Legendary multi-instrumentalist Roy Clark has owned a number of the first “consumer items” listed in this article’s subtitle, and he collects the latter two. Knowing that Clark is into aviation as well as classic instruments and vehicles would tend to make a conversation with the guitarist all the more intriguing.
And that was exactly the case when Vintage Guitar sat down with Clark prior to a recent concert. Clark’s exuberance for the guitar-oriented dialogue was evident, as he gestured at many times during the interview to emphasize a particular point; i.e., the country music veteran frequently played “air guitar!”
His 1994 autobiography, My Life: In Spite of Myself!, served as a basis for many of VG‘s inquiries about details, but our initial question concerned another story – one that had appeared in the electronic media:
Vintage Guitar: Since your autobiography was released, TNN aired a documentary called The Life and Times of Roy Clark. How did that come about?
Roy Clark: I saw one about Roy Acuff and one on someone else, and at the time I remarked to my wife it was a nice program; very entertaining and informative. Then they contacted me and since I had already seen those shows, I thought it was great!
They’re very thorough; they make them very entertaining. They have to condense things, but they keep the meat of the story.
Did you have any input in regard to production? Did you provide photos, for example?
Well, I’m sure the office did; a lot of that stuff is handled while I’m off somewhere tuning guitars (chuckles)! About all I had to do was sit and talk with an easygoing woman. In fact, I was impressed with the way she got my wife to talk. [She] also said that the interviewer had been so easy to talk to.
There was a minimal amount of interview footage but a lot of good documentary footage.
There was, and where they got it, I don’t know. I’ve been doing this a long time, so there’s apparently a lot of stuff out there. I just did George Jones’ show a few weeks ago, and they sent me a copy of it, and there was a little clip in there of me doing a show where Roy Acuff was the emcee, and Jerry Byrd was playing rhythm guitar while I was doing all of this garbage I used to do back then. I was fascinated because I had completely forgotten about it. It was a part of that series called “Good Ol’ Nashville Music.” I remembered the show, but I didn’t remember working with Roy Acuff.
What’s the latest on Branson?
I’m not a landlord anymore (chuckles). I’m either praised or considered guilty for building the first “celebrity” theater there; in other words, using people that were known nationally, as opposed to the theaters that were there prior to our theater. They had family shows with family members. Great entertainment, but they were only known in that part of the country. So we built this celebrity theater, and when I wasn’t there, we had Mel Tillis, Glen Campbell, Louise Mandrell, Barbara Mandrell, and most of them have built their own theaters.
We built in ’82 and opened in late ’83. Back then the season was May 1 to October 31. There were four of us involved in building the theater, and I didn’t think it would create enough revenue for four people, so I backed out of it after the first year, and I worked there. Then Jim Thomas, one of the original partners, talked me into buying it, which I did in 1990, and I sold it back to him in ’95, with the stipulation that I work there for two years, which was up this past year.
We’re going into a brand new theater that just opened last August – Loew’s Branson Town U.S.A. I’ve haven’t played there yet, but I’ve been in it; it’s a beautiful theater. They’ve dug down 30 feet, so when you walk in, it’s like walking into a ballpark – there’s the “playing field” down there, and there’s not a bad seat in the house. It’s got a big, nice stage, and I’m going to play 72 days there this year.
You noted in the book that you were an impulse buyer, and although you were referring to your airplanes, were you indicating that you’re the kind of guy who grabs a container of malted milk balls near the checkout line?
(laughs) Those are my favorites! Yeah, but I’m better than I used to be. I would get stuck by not paying attention to what I was doing. If I went to buy a car, they’d say, “Come back tomorrow; we’ll have it serviced by then.” But I’d say, “Aw, I’ll get that done myself; I want it right now.” But I finally got over that to a great degree.
Most of the stuff I acquire are things that have sentimental value. I collect cars, and almost all of [them] have had something to do with my life.
The reason I brought up your impulse buyer past is the photos in your book indicate it also may also have been applicable to your guitar purchases. For example, there’s a picture of you in 1951 with what appears to be a new Fender electric guitar.
