous applause when Clark finished with a final olé!

That night, I sent a video response back to my friend's Facebook page, showing a different side of Mr. Clark's work, this time with a performance of Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol's classic Caravan on the Hee Haw television show (1969).  Both of us traded glowing tweets and Facebook comments about the music throughout the evening and marveled once again at this living legend that could seemingly play anything, any style, any level of difficulty.  Mr. Clark was (and is!) a timeless master of his art.

Then it hit me ... Classical guitar.  Duke Ellington.  Roy Clark.  "Caravan" ...  Hee Haw!?  At first glance, it seemed like a bizarre place to showcase a jazz standard; and yet, as I thought about it further, I knew that "crossing over" from one musical style to another in this fashion simply does not make much difference to the artist.  A true musician studies music and by this admission, must embrace different styles not only to suit his or her audience, but also study a plethora of styles while on the journey to mastering his or her instrument.  On both The Odd Couple and the Hee Haw performances, Roy Clark does exactly that.

When Hee Haw was popular (1969-1971 on CBS, and again for over 20 years in syndication), I was a child, so I couldn't appreciate the acting and artistry behind the weekly goofiness written into the show.  In my child's mind, everyone on the show was a bunch of real hillbillies that loved and joked about their "simple" country lives; in reality, however, the concept of the show resulted in country music's response to Rowan and Martin's 'Laugh-In', and its music couldn't be any more serious.  The show was not only an immense success in syndication to a wide variety of television viewers due to its comedy, but also because it provided a major stage for the biggest stars in the country music business (1969 - 1992) to showcase their talent.  In that spirit, Hee Haw also opened its stage to other non-country music entertainers, such as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Ernest Borgnine, Leslie Nielsen, Eddie Rabbitt, and many, many more, thus broadening its appeal to a wide range of viewers.   In retrospect, goofy or not, the show truly exhibited some of the greatest performances known in rock, blues, bluegrass, and country music, all ushered weekly into American living rooms by master musicians Roy Clark and Buck Owens.  Let's focus next on the dexterity of Clark's Caravan performance mentioned earlier.

From the first downbeats laid out by Buck Owens' band, The Buckaroos (all excellent Nashville musicians in their own right), Mr. Clark playfully raises his eyebrows at the camera, as if to say "get ready folks, this is going to be good", and he delivers.  The entire performance is a flawless fusion of classic Middle Eastern "phrygian" modes and melody from the original Ellington/Tizol chart, but further enhanced with Clark's warm and tasteful blues, jazz, and country riffs in the solos, all set to a solid, driving, and unfailing Western beat.  Taken together, the performance warms my soul and inspires me to think of Mr. Clark differently than I ever had before, every time I watch the clip. 

Just listen to Mr. Clark's smooth blues riffs, particularly at 1:49, when Roy solos and The Buckaroos launch into a straight-ahead, up-tempo swing that would play just as well in any jazz setting today.  There is no filler, no fumbling, not a note out of place.  Everything flows and belongs there.  The phrasing is clean and tells a fantastic story. The Buckaroo rhythm section is in command and Mr. Clark is free to fly his magic carpet sound right overhead.

Listen again to the heartfelt blues riffs at the break (2:18), where it's just Roy and the drummer, and feel the infectious swing return for another dancing joyride at 2:38.  Marvel at how effortlessly The Buckaroos shift from a "Rawhide" Western two-step beat into straight-ahead swing, complete with a kick on the snare to cue everyone into each new phrase on-time. 

And finally, dig Mr. Clark's wailing cadenza at the end of the tune, which is nothing less than the blues at its best.  All told, the experience is tight and flawless, perhaps one of the best three minutes and thirty-three seconds of music out there. 

So why talk about Hee Haw and country music on a jazz blog?   First, because country music and jazz share a common ancestry.  Jazz is, just like country music, a rural storyteller's music!   Both are grandchildren of the blues and by that association are musical cousins. And finally, as stated before regarding a musician's education and skill, truly good musicians are not limited to only knowing how to play one particular style of music.  As listeners, we can learn to appreciate their talent for what it is, no matter what style of music they choose to present.

An additional bit of country music and jazz lore in closing: in the early 1950s, the alto saxophone legend, Charlie Parker, also known as "Bird", was often fond of dropping a nickel into the jukebox and listening to country music in diners while on tour. One day, one of the members of his band asked him why he, a hard-core bop musician, even bothered with listening to the whine, drivel, and simplicity of country music. Parker didn't miss beat and replied, "Just listen to the stories!"  In the case of hearing Roy Clark and The Buckaroos perform Caravan on Hee Haw, I have no doubt that Bird would agree, only this time, the stories are timelessly captured within the joy of the music itself.



Kathryn Ballard Shut
TIMKAT Entertainment
Denver, CO, USA

MySpace Music:
Album Sales on CDBABY:
GRAMMY365 Networking:

No comments: