Tuesday, February 03, 2009

If Jethro Were Here

Category: Tribute

This is the greatest mandolin player in captivity.
(Chet Atkins)

It's time to have a few laughs with Jethro.

Jethro and his "anemic little partner" Homer,
from the 1964 Corn-Fucius Say Joke Book

The history of the mandolin was forever changed on March 10, 1920, the day Kenneth Charles Burns was born. In fact, Jethro Burns' talent was so immense that today, twenty years after his death, he still occupies three of the top five spots on the list of "best mandolin players ever" -- including number one.

We are Homer and Jethro, the Everly Brothers of the Stone Age. This little fella is Homer. My name is...Jethro. And, we're not brothers. My brother is living.
(Jethro Burns)

It's sad to say that this incredibly gifted man seldom got the respect due him during his lifetime. Certainly very few musical accolades came from country music, where he made his best-known impact. It's even sadder to say that since his death Jethro has, by and large, been cast aside to the scrapheap of forgotten country performers of the past. And the man is a Grammy-winning Hall of Famer!

For a Hall of Fame duo, Homer and Jethro are horribly under-represented with commercially available material. Only one Bear Family CD (Homer & Jethro Assault the Rock 'n' Roll Era) and a Razor & Tie compilation are available from an act that released nearly three dozen albums. Nothing looks to change, either. In 2007, Bear Family founder Richard Weize received an award at the International Country Music Conference. After the luncheon I asked him if he had ever considered putting out a box set on Homer and Jethro. I did not even get "and Jethro" out of my mouth before he began shaking his head. "No," he replied. "I'd lose money."

Her teeth were like the stars above because they come out every night
(Homer & Jethro, "Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyeballs")

Why should there be a box set on Homer and Jethro? First, they were hilarious. It is amazing how well their humor holds up. While they wrote original songs, it is their slew of "#2" songs that Homer and Jethro are best remembered for. They did not invent the parody, but they certainly perfected it. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine modern acts like Weird Al Yankovic, Pinkard & Bowden, and Cledus T. Judd or older acts like Don Bowman and Ben Colder (the alter ego of Sheb Wooley) having careers (as opposed to being one-hit novelty knock-offs) without Homer and Jethro paving the way for them. Therein lies the second reason for putting their material out: in terms of comedy acts, there's Homer and Jethro, and then there's the people who copied them. Richard Bowden said that he considered it "quite the compliment" when Pinkard & Bowden were labeled "the Homer & Jethro of the 80s" upon release of their first album.

You look clean, but you laugh dirty.
(Jethro Burns)

While Homer and Jethro's influential comedy is generally ignored today, the thing that is even less discussed anymore is the musicianship of these two men. Therein lies the truly criminal part of forgetting Homer and Jethro's legacy. As difficult as it might be to superficially accept, those two men could sing. They certainly never intended to sound good as part of their comedy act; however, when people can sing well they cannot hide it forever. Listen closely (such as on "Human Cannonball," their parody of "Wabash Cannonball"), and you will hear some very good harmonies. Beyond their singing, they were not just comedy cornballs, they were masters of their instruments. They did a number of instrumental albums under their own names, as the "Country All Stars," and with Jethro's brother-in-law Chet Atkins as the Nashville String Band. They put down their jokes and picked up their instruments, and the results were astounding. With the mandolin stereotyped as an instrument for bluegrass or comedy, people either forgot or ignored the fact that Jethro could play anything on that instrument: blues, rock, jazz, pop standards, country, or classical. The duo launched into a great version of "C-Jam Blues" on At the Country Club and provided marvelous renditions of classics such as "Tico Tico" and "Take the 'A' Train" on Playing It Straight and It Ain't Necessarily Square, respectively.

You may have gathered by now that we are the juvenile delinquents who grew up to be dirty old men. We don't apologize for it, we just enjoy it.
(Jethro Burns)

Jethro was partnered with Henry "Homer" Haynes for 39 years. When Homer suffered a fatal heart attack on August 7, 1971 before a scheduled performance in Hammond, Indiana, it left Jethro in a deep funk. Jethro stayed near his suburban Chicago home and gave mandolin lessons. However, he would soon find a new partner in a longtime fan. While visiting his son John, a guitarist in the Chicago folk and rock scene, backstage after a show, the 6'1" Jethro found himself cornered by a 5'2" folk singer who was alternatively quoting Homer and Jethro songs and saying how he could not believe he was in the presence of the great Jethro Burns. The singer was Steve Goodman, who had been performing Homer and Jethro songs onstage before he had written one of his own. He asked Jethro to join him on tour dates. Jethro suddenly had
a new career and -- finally -- the respect he was due for the musician he was.