That was a Broadcaster. When the Fender guitar came out around ’51, it was like nothing you’d ever had your hands on. Back then, I could not afford those high-dollar Gibsons, and most of the guitars I played had action a quarter of an inch high, which is good for building up chops, but not for continuous playing.
I was playing at a little club in Washington, D.C., and a Marine from California who’d just been discharged walked in with a Fender guitar and wanted to sit in with us.
Had you ever seen a solidbody electric before?
No, I’d seen pictures of Merle Travis’ Bigsby, but I’d never looked at one closely. That Marine let me play his Fender, and my Lord, when I put my hands on it, it practically played itself! They may have been all the rage in California, but I don’t think there were any in music stores in D.C. at the time.
I won a five-string banjo contest later on, and part of the prize was $500, so I bought a Broadcaster.
Another photo in the book shows you in ’52 with a goldtop Les Paul.
Yep, and I still have it.
There’s even a photo of you in a book on Gibson electric guitars that shows you around ’59 with a natural-finish Gibson ES-335. I also noted you were sporting an impressive set of ducktails (Clark laughs), but again, that guitar would just about have been a brand new model back then.
That was taken at Capitol Studios when I was recording my first album. I borrowed that guitar; someone had just stolen everything I had out of the back of my station wagon – my underclothes, boots, cufflinks, a Gibson Mastertone banjo, another ’52 Les Paul I owned, a trumpet – wiped me out. I was due to go out and record, so Smitty Irvin, the banjo player with Jimmy Dean, let me borrow that Gibson.
On the same trip, Leo Fender gave me a Jazzmaster, which had just come out. But I wasn’t used to it. I had it in the studio with me, but I played that blond Gibson, because I was a little more familiar with it.
I recall reading an interview with Mr. Fender one time, when they asked him about his favorite guitar players. He said, “Roy Clark; he plays the guitar the way a guitar should be played.” But at that time I was playing a Byrdland, and the guy interviewing him told him I played a Gibson. Leo said, “You can’t win ’em all,” and I thought it was so clever of him to come back like that. And Bill Carson was the guy who had the answers with Fender if you had a question about something.
One photo in your book is a bit of a paradox considering your acquisition of new solidbody electric guitars in the early ’50s: there’s a mid-’50s picture of you with the Jimmy Dean band, and you’re holding what appears to be a Gibson acoustic with a clamp-on McCarty fingerrest and two pickups built into the pickguard.
I was searching for something at that time, and I traded for that guitar; I’ve forgotten what I was playing before I traded for that one. It really didn’t fit for all of the stuff I was doing, so I didn’t have that guitar long. I don’t even remember the model.
When you toured with Ernest Tubb, was Billy Byrd his guitarist at the time?
Was Byrd playing his Bigsby?
That guitar’s in Tulsa right now (Clark, who resides in Tulsa, raises eyebrows). Larry Briggs has it, and we’ve displayed it at our booth at guitar shows.
I haven’t seen it since 1952! I’ll make it a point of going down and seeing it.
You played around D.C. for most of the ’50s, right?
Yeah, but when I won that banjo contest, the other part of the prize was that I got to go to Nashville, and I worked out of there. That’s where that picture of me with the Fender guitar was taken. I would go out on the road with Stringbean and Lonzo & Oscar, and we would play little theaters. Then, on a Friday, we’d go to a major city and join up with Ernest Tubb or Red Foley – the bigger stars – for the weekend. Then they’d go on their way and we’d go on ours until the next weekend.
When you ended up back in D.C., were you aware of players like Roy Buchanan or Danny Gatton?
I knew of them; Danny used to come out with his parents and watch me play. I read that in a write-up on him. Through the ’50s, and probably through the ’60s, D.C. was like no other town, because girls would come from all over [to work for] the government after they graduated from high school, and there were plenty of boys there, in the service. So every club was like a Saturday night; you’d have a packed house and there must have been 300 clubs with live entertainment.
Another milestone was playing the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas with Wanda Jackson. Does it still exist? Some of the older clubs have been demolished to make way for new ones.
It’s still there. Steve Wynn went into Vegas and…bought that whole block, which included the Lucky Strike – the one you see in every Vegas movie; it has the giant neon cowboy doing his hand like this (gestures with hitchhiking pantomime). He refurbished the Golden Nugget, and it’s incredible now.
