Some things in this world cannot be explained.
Near the top of the list would be “Hee Haw.”
The TV critics held their noses and threw rotten tomatoes, predicting it would be dead before its first episode got off the air. The big-city scribes missed by a country mile.
Conceived by two Canadians, directed by an Italian-American from New York and taped inside a tiny Nashville television studio, “Hee Haw” produced a bumper crop of cornball comedy while sharing country music’s biggest stars with the nation. Middle America ate it up.
Along the way, this barnyard homage to “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” became the sixth-longest-running syndicated American TV show.
It began in the summer of 1969 as CBS’s replacement for “The Smothers Brother Comedy Hour.” Two years later, “the Tiffany Network” dropped the show in the midst of a rural purging. That led producers John Aylesworth and Frank Peppiatt to take their show to syndication, and, like the Energizer Bunny, it kept on running for a grand total of 585 episodes.
Filmed the first 11 years in the downtown WTVF-Channel 5 Studio, “Hee Haw” spent its final 12 years at studios in the Opryland complex. Now, 50 years later, it notches its golden anniversary Saturday.
“Hee Haw,” with its animated dancing pigs and a braying donkey and live hound dog, found a new home on The Nashville Network where it began Oct. 2, 1993, and started all over again in reruns. Now it has found its latest niche with RFD-TV (7 p.m. Sundays).
The cast, which could have filled a barn loft, was blessed with a blend of country comedic and music legends, like Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, Buck Owens, Roy Clark, Grandpa Jones, Archie Campbell, George Lindsey and Stringbean, and introduced the world to new funny faces such as Lulu Roman, Junior Samples, Gordie Tapp, Gailard Sartain, the Hager twins, and the bevy of Hee Haw Honeys (Gunilla Hutton, Lisa Todd, Misty Rowe, Jeannine Riley, Linda Thompson and Barbi Benton, among others).
The batch of memorable skits included the Culhane Family, the Moonshiners Cabin, the Joke Fence, Pfftt! You Was Gone, Archie’s Barbershop, the Naggers, the Schoolhouse, Junior’s Used Car Lot, the Haystack, Empty Arms Hotel, “Grandpa, What’s for Supper?” Advice to the Lovelorn, the All-Jug Band, Doc Campbell, the “saloot” to hometowns of special guests, Lulu’s Truck Stop, Kornfield Kounty Operator Assistance, the effen and hambone team of Jimmie Riddle and Jackie Phelps, jokes in the cornfield and Owens and Clark picking and grinning.
Starting in the Kornfield
It may be hard to believe, but the budget for the show was chickenfeed, costing $150,000 to $175,000 per episode. Cast members received $600 a show in the beginning and got $1,200 an episode when “Hee Haw” was at its peak. Guest stars received $1,000.
The inaugural musical guests on the June 15, 1969, program were Loretta Lynn and Charley Pride. The hundreds that followed would make up a Who’s Who of country music, and there was also a good measure of pop and gospel singers and superstar athletes. These included Dolly Parton, Ray Charles, George Jones, Roy Rogers, Johnny Cash, John Ritter, Sammy Davis Jr., Amy Grant, George Strait, Garth Brooks, Big Bird, Richard Petty, John Denver, Billy Graham, the San Diego Chicken, Mickey Mantle and Billy Carter.
Lulu Roman, who was there for the first and the final tapings and almost all of those in between, finds it hard to believe it has been 50 years.
“I can’t believe that I’m standing and looking in the mirror and it’s been 73 years,” said the comedian and gospel singer, who lives in Mt. Juliet and turned 73 on May 7. (She recently released her autobiography, “This Is My Story, This is My Song”.)
About that first day on the set, she laughed before saying, “I can remember thinking, ‘Lord, have mercy. What is this? This is a bunch of hicks.’ I was a hippie kid. I had no idea whatsoever and none of us had any concept of what we were doing. And then the newspapers all said that it was garbage and was going downhill as fast as it could roll.”
