"It's not that far from the old Shamrock," Roy Clark said, reflecting on his Kennedy Center dressing room as he slumped six feet of ample girth into a sofa chair, "but it's a long ways."
The Shamrock was only a mile or so away in Georgetown, a beer joint that was one of many local country clubs where Clark cut his teeth in the '40s and '50s. Now, as a star of country music and television, he was here to appear with the National Symphony Orchestra in a benefit for the National Hospital for Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation in Arlington.
It was only the second Washington appearance in 15 years for the cohost of "Hee Haw," and he was reminiscing about the old days at clubs like the Famous at 12th and New York, Waldrip's on Rhode Island Avenue, and many others.
"It's hard to explain to anyone how hot this town was then," he said. "There must have been 2,000 clubs, and each had a band. And good musicians came out of this town, an awful lot of good ones congregated here, for whatever reason. The military, the girls that worked for the government--it was a natural combination. Every club was packed, every night was Saturday night."
Though he was born in Meherrin, Va., about 65 miles south of Richmond, Clark moved here with his family when he was in grade school, eventually graduating from Chamberlain Vocational High, where he was best known as the class clown and for hitting a home run in venerable Griffith Stadium during a scholastic championship.
He's also remembered by those who knew Washington as one of the major country music centers in America. That, of course, takes some remembering.
"We moved here in 1941 to a government housing project in Southeast. One block from where we lived was the Maryland line--and there was a pig farm, right there. It's hard to believe now, but you could smell it at the Capitol."
"It's unreal that up against the front door of the White House was this very rural America. Look at the bluegrass pickers who've come out of here. We sort of took it for granted because there were so many good ones around--like Charlie Waller and the Country Gentlemen. They're an institution! And I used to pick with Charlie in the parking lot up at 14th and Park Road!"
Picking was natural to Clark. At age 3, he'd come across his father's tenor banjo, assumed it was a drum, and battered what he should have plucked. Dad set him straight, and built him his own instrument--a cigar box with a ukelele neck and four strings. When he turned 14, his parents bought him a Sears Silvertone guitar. By the time he was 15, Clark had won the first of two consecutive Country Music Banjo Championships in nearby Warrenton.
In 1949, at the age of 16, he started his apprenticeship in Washington night clubs, playing guitar behind a single fiddle.
"I never had any goals or dreams of being famous and a millionaire by the time I was 18. I could look at the Hank Williamses of the day, but I was too happy and content playing at that time in my life."
Clark was also busy learning as much guitar as he could from Washington pickers. "They'd say, 'Here comes the kid.' I'd sit down right in front, say 'How'd you do that?' The best teachers were available to me and I probably took as much advantage as I dared. But everybody shared.
"I never wanted for a job. They always called on me because there was not a lot of guys who sang back then."
That was especially true on the many live radio shows that featured country music. "They'd say, 'Get the kid on 'cause he can sing.' They had a lot of musicians--fiddle players and stuff like that. But no banjo players. It hadn't hit yet. I got in on the first wave. That's how I won the contest in Warrenton--I grinned, kicked my feet and was one of two banjo players, and they said, 'Give it to the kid!' "
At about the same time, Clark took advantage of his heft (he'd been made to sit in the back of his classes so he wouldn't block the view of smaller kids) to carve out a niche as a boxer. Went 15-1, with Goldie Ahearn booking him into Baltimore, Philadelphia and other spots. "I had no training but great desire and great hopes," Clark said. "But I ran into a guy one night who was very serious and I decided I was going to play more guitar."
Clark's down-home, corn-bred humor got its start here as well. Ironically, he may be better known for it, especially as evidenced on "Hee Haw," which is now in its 16th year.
"It let me get away with things until I had some confidence," he said. "I don't have any formal training. I don't read music at all--and I don't say that proudly. I'd play 'Malaguena' and half-way through I'd make a face and start laughing, lest someone was to laugh first. It hurt. It took years before I could do anything serious."
Even before "Hee Haw," Clark was a veteran of the tube ("been on longer than Bob Hope," he said proudly). He did his first show in 1947, "The Hayloft Conservatory of Musical Interpretation," and worked with Jimmy Dean on "Town and Country Jamboree," the first nationally televised country music program (it came out of the Harrington Hotel). The Dean association lasted several years, until the sausage king fired Roy Clark for being perpetually tardy.
"I'd start off at the last minute to get to the TV station or radio station and if a kid stepped off a curb, I was late, it was that critical. I was always borderline and he took it longer than anyone could and finally let me go. We never had any ill feelings even then, but it woke me up."
Clark went on to become a television perennial, appearing on hundreds of shows, even hosting the "Tonight Show" on occasion.
"Hee Haw," which he hosts with Buck Owens, went on CBS in the summer of 1969. "Took the Smothers Brothers' place when they had that falling out. Nobody expected it to do anything," Clark said, but it did stay on the air until new program managers came aboard in 1971 and decided to change the CBS image. "They had bunched 'The Beverly Hillbillies' which Clark appeared on, too, as both Cousin Roy and Big Mama Halsey , 'Green Acres' and 'Hee Haw' on Tuesday night, then said, 'Hey, that's two hours of rural,' and let 'em all go."
The show's producers decided to keep it alive and "Hee Haw" is now syndicated in 30 more stations than it was when it was on CBS. "I've told everybody I've grown old with that show," Clark said, "but I could have grown old without it."
Either way, he's grown ridiculously rich. He has a 37-room mansion near Tulsa (he only moved away from Davidsonville, near Annapolis, in 1976), several planes, a collection of antique cars and the inevitable Roy Clark Celebrity Golf Tournament. But there's also the generosity that's led to the Roy Clark Elementary School in Tulsa, the Roy Clark Airport in Skiatook, Okla., and the Roy Clark emergency wing at Southside Community Hospital in Farmville, Va.
And someday, maybe a Roy Clark Big Splash. Clark and some other investors are hoping to develop a $150 million racecourse resort in Oklahoma ("I had horses racing at Bowie, Laurel and Pimlico for 15 years"). It will include a golf course, family resort and water park.
"In case people someday say 'we've heard enough' of my picking, I want not to be on welfare," he said, straight-faced.