Your buddy, Hank Thompson, considers himself a singer and arranger more than a guitarist.
But you ought to hear when he sits down and plays. He’ll surprise you!
Thompson recorded the very first live country at that venue. Was the Golden Nugget more oriented toward country acts?
I recall that album very well; Hank’s wearing a black suit with silver dollars all over it, and he’s standing in front of the Golden Nugget. Everybody played there. They had entertainment from 11 in the morning until eight the next morning. Bob Wills and Hank Penny were there. I wound up working with Penny later, but that performance with Wanda Jackson was the first thing I did when I left D.C. When I left Wanda, there was a short time when I was trying to get my bearings, to see what I really wanted to do, and Hank Penny got me to join his group. He didn’t really need me, and he was without a doubt the greatest entertainer I ever worked with. He was funny, but he was also a good musician and a good singer. He even did a baggy-pants routine with a funny hat.
And it was Hank who got me that Jazzmaster from Leo.
“Tips of My Fingers” was your first big hit. What did you think of Steve Wariner’s version in the early ’90s?
I thought it was great. And I keep thinking about the song; Bill Anderson wrote it, but it was on the B-side of something else his company was pushing, so I slipped in under that and had the first hit in ’63. Later on – and I don’t know if it was in this order – Jean Shepard had a hit with it, Eddy Arnold had a hit with it, Bill Anderson had a hit, then Steve Wariner. I mean, you could send your kids to college off the royalties from that one song (laughs)!
Another guitar veteran, Duane Eddy, told me how he admired folks like Wariner, Vince Gill, and Ricky Skaggs, who are good players, good singers, and good writers. That seems a more recent phenomenon, but you’ve been in that mode for a long time.
When I came along, you didn’t find that. You might find some performers like that in clubs, maybe, but if you sang you usually just played rhythm chords on guitar. And if you were a good guitar player, you played for a singer, backing him up. All the guys you mentioned are exceptional musicians, but all of them, to my knowledge, came up working in other bands until they had enough experience to go out on their own.
You endorsed Gretsch guitars in the ’70s, when it was a Baldwin-owned company. Some of their products were okay – I saw a photo of you playing what appeared to be a Country Club with a squared-off pickguard from those times. But there were some weird models introduced then, and the ’70s have been stereotyped as a decade when more than one major guitar manufacturer experienced quality control problems.
I even knew it at the time. My connection with them then was Shot Jackson. Shot was a dear friend of mine; he had a deal with Baldwin/Gretsch, and he made a lot of those guitars. There was actually a Roy Clark model that was like the Super Axe they made for Chet [Atkins], with a phase shifter built into it. They were gaudy looking, but they played good. I didn’t get any big money out of that endorsement, and the Roy Clark model was a Super Axe they changed a little.
I’m not going to mention the brand, but during that decade there was also a controversy concerning another ad where you were holding a flat-top acoustic. It turned out you hadn’t authorized it; the photo had been taken at a music store, as I recall. Do you remember?
Yes I do, vaguely. I don’t think it ever got as far as litigation, but they had to withdraw the ad because I did not okay it. In fact, I had an endorsement with another brand, and they called me and said, “Hey, what the deal?” So the two manufacturers got it straightened out.
A lot of photographs in the book were also in the TNN special, but one of the instruments in the special that’s not in the book is a (Gibson) Barney Kessel; its pickguard had been removed.
(pauses) Evidently that was a picture of me with a Barney Kessel that wasn’t mine; I never owned one (upon further review, the instrument in question appears to be a Ventura copy).
There’s a nice photo in the book of you and your dad in the midst of a lot of cars and guitars on display. I presume the picture was taken at your Branson theater.
That’s at Hugh Hawthorne’s museum in Richmond, Virginia. He’s got two of Richard Petty’s cars and he’s a big buddy of Richard’s, as I am. He also collects instruments. He’s got a couple of my old suits and a couple guitars I gave him.
I enjoyed your performance on TV some years ago with Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown – I’m 99 percent sure it was “Austin City Limits” on PBS –
…and y’all were playing “Caldonia.”
(still grinning) Yep!