As for the best part about the experience for this Texan, who had been dumped at the front door of an orphanage at 4, she said, “It was like the whole United States became a family to me. It was different because I had never known that, and then suddenly everywhere I went, everybody was family. They would say, ‘Hey, Cousin Lulu.’ Pretty cool.”
Roman’s pal, Cathy Baker, was 22 when “Hee Haw” began. She had been hired by Channel 5 to paint the sets, thus she wore overalls on the job, which indirectly led her to becoming famous as the “That’s all!” girl.
“(Producer) Frank Peppiatt saw me in the cornfield painting, and it was his idea to hire me to be on the show. In June of 1969, when I was doing my first lines (reading cue cards), (director) Bill Davis said we were done. I said, ‘That’s all,’ and it became the tag line for the show,” Baker said.
Among her treasured memories of being there are her friendships with the senior members of the cast. “I cherish Grandpa, Minnie and Roy talking about their early years in show business. Their stories were often funny, sometimes sad, but always fascinating,” she said.
And she remembers the rollicking cast lunches that took place at the nearby Cracker Barrel restaurant, saying, “Grandpa introduced us to Cracker Barrel, and it was a regular stop for our one-hour lunch. The girls usually sat together, and I still long for their chicken and dumplings, catfish, and biscuits and gravy. To echo the refrain from ‘Grandpa, What's for Supper?’ ‘Yum, yum!’ ”
The musical magic
From a musical perspective, we hear from harmonica legend Charlie McCoy, who rode as trail boss over the “Hee Haw” instrumentalists, which included the best session players in Music City history.
“Being music director was like being session leader,” said McCoy. “We had great musicians so there was not much to do. Occasionally, the guest bands would come in with a boatload of egos, but we worked around them.”
One of his greatest pleasures was being a member of the show’s Million Dollar Band, also composed of Chet Atkins, Floyd Cramer, Boots Randolph, Danny Davis, Johnny Gimble, Jethro Burns and Roy Clark.
“The Million Dollar Band was first of all friends who I had worked with in the studios many times. This was one of Sam’s (Lovullo) great ideas, and at first, Chet seemed reluctant. After we started and it got rolling, he was all in. I get more comments about that spot than any other.
“The comedy was a lot of fun because many of the artists who came on were uncomfortable doing it. People must know how great all the Hee Haw Honeys were. They helped so much with people who were reluctant and made them feel comfortable. By the way, almost all ‘re-takes’ were not because of the Honeys. They were pros.”
Summing up his “Hee Haw” years, McCoy, said, “It was like a great big family reunion. Everyone was friends and so glad to see each other each time we gathered. About at the end of the month, when people were getting antsy, the taping ended. I spent so many happy hours there.”
For Roni Stoneman, the famous gap-toothed, banjo-playing musician/comedian, becoming a part of the cast helped her put bread on the table for her seven children. She credits her good fortune to God and Tom T. Hall.
“I did not have a job. I was hungry and went to a party, and Tom T. was sitting in the other chair in front of a big table full of food, and Tom says, ‘What’s the matter? You hungry?’ And I said, ‘Yes, sir. I am.’ He said, ‘Here, get some of this.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to,’ and he said, ‘I’ll sit with you,’ and he got a chair and sat it beside a table of food and filled my plate up,” recalled Stoneman, a member of the legendary Stoneman Family.
“He told me, ‘Right in there is Sam Lovullo, and John Aylesworth and Frank Peppiatt. Go talk to them.’ I told him, ‘I don’t want to go in there and interrupt.’ Tom T. grabbed me by the arm and pulled me in there and looked at them and said, ‘She is the one you need for ‘Hee Haw.’ She should be on the show.’ Sam said, ‘She is?’ and Tom T. said, ‘Y’all need her,’ and I’m just standing there.
“A year and a half later I had a chance to do a reading, and I went down to Channel 5. I was praying so hard for that job. Sam said to Gordie Tapp, ‘Take her on up to the Ramada Inn and read and if you say she’s OK, we’ll take her.’
