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Roy Clark, country star who hosted ‘Hee Haw’ variety show, dies at 85

“Hee Haw” co-hosts Roy Clark, right, and Buck Owens perform during a taping of the show in 1986. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

Roy Clark, a virtuosic guitarist who became an international emblem of country music as the host of “Hee Haw,” the long-running cornpone variety show, and who recorded crossover hits such as the pop ballad “Yesterday, When I Was Young,” died Nov. 15 at his home in Tulsa. He was 85.

The cause was complications of pneumonia, according to a statement from his publicists, Sandy Brokaw and Jeremy Westby.

While Mr. Clark often performed with the banjo, fiddle and mandolin, he was best known, as a musician, for his guitarwork. Flashy and quick-fingered, he was as adept on flamenco standards such as “Malagueña” as on the ragtime classic “Twelfth Street Rag,” applying a western twang to songs that ranged far outside the country canon.

His biggest mainstream success — “Yesterday, When I Was Young” — written by pop balladeer Charles Aznavour — reached No. 19 on the Billboard pop chart in 1969 and featured strings and an orchestra alongside Mr. Clark’s guitar. Among the song’s biggest fans was baseball player Mickey Mantle, a longtime friend of Mr. Clark’s, who asked him to perform the track at his funeral.

Sales figures largely failed to capture the significance of Mr. Clark to country music, where he was a dominant, charismatic figure for half a century, with a wide smile and a personality so warm that Bob Hope was said to have told him, “Your face is like a fireplace.”

Raised in Washington, he performed with jazz, rock and so-called “hillbilly” groups at local clubs, and appeared on singer Jimmy Dean’s country television show before being fired for habitual tardiness, according to a 1984 account in The Washington Post.

Mr. Clark went on to become a staple of Vegas showrooms, helped turn Branson, Mo., into a live music destination, and performed at leading venues such as Carnegie Hall in New York and the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, the country music mecca where he was enshrined as a member in 1987. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2009.

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Roy Clark, still pickin’ and choosin’, remembers his early days in Washington

For many listeners, however, Mr. Clark was a television fixture who only sometimes graced the stage. A self-described “token bumpkin,” he filled in for Johnny Carson as a guest host of “The Tonight Show,” played recurring characters on “The Beverly Hillbillies” sitcom and, beginning with the show’s premiere in 1969, co-hosted “Hee Haw” with Buck Owens, a singer who pioneered country’s rough-eged Bakersfield sound.

Created as a countrified version of the comedy show “Laugh-In,” “Hee Haw” originally aired on CBS but was canceled after two years in what became known as the “rural purge,” when down-home shows such as “Green Acres” were canned in favor of programs that purportedly appealed to a younger, more sophisticated demographic. Picked up in syndication, it ran on more than 200 stations until 1992, and continued on in reruns.

Mr. Clark served as a host for the entire series, while Owens — who later dismissed the program as a “cartoon donkey” — left in 1986.

A source of corny jokes as well as musical flair, Mr. Clark frequently performed a “pickin’ and grinnin’ ” routine, playing the guitar while maintaining a light comic patter he had developed in grade school as a means of getting out of trouble.

Wearing overalls or a cowboy shirt, with one of “those pork chop hairdos that look like it grew out of my ear,” he played alongside musicians including Owens, banjo player Grandpa Jones and singer Kenny Price, with whom he formed the Hee Haw Gospel Quartet, and performed with members of “Hee Haw’s” Million Dollar Band, a supergroup that featured artists such as guitarist Chet Atkins, pianist Floyd Cramer, saxophonist Boots Randolph and fiddler Johnny Gimble.

More enamored of the program than Owens, Mr. Clark likened “Hee Haw” to a family reunion, one that extended from the stage into the audience and out to the living rooms of TV viewers around the country. “The viewers were sort of part owners of the show,” he told the Associated Press in 2004. “They identified with these clowns, and we had good music.”

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Roy Linwood Clark was born in Meherrin, Va., on April 15, 1933, and grew up near a pig farm in Southeast Washington. His father, a laborer who later worked for Department of Health, Education and Welfare, played the guitar, fiddle and banjo in a square-dance group, and took him to performances by military bands and the National Symphony Orchestra.

“I was subjected to different kinds of music before I ever played,” Mr. Clark once said. “Dad said, ‘Never turn your ear off to music until your heart hears it — because then you might hear something you like.’ ”

Roy was 14 when he got his first guitar, and within a year was playing with his father at country-western shows. Nonetheless, his early ambition was to become a prizefighter, according to his autobiography, “My Life — In Spite of Myself!” written with Marc Eliot. That began to change around the time he “saw some nasty, terrible, mind-boggling brawls,” he wrote. “I saw eyeballs laid out on a guy’s cheek. I saw people hit in the face with a full beer bottle. . . . So I backed down from fights.”

Reports vary on whether he graduated from high school, but he took up regular gigs at bars and roadhouses such as Strick’s. After winning a five-string banjo competition in Warrenton, Va., he was given a chance to perform at the Grand Ole Opry.

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Mr. Clark later toured with Jones, the banjo player, and appeared on television programs including “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” before receiving an invitation in 1960 to join rockabilly and country singer Wanda Jackson in Las Vegas.

The gig, and an ensuing national tour, launched him to prominence and helped him land a record deal with Capitol Records, with whom he recorded his 1963 debut, “The Lightning Fingers of Roy Clark.” The album featured rollicking electric-guitar instrumentals, including “Texas Twist,” and it was followed that same year by Mr. Clark’s first hit song, “The Tip of My Fingers,” written by country singer Bill Anderson.

His other country hits included “Come Live With Me,” which topped the Billboard country chart in 1973, “Somewhere Between Love and Tomorrow,” “If I Had to Do It All Over Again,” “Honeymoon Feelin’ ” and “I Never Picked Cotton.” He won seven Country Music Association Awards and in 1982 received a Grammy for his instrumental cover of the standard “Alabama Jubilee.”

Amid the success of “Hee Haw,” Mr. Clark toured the Soviet Union, bringing country behind the Iron Curtain in the mid-1970s, and starred in the Western comedy “Uphill All the Way” with singer Mel Tillis.

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He also performed with the Boston Pops Orchestra and cut records with musicians including blues guitarist Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown (“Makin’ Music,” 1979) and jazz guitarist Joe Pass (“Roy Clark & Joe Pass Play Hank Williams,” 1994).

Survivors include his wife of 61 years, Barbara Joyce Rupard; five children; a sister; and four grandchildren.

While Mr. Clark’s musicianship and technical abilities were sometimes overlooked by critics who saw only the hayseed star of “Hee Haw,” he said he had few regrets about his career path.

“I know in my heart where I rate among the great guitar players like Merle Travis and Chet Atkins and Les Paul, people who put all their efforts and talents into learning their instruments and didn’t work at anything else,” he told The Post in 2001.

“But I’ve seen too many great guitar players sitting unnoticed on a stool in an orchestra,” he continued. “I said, do I want to be there, playing great and nobody knows it, or do I want to be out front with the lights on me, giggling and laughing, playing guitar and rolling my eyes and they say ‘Golly, this guy’s great?’ ”

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