…and he had this way of making his guitar “talk,” but he was doing some kind of gimmick with his voice at the same time. You looked like you were having a tremendous time, and Brown’s “technique” was quite different from Alvino Rey’s.
He does two licks; he goes up like this (gestures on imaginary guitar neck), and he calls that his “up-whip,” and he calls this (gestures in opposite direction) his “down-whip.” In fact, we cut an album together called Makin’ Music, and Steve Ripley (VG, July ’99) produced it. We did it in Tulsa; we just sat down in the studio and said, “What do you want to play? You know this one?”
That’s the way Ripley likes to record anyway; first-takes and “live-in-the-studio.”
Steve and I wrote one of the tunes that’s on there. He came in one night saying something about “Four o’clock in the mornin’, three nights in a row.” We made it up as we went along.
I use Finger-Eze, and while we were making the album, Gate saw me spraying it onto my guitar neck, and wanted to know what it was. I told him it was Finger-Eze, and it made my fingers slide easier. He said: “Lemme try some,” and after he sprayed it on, he did that “up-whip” of his, went off the end of his neck, and hit his hand on the guitar body. He got a towel and wiped it off, telling me: “Man, this stuff is dangerous!” (laughs).
He does his fingers like this (gestures), almost like a bass player, and he catches the strings with the side of his fingers, instead of using a pick.
One of the things that distinguishes your in-concert version of “Malaguena” is that you flat-pick it rather than finger-picking it.
A lot of the things I do are gimmicky kind of things, but I do less of it now than I used to. I was playing a club in Safford, Arizona one night; it was in a hotel and was called the Matador Room. It was just one of those nights where it seemed like you could do no wrong; everything was just “clickin’.” Two doctor friends of mine were sitting out in the audience, and they kept yelling “Play ‘Malaquena!'” This had actually gone on for more than one night, and on that particular night I was playing a Fender Jaguar…of all things to try and play “Malaguena” on (chuckles)! I had been messing around with it, but I had never put it together from beginning to end; I was just fascinated with the melody.
So I started playing it right then and there, and I played it almost note-for-note the way I play it now. But I’ve graduated to an Ovation 12-string guitar, which gives it a bigger sound. What I’ve always tried to do is emulate the emotion of the song, rather than technically fingerpick it on a gut-string guitar, which is probably the way it was conceived.
You noted in your book that there was also a specific performance that made you decide to play that song “straight” instead of “mugging” while you were doing it.
All of my comedy started from the fact that I never had that much self-confidence; I would laugh and cut up, so the audience wouldn’t think I was being too serious. But slowly but surely, I got more confidence, and one night some guy came up to me after the show and said I played “Malaguena” so well that I didn’t need to “mug” while I was doing it, and he was right, so I’ve played it “straight” ever since.
You participated in the George Lindsey benefit golf tournament and show in my hometown for a number of years. I’m aware that you have had your own celebrity tournament; is that still ongoing?
We still have one, but it’s not the one we had for 17 years in Tulsa for the Children’s Medical Center. For the last six years, we’ve had one in West Palm Beach, Florida. This year, they’ve moved it to Fort Lauderdale. The hotel can accommodate all of the players, and they have two golf courses right there at the hotel; you don’t have to worry about transportation back and forth. We do that for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.
Do you participate in any other charity golf tournaments during the year?
I do the Crosby in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and I’ve been going to one in Linton, Indiana for about 15 years that was the Phil Harris tournament. Since Phil passed away, I’ve sort of inherited the “caretaking” of it, but we still call it the Friends of Phil Harris tournament, and it pays for scholarships for kids that can’t afford to go to school.
Tell me about your Heritage signature model guitar.
You already know that Heritage is the old Gibson plant, and it has a number of people still working there who were with Gibson. My guitar is based on a 335, which Heritage calls the 535, but my guitar’s got a single cutaway. It has a maple neck, which makes it a little head-heavy, and I still do a lot of stuff onstage, so I can’t get comfortable with it. Although I used that on the album I did with Joe Pass, which was the last thing he did, I use an off-the-rack 535 with a mahogany neck as my main stage guitar. Heritage makes great instruments, and their quality control is A-l.
Other performance instruments?