“I so desperately wanted that job. I wouldn’t have to travel and could be with my kids. We went up, and Gordie said, ‘They want a skinny, mountain woman. He gave me a line to read, and I did a Ma Kettle voice: ‘Dad-blame-it! Sit down!’ And he said, ‘That’s what we want. That’s what we need.’ He told Sam, ‘She’s perfect.’
“Sam took me in, and for quite a while nobody mentioned my name. One day we played the banjo, and I knew Stringbean, and he said, ‘My little friend from woman’s lib, Roni Stoneman.’ Nobody knew how that felt to me. I felt like ‘I’m part of it.’ When he passed away, I took the place where he stood, and it made me feel sad because I felt a closeness to Stringbean.
“When I signed my first eight-year contract that was a happy day. I came into the dressing room and saw a sign with my name on it. It was such a blessing to get with the show and to be around people I knew, like Minnie Pearl. The girls, I thought they were smart, and I really respected them. We all had the same dressing room. It was fun. As time went on, we had a blanket lying on the floor and we had a baby lying on the floor, and then there were blankets full of babies. Children came and go, and later when grown up would sneak into the back of Opryland and be gone for hours. The girls were almost like my sisters,” Stoneman said.
The Hee Haw Honeys
Speaking of “the girls,” Irlene Mandrell first appeared on “Hee Haw” in 1984 and made merriment in dozens of shows up till the end in 1992.
“When ‘Hee Haw’ started, I was already playing drums for Barbara. I remember seeing the show and thinking, ‘Wow, that is so cool.’ Getting to be one of those girls, of being a Hee Haw Honey, was kind of a dream of mine,” said Irlene, who first guested on the show with sisters Barbara and Louise.
“I wasn’t an original Hee Haw Honey but joined the cast as a female comedian. I went in as the Kornfield Kounty operator, and then I was in skits in the cornfield. Being called a Hee Haw Honey was a compliment to me, and I became real close to a couple of them, like Misty Rowe and Victoria Hallman. I always felt like I was going from a family show (“Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters”) to another extended family show, and ‘Hee Haw’ was an easier show to do.
“Sam said, ‘You don’t get to see the scripts until we hold up the cue card.’ So, it was very easy. Mainly, you would go in there and have your hair done. I think this is why the show was so successful. There was the feeling like you were visiting friends. It was laidback and there was no stress,” said Irlene, who in recent years began her own recording career with an album, “Thanks to You,” a patriotic tribute to first responders and members of the military.
She also released a country single, “You Ain’t Nothin’ but a Heartache” on Reviver Records, which made the charts, and has plans to record “If It Turns into Love,” written by super songwriter Dennis Morgan.
And she has turned a journal into a book, “God Rains Miracles,” which she said is based on how miracles have been “pouring out around me all the time. It also has stories from my family and stories other people have shared with me. It’s all about God, family and country.”
As for the “Hee Haw” family, its youngest member, longtime fan Danny Forbes, wasn’t even born when they show hit the air but was adopted by the cast when he first came to Nashville in 1991.
“I grew up in Oceanside, N.Y., working at a feed and coal store and spent a lot of time in the country, so watching ‘Hee Haw’ was just a perfect match,” said Forbes, who placed second in a joke contest the show sponsored in 1988 and won a stuffed Shotgun Red doll.
“I had just finished high school and was a member of the fan club. The show’s audience by the late 1980s was getting older, and they loved it that a kid was watching. The fan club told them, ‘We got this kid coming.’ I was 18 and looked 13. They rolled out the red carpet for me, and they all wanted to take care of me.”
Describing his emotions in meeting the performers, Forbes said, “It was a dream come true. There was Linda Thompson. I thought I was going to die. And then I saw George Lindsey and Grandpa Jones. I couldn’t believe it. I was there and being treated with such respect. It blew me away. I loved ‘Hee Haw’ and they knew it. The girls became like my big sisters, and Sam was truly like a second father to me.”
