Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Oh, Henry!

Category: Birthday/Tribute

To Chet Atkins, he was simply "the best rhythm guitarist ever, period."

To Kenneth Burns, he was (jokingly) a "pet peeve."

To the world, he was Homer.

You're ready now, huh?
(Jethro Burns)

No, I'm Homer.
(Homer Haynes)

"Underrated" and "genius" are two words that are about to be worn out, especially in the music industry. People who've sold 100 million records and won multiple awards are called "underrated" and singers with one mediocre hit are called "geniuses." If you want to see the true definition of "underrated genius," look no further than the man born 89 years ago on July 27: Henry Doyle Haynes.

Homer, his gum, and the man who called
himself "Homer's mandolin player" in the
Second Fiddle to a Steel Guitar

Just how good was Homer Haynes? He met his lifelong music partner, Kenneth "Jethro" Burns, after being disqualified from entering an amateur contest at WNOX radio in 1932. That's right, the judge at the Knoxville radio station thought the twelve-year-old was a professional guitarist. (The judge had the same opinion of the mandolin-playing Jethro, who was a whopping four and a half months older than Homer.) Even at this young age "Junior" Haynes (so nicknamed because he and his father shared the same first name) was already a whiz on an instrument that, at the time, was almost as big as he was.

Did y'all get that? That was a j-o-c-k, joke.
(Homer Haynes)

Homer was a positive joy to watch play guitar. Country music historian Don Cusic accurately noted, "Homer had a chord for every word." Additionally, his rhythm playing was second to none. Many people, especially in modern times, may not understand the importance of a rhythm guitar player, or may misunderstand the concept of playing rhythm. When Homer and Jethro began their assault on music back in the 1930s, drums didn't exist in country music. Therefore, something had to provide the rhythm. (Bill Carlisle once said that early on the "drums" in his outfit amounted to putting a piece of paper between the strings and the fretboard of the guitar.) So, in essence, Homer was doing the work of two musicians: drummer AND guitarist. (In true Homer and Jethro fashion, I'll have to insert a joke here: hope he asked for double time from the union!) To say that Homer Haynes was the master of rhythm guitar is about as gross an understatement as one can make.

Here's how Jethro put it in the liner notes of the 1966 Homer & Jethro instrumental album It Ain't Necessarily Square:

I would like to say one thing in reference to my partner's guitar playing: he sure makes it easy for the solo man! Happiness is having a solo coming up and knowing the chords are gonna be right and the beat is gonna be steady, and for my money nobody does it better than my little bitty buddy!

In 1988 Fender Guitars showed what they thought of Homer's prowess. They issued a replica of the Stratocaster they custom built for him during the 1950s. They named it the Homer Haynes Limited Edition.

Why do you chew gum?
(Johnny Carson)

What else are you gonna do with it?
(Homer Haynes)

Ah, and there was his gum chewing. Why did he chew gum? I haven't found the real reason yet (if it was to keep his mouth moist while he sang or if it was just a prop), but let's face it -- it did provide comedy. He could walk and chew gum at the same time (actually, walk, play guitar, sing, and chew gum simultaneously), so that was one thing Jethro could never accuse him of lacking ability to do. Also, it looked funny. Sometimes Homer seemed more interested in his gum than in what Jethro was doing, and that was good for a laugh. One thing, however, is obvious: he missed a good advertising deal with Wrigley!

When we sing it sounds just like a cat and dog fight
But we don't sing for money, just for spite

(Homer & Jethro, "Jam-Bowl-Liar")

One more thing that has been sorely overlooked is something that might, at first glance, sound like a gag from the Homer and Jethro joke book. Henry Haynes had one of the absolute best tenor voices in country music. His overall vocal range was nothing short of remarkable. As the lead singer on most of Homer and Jethro's material the LAST thing Homer tried to do, in many cases, was show that he could sing well. Homer and Jethro's initial act, long before the parodies, was to perform pop songs in exaggerated, corny voices. However, Homer honed his voice at a very young age in the church choir, and he kept those vocal chops with him throughout his life. His performance on "I Love Your Pizza" (a parody of "Shenandoah") from Songs My Mother Never Sang is so good that it is worth whatever you have to pay to hear it. (Psst - e-mails are free!) His tenor work was superb on "Human Cannonball," the send-up of "Wabash Cannonball," and the opening verse of their rework of "My Darling, My Darling" from Homer & Jethro Fracture Frank Loesser or the classic "Cielito Lindo" from their days on King Records will put your chin on the floor when you hear just how well Homer sang and harmonized.

Homer in a 1960s Kellogg's commercial

Homer never ceased to amaze his audience -- and his partner. Jethro said that one of the classic Homer and Jethro live bits -- Homer interrupting Jethro's playing of "Fascination" during the instrumental break of "Let Me Go, Blubber" by singing, "She had nine buttons on her nightgown but she could only fasten eight" -- was something Homer improvised onstage one night, breaking everyone in the house up (including Jethro). His humor did not seem to have an "off" button as long as he had an audience for it (even if it was just the clerk doing the paperwork when Homer was checking in at his hotel, as Bill Anderson hilariously related in one of his books). Let no one misunderstand, however. Those jokes on stage were just that: JOKES. As with Jethro, offstage Homer was a devoted family man. His world revolved around his wife, Elizabeth, and their three children.

A heart attack claimed Homer's life just eleven days after his 51st birthday in 1971. The humor in modern acts isn't as funny or enduring as Homer and Jethro's material since he left us, and the rhythm guitar playing is nowhere near as good (as evidenced by an interview with a former mandolin student of Jethro's, who said Jethro had to completely re-learn songs because nobody could play rhythm the way Homer had).

As long as people need a good laugh, the remedy will continue to be Homer and Jethro. And, as long as people feel an urge to hear some great guitar work, the cure for that need will also be Homer and Jethro.

Happy birthday, Homer. Thanks for the laughs -- and that exceptional playing and singing.

1 comment:

Terry King said...

Beautiful tribute, Karen! Homer absolutely was THE rhythm guitar player. It is an overlooked element of music but hard to ignore when in the hands of the best. Thanks to Homer, I play close attention to the rhythm being played in any band.

I remember Homer as being oh so funny but also warm and soft spoken. He had a wonderful laugh and a beautiful smile. When I was little, our family went with Dad and Homer to Jackson Hole where they were playing. I was a fussy little kid and a picky eater and somehow Homer convinced me not only to try cinnamon toast but to eat the crusts! He also sat patiently backstage somewhere and listened to me struggle through "Norwegian Wood" on the guitar I got for my 10th birthday.

Happy Birthday, Homer Haynes!
With affection, Terry Burns King