I use a Gibson Byrdland as a backup, which I happened to find in a closet! Back when I was playing Gibson all the time, I was flying commercial airlines, and they would break a lot of my guitars, so Gibson and I were always sending guitars back and forth. One day, I was going through a closet, and I saw this guitar case. I didn’t recognize it, and when I opened it up, it was a Byrdland; I’d had it 17 years, and it still had the wrapping paper on it! Talk about a classic! It’s so expensive I’m taking a chance hauling it out on the road, so that’s another reason I prefer that Heritage, but the Heritage also has a softer sound at volume. Almost any guitar through any amplifier might sound great at low volume, but if you crank ’em up onstage, they’ll lose it. The maple-neck guitar also has a tendency to get a little “hard”-sounding at volume.
I also use a Takamine flat-top for some bluegrass stuff, the Ovation 12-string acoustic for “Malaguena,” and I also have two Ovation solidbodies – a Deacon 12-string, which we use on some Russian folk songs and “Somewhere My Love,” the theme from Dr. Zhivago. It emulates a balalaika. I also use a Preacher six-string.
I think Ovation’s original solidbodies from the ’70s were very underrated and quite innovative for their times.
I’ve been looking for a backup for the Deacon. I’ve had it forever, and I’ve sent it back to the factory twice, because the electronics have gone out. It’s all on a printed circuit; if one little thing goes wrong you have to replace the whole thing.
The next obvious segue would be to discuss your personal collection.
I never set out to do it, but I love old instruments and they’re a pain in the neck! What are you gonna do with ’em (chuckles)? You can’t afford to take them on the road.
The last thing I got was a 1939 D-45 Martin, that was given to me. [Interviewer whistles appreciatively.] I was raised in D.C. with the guy that owned it, so I’ve known that guitar all my life. I played all over Washington with Smitty Smith, who’d owned this Martin. When he passed away, he left it to his nephew, who is a monster guitar player named Doyle Dykes. He’s incredible. One night at a show I can’t remember where it was – the security guard said “There’s a guy here who wants to give you a guitar.” You get this a lot, and a lot of those guitars may have a lot of sentimental value, but may not be much of an instrument.
But when they walked around the corner, I saw the case, which had stickers all over it, including one from Miami Beach with palm trees on it like what you used to see on luggage. Doyle told me: “You grew up with this guitar, and I thought you’d like to have it.”
There was something sincere about him, and when I opened the case, and I knew what it was right away; I said: “That’s Smitty’s.”
He said: “Yeah, he left it to me.”
I just went to the Martin factory, and Martin IV said there’s only 91 of ’em. George Gruhn has a ’38 or ’39 up on his second floor.
The first guitar I ever got was a Sears & Roebuck; I saw it in a catalog and my dad got it for me for Christmas. It was $14.95. I don’t have that guitar, but my cousin got one at the same time. He was killed in a plane crash several years ago, and my aunt gave me his guitar, so I have a twin of the first guitar I ever owned.
The first good guitar I ever had was a D-18 Martin, and I still have it; my dad played it after I left home. I also have a 00-18 Martin. I have two Super 400 Gibsons, a ’36 and a ’38. I have an L-5, an L-7, and an L-10. I didn’t know they made an L-10; it’s rare.
Double-triangle inlay and checkered binding?
(Grins, flashes thumbs-up) You got it! That checkered binding was the only difference in the L-7 and the L-10, so when people found out they could get the same guitar for less money, the L-10 didn’t last too long. I bought mine from Shot Jackson, when he had his music store in Nashville. I told Chet Atkins I’d bought it, and Chet said the first good guitar he ever had was an L-10. He’s the one who told me about the binding and why it didn’t last. I’ve also got two old Gibson 12-strings and some Alvarezes.
What about electrics?
I’ve got a ’58 Stratocaster, two Leo Fender signature model G&Ls, a Fender 2000 pedal steel, a ’57 Twin amp. I bought a student model steel with matching amp from Benny Garcia, a great guitar player out of Oklahoma City; I think it dates back to 1945. I’ve got a bunch of Gretsches.
It really works on your head, because you know they should be taken care of; they should be played, but I’m between a rock and a hard place, because I can’t take ’em out on the road and subject them to temperature changes and possible shipping damage.