We've done just about everything that two itinerant musicians can do without getting put in jail. And we didn't miss that too far!
(Jethro Burns)

Jethro found Chicago Shorty to be an equal in humor and musicianship (although Goodman frequently denied the latter when introducing Jethro to the crowd, once being booed by his own fans because he differentiated between himself as a "songwriter and banger" and Jethro as a "legitimate musician"). Stevie and Jethro delighted Goodman's audiences and record buyers for a dozen years. Conventional wisdom would have kept a man striving for commercial success in pop music from recording and touring with a "country" musician old enough to be not only his father but the father of most of the people in the audience. However, much like Jethro there was nothing conventional about Steve Goodman. He never failed to acknowledge his musical heroes, and Jethro Burns was certainly at the top of his list.

Jethro and Steve Goodman sharing
a laugh on
Jethro & Friends, 1984

Jethro again found himself without a musical partner when Goodman lost his 16-year battle with leukemia on September 20, 1984. At Goodman's tribute concert Jethro said the time he spent working with Steve had proved to be more enjoyable than his time with Homer. Choosing an era of his career that lasted just twelve years over a far more commercially successful one that spanned four decades might seem odd, but Jethro had a good reason. In the time they had spent together, Goodman had succeeded in presenting Jethro to the world not merely as half of a country cornball act but as Jethro Burns, "the premiere mandolin player in the world" who "also happens to have Jack Benny's comic timing." The audience Goodman attracted -- people near his own age (20s and 30s) -- may have had little to no knowledge of Homer and Jethro's career, so they had to accept what they saw, and what they saw was a man who could make a mandolin talk, sing, scream, and jump through hoops.
There is nothing egotistical about wanting to be recognized as "good" on one's chosen instrument, and Goodman made certain that Jethro's mandolin playing was squarely in the spotlight.

After Goodman's death Jethro continued making albums on his own and with others as well as performing with his Jethro Burns Quartet. He also ventured to Nashville occasionally to play in Hee Haw's "Million Dollar Band." In his 60s, at a time when most performers are forgotten or retired, Jethro Burns was a hot ticket, even as cancer slowly deteriorated his health.

Jethro passed away from prostate cancer on February 4, 1989, just over a month shy of what would have been his 69th birthday. Over his 56-year career he made a tremendous amount of incredible music, most of which inexplicably sits gathering dust in RCA's vaults somewhere.

One thing this world could use right now is a good laugh. NOBODY in country music provided more of them than Homer and Jethro. These men should not be forgotten, which is why I've started writing a biography on them. The tentative title is We Can't Sing and We Ain't Funny: The World of Homer and Jethro.

And if I ever win the lottery you'll know it immediately: Homer and Jethro's discography will no longer be out of print.


Rev. Spike Beasley said...

Great article! I look forward to the book. I even learned a thing or two from the article.

Have you considered Lulu.com for starters?

If you need a graphic artist I can audition some covers. (Too many people either slapdash something together and look like a soccer-mom with her first computer, or stick a bunch of effects up and look like a 13-year-old with his first computer).

- Cuzzin' Spike (Founder of "The Homer & Jethro Musical Preservation Society".)

Anonymous said...

I heard an instrumental version of "Take Me Out To The Ball Game," on the old Larry King radio program 20 years ago or so. I thought it was Homer and Jethro, but maybe it was Goodwin and Jethro? At any rate, does anyone know where I can get this recording? It just knocked me out.

Kevin Paulk said...

Truer words were never spake. I'm a huge Homer & Jethro fan, especially their picking. Yes, they were funny. (I recently bought a copy of the At The Country Club LP on eBay, but I haven't played it yet.) But I love their musicianship. Thanks for posting this. It's good to know I'm not alone in my appreciation for Homer & Jethro.

Randall the Record Restorer said...

Take Me Out To The Ballgame was Goodman & Burns. Thanks for more info on a great and talented gentleman. I have 14 of their LP's and always looking for more. My favorite LP is "At The Covention" Riotous !, I also have the "Aint Necessarily Square" a musical treat. RCA/Sony execs, shame on them. There are now 3 CD's out of there material, but I agree WHOLEHEARTEDLY a box set is due !.