The relationship between the “Hee Haw” producer and the young fan bloomed, and from 1993 to 2016, Forbes served as Lovullo’s assistant. His first job was to help Lovullo pack up his office and handle the remaining fan mail after the show closed in 1993. In 1996, he assisted the producer in promoting his memoir, “Life in the Kornfield.”
“I would visit and work on different benefits with him. I ended up learning so much, so when it came my turn to do “Country's Family Reunion: Salute to the Kornfield” for RFD-TV in 2011, I was able to use everything I learned from Sam,” said Forbes, 46, who has worked the past 13 years at the Country Music Hall of Fame.
In 2017, he and “Hee Haw” associate producer Marcia Minor co-produced and co-hosted Lovullo’s memorial tribute in Nashville.
“Sam kept in touch with everybody. He was always helping different ones. ‘Hee Haw’ never ended for Sam. It was his whole life’s blood till the day he died,” said Forbes.
Minor, Lovullo’s right arm, was born in Chicago and grew up in Los Angeles. Her introduction to the tiny TV studio in Music City was like going to another planet.
“My professional background was in business affairs at CBS Television Network right up until the time I walked on the set that first day of ‘Hee Haw’ —another universe — and got introduced to television production by way of the cornfield, haystacks and overalls — a far cry from the executive offices at CBS,” said the show’s associate producer.
In that role, she worked closely with Lovullo and the executive producers overseeing all the business details that included the production budget, cash flow, contract and residual administration, liaison with crew and cast members (travel and hotel accommodations, ground transportation).
As for Lovullo’s style of producing, Minor said, “Sam was producer in every sense of the word. He had eyes everywhere. There was not a detail that got overlooked. He put his heart and soul into every phase of ‘Hee Haw.’ And that enthusiasm carried over into all the projects he was involved with — benefits that he put together for country music artists to running the snack stand for his son’s Little League team. I worked with Sam for six years at CBS Television before there was a ‘Hee Haw,’ and his work ethic then was the same—give 100 percent of yourself.”
The last laughs
In the summer of 1993, when word came that “Hee Haw” was done for, the show was running in 160 markets and still drawing 3.5 million viewers. For the remaining cast members, it was not unexpected.
“We were all pretty shaken. We had kind of gotten wind it was a possibility it would be over. So, we were halfway sitting ready and halfway thinking surely they’re not going to do it,” recalled Roman. “It was very sad for us. We knew we were never going to see each other like we had for years and realized that real special time was pretty much done.”
Stoneman said what she missed most was with her pals.
“A lot of my friends are gone. I just turned 81. I have a young heart but still have a lot of energy. When I think of Roy Clark, Stringbean, Grandpa … I knew them well and all the other guys that are gone. I watch it on Sunday night. I feel sad when I see it sometimes. I was lucky to be part of that. What a blessing,” Stoneman said.
“That’s-all-girl” Baker said, “When the show ended it felt as if our ‘Hee Haw’ family had suddenly lost their home, and, after so many years together, it was hard not seeing the cast and crew every June and October. Our ‘Hee Haw’ family is still a family, only home is now and forever in our hearts and memories.”
Now, everybody sing along:
Entire cast: “We love the time we’ve spent with you to share a song and a laugh or too. May your pleasures be many, your troubles be few.”
Buck: “So long everybody!”
Roy: “We’ll see you next week on …”
Entire cast: “Hee Haw!”
MEET LULU ROMAN
“Hee Haw” star Lulu Roman will serve as the emcee of Stories & Strings for DREAMS: An Evening of Music, which begins at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, June 15, at the Capitol Theatre in Lebanon.
Entertainment starts at 7 p.m. and features songwriters Kason Lester (“American Idol”) and Kaylee Hill (“The Voice”) as well as country newcomer Ricky Cook and Grammy Award-winning singer Linda Davis.
Tickets are $25 for general admission and $50 for reserved table seating. All tickets include finger foods, entertainment, cash bar, event gift and premium silent auction.
The proceeds go to Empower Me Center, a nonprofit that provides programming for individuals with special needs in the Middle Tennessee area. To purchase tickets, go to empowermecenter.eventbrite.com/