Have you got any future recording projects lined up?
There’s one that’s still in the works. Reader’s Digest takes a poll, asking their readers all over the world who of the older artists would they like to hear new music by, and I rated very high in their poll. Joe Allison, who was my record producer from the onset, got to talking with Reader’s Digest about the concept, but doggone if he didn’t have to have a triple-bypass heart operation, which didn’t take, and he was in the hospital four months. He’s just now back on the road to recovery, so that’s the next thing, once he recuperates.
I guess I need to ask if you’ve bought any more airplanes on impulse since the book came out.
(chuckles) I flew almost everywhere for 28 years, and just to keep my hand in it, I got a high-performance single-engine model, a Cessna 210. I can go cross-country in it if I have to. Every now and then I’ll take my airplane to a concert, but we’re on a circuit with this tour, so I’m on a bus.
I still have my old bi-wing Stearman, with two open cockpits, that I still get a kick out of flying.
Last year, you reached the age where you were fully-qualified for Social Security. I interviewed B.B. King shortly before his 70th birthday, and like Mr. King, my perception is that you won’t ever retire.
I can’t find a way to! I made the mistake about seven, eight, 10 years ago of saying that I was going to slow down. I said that in an interview, and people picked up on it; promoters said: “He’s gonna quit, so we’d better get him now!” And all of a sudden I was working twice as much as I had been (chuckles)! So I’m not saying that anymore; I’m going to keep my mouth shut.
I’ve played Lucille, by the way. It was at the Montreaux Jazz Festival; they had a country night and a blues night, and I was invited to play at both of them. Lonnie Brooks’ guitar had been broken by the airlines, and I had my Gretsch Roy Clark model, and Lonnie loved it, so he asked me if he could play it. I said, “But I won’t have one to play,” and B.B. said, “You can play Lucille.” And I said, “Awright!” (chuckles). Taj Mahal and a lot of other folks were onstage, and I leaned over to B.B. at one point and said, “Lucille ain’t actin’ right!” He said, “Just smack her one time; she’ll be alright!” (laughs).
I’ll never stop playing, but if you pull back, and you’re not visible, and you’re not accessible, the next thing you know, your fans are going to pick up and go with somebody else. So you’ve got to try to find some kind of happy medium, where you can do enough, but not too much.
But if you ever hear of an entertainer complain about being “tired,” he’s not complaining about playing; he’s complaining about living out of a suitcase, in a different bed every night.
Are you saying that’s more like “burnout” from the hectic lifestyle?
Yeah, the travel part. The travel part will start taking away from the performance part. It can sap your strength.
But I have a guitar next to my chair in the den, where we spend most of our time. I can come home after traveling for six months, and I’m not home very long before I reach over, pick up that guitar, and start picking on it – (pantomimes holding a guitar) – not really playing any tune; just picking on it. One time when I was doing that, my wife asked me “Don’t you ever get enough?”
And I said “No, I don’t. Not of this” (smiles).
Clark’s honors and awards are so numerous that to list them here would probably necessitate another monthly installment of this interview. He’s particularly proud of an elementary school in Tulsa that’s named for him, and such an honor goes to show that Roy Clark is not only a great guitarist, singer, entertainer, and songwriter, he’s also a great human being as well. And considering how detailed and fun VG‘s dialogue with the legendary picker was, “great conversationalist” would also be an appropriate term.
On June 14 Clark was awarded the Minnie Pearl Humanitarian Award at the 33rd annual TNN/Music City News Country Awards ceremony in Nashville. He was introduced by the previous year’s recipient, Reba McIntyre, who said, “Tonight’s Minnie Pearl Award is for how Roy, not the consummate entertainer, but Roy the person, deals with people – most importantly, with people who need help! Yes, Roy loves people, and they love him back.”
VG would like to thank Wayne Rader of the Ocean Opry (Panama City Beach, Florida) for his help obtaining this interview.
Additional commentary on Clark can be found in this month’s “Executive Rock” column.
Photo courtesy of Roy Clark. Clark brandishes a Baldwin-ear Gretsch during a 1979 appearance on the “Merv Griffin Show.”
This interview originally appeared in VG‘s Aug. and Oct. ’99 issues.