On Saturday, January 3, 1998, Grandpa Jones performed as usual on the Grand Ole Opry. He had been on the show since 1946, when he first appeared as a member of Pee Wee King's band. After he finished, he went backstage and collapsed near Porter Wagoner's dressing room. His fellow performers gathered around him, all concerned for the 84-year-old Country Music Hall of Fame member. 'Pa, as he was affectionately known, looked up and quipped, "Well, at least it's good to know that I can still draw a crowd."
Louis Marshall Jones, known since the age of thirty as "Grandpa" for his "old man of the mountains" (per Billboard) sound, had suffered a stroke. Three days later, he would suffer a second, more debilitating, stroke that paralyzed him and, on February 19, 1998, took his life.
People of the Hee Haw generation basically know Grandpa Jones as the clawhammer banjo playing man who told everyone "what's for supper" ("Well I's gonna have beans and I's gonna have corn, and I's gonna have biscuits as sure as you're born, but I left the door open and Rattler 'n the pups snuck in the kitchen and 'et 'em all up"). As usual, when "best-known for" summarizes one's life in the obituary, there was so much more to 'Pa than that. He began on Lum and Abner in 1933, then moved to Boston (yes, that Boston) to work with Bradley Kincaid on the radio. He was able to support himself as "the young singer of old songs" throughout the Depression. After World War II he landed in Cincinnati, the hotbed of country music in the immediate post-War era. He joined WLW and secured a record deal with the first all-hillbilly record label, King. He teamed up with Cowboy Copas and recorded "The Steppin' Out Kind" and "You'll Be Lonesome Too" under the pseudonym the Sheppard Brothers (because their other employer, WLW, would fire any act who made a record), the record that bears the distinction of being King's first release. While on King he recorded songs that ranged from novelty ("Mountain Dew," which featured Jethro Burns playing mandolin on the original recording) to serious ("It's Raining Here This Morning," his first release under his own name). He also teamed up with other local-based talent to create a "supergroup" for the ages. With fellow King Records artists Alton and Rabon Delmore and a rotating bass singer of Merle Travis or Red Foley the Browns Ferry Four (named after Browns Ferry in northern Alabama that inspired the title of the classic Delmore Brothers song "Browns Ferry Blues") recorded nearly four dozen gospel songs that were, and remain, cherished in the world of country, bluegrass, and Southern gospel. The influence of the Browns Ferry Four followed 'Pa for the rest of his life, too: in 1994 he told me that the Hee Haw Quartet (Jones, Buck Owens, Roy Clark, and Kenny Price) was "just an attempt to imitate the Browns Ferry Four." The individuals who comprised the group are all in the Hall of Fame. Grandpa's honor came in 1978.
One of the worst things that ever happened to Grandpa was one of the worst things that could happen to any of us: on Sunday, November 11, 1973, he found the bodies of his dear friends Dave "Stringbean" Akeman and wife Estelle at their home. Stringbean, an avid fisherman (there is an etching of a fishing pole on his grave marker) and 'Pa were going fishing early Sunday morning. Instead, when Stringbean (a gifted clawhammer banjo player himself) returned home from the Opry on Saturday night robbers were waiting for him. Instead of just taking the money they murdered Stringbean then his wife as she tried to escape. Grandpa was the first at the crime scene the next morning. Although it was a targeted crime -- String was well-known to carry large sums of cash because, after suffering through the Depression he didn't trust banks -- 'Pa was scared by the murders. In 1979 he moved away from Nashville to Arkansas in order to feel safer. He kept an apartment in Nashville for his Opry appearances and Hee Haw tapings.
Hee Haw airs regularly on RFD. This week, make an effort to watch it and pay particular attention to the jocularity and musical brilliance that was Louis Jones.