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Grandpa Jones
October 20, 2012 7:23 AM   Subscribe

He won't win any accolades for subtlety or refinement, perhaps, but he was a beloved entertainer who stomped his feet and threw himself wholeheartedly (and very, very energetically) into every tune he ever performed, from the early days of country radio to the Grand Ole Opry to television's Hee Haw series. I'm talking about Louis Marshall "Grandpa" Jones. Today's his birthday, so why not drop in on some of the Grandpa performances on offer at ye olde YouTubes, such as Good Old Mountain Dew, Night Train To Memphis, Are You From Dixie or The Kickin' Mule. When he wasn't hamming it up for the camera, though, his vocal performances were often much more varied and accomplished. Check out, for example, his delivery and vivacious yodeling on T For Texas. And here he turns in a solid, honest version of the great Merle Travis classic, Dark As a Dungeon

Grandpa Jones was, you might say, cut from the same cloth as banjo-plucking hillbilly novelty act Stringbean and the two men were very close friends Interestingly, Jones's testimony at the trial of Stringbean's killer proved crucial in delivering a guilty verdict. Here's Jones's tribute to Stringbean.

Grandpa Jones previously.
posted by flapjax at midnite (34 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite

 
Grandpa picks the banjo in the very-old-school clawhammer style. Not as flashy as the more modern rolling picking, but still harder than it looks.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 7:30 AM on October 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Grandpa picks the banjo in the very-old-school clawhammer style.

Clawhammer rules.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:31 AM on October 20, 2012


Hee Haw had a lot of great music on it, and Grandpa Jones was part of all that.

This is a great post, which has me rediscovering something from my childhood with fresh adult eyes. Thanks so much for posting!
posted by hippybear at 7:40 AM on October 20, 2012


Hey Grandpa...What's for supper?
posted by 445supermag at 7:42 AM on October 20, 2012


HOLY SHIT THIS RULES
posted by Greg Nog at 7:43 AM on October 20, 2012


Phew! When I saw Grandpa Jones' name in a FPP I thought he was dead.
posted by mazola at 7:49 AM on October 20, 2012


Phew! When I saw Grandpa Jones' name in a FPP I thought he was dead.

He died in 1998.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:50 AM on October 20, 2012


He's been dead since 1998.
posted by hippybear at 7:51 AM on October 20, 2012


1995, my parents took their young metalhead to Opryland and a show at the Grand Ole Opry. The two things I remember from that show were the numerous jokes about some country musician who stuttered (can't remember who it was, as I know very little about CBG music) and Grandpa Jones.

I recall a song called Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road (I think that's what it was called) and a joke he told:

"I came from a family of 12 siblings, thanks to my mother's hearing problem. (Beat) At night my dad would say 'You sleepy, or what?' And my mom would turn her good ear to him and say 'What?!'"
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 7:54 AM on October 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Bathtub Bobsled:

The stutterer was probably Mel Tillis.

And Dead Skunk in the Middle of the road is a Loudon Wainwright song. Grandpa wasn't too old to go pop, apparently.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 8:01 AM on October 20, 2012


Speaking of stuttering, let's pay a quick visit to Willlie Dixon!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:05 AM on October 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


...me rediscovering something from my childhood with fresh adult eyes.

Same here; I have fond memories of watching Hee Haw with my parents way back when.

Dark As A Dungeon harkens back to a time when country (and western!) music actually reflected the lives of the people it purports to depict; it is unfortunate that it has become either pop music dressed in rhinestones or jingoistic crap that seems specifically written to be played for tea-baggers (link to Lee Greenwood intentionally omitted here). I get a little misty-eyed when I hear Johnny Cash sing it; Merle Travis also wrote another classic coal mining song, Sixteen Tons.

Thanks for this excellent post!
posted by TedW at 8:13 AM on October 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


My favorite version of Dark as a Dungeon remains the first one I ever heard, back in the 70s, as a young man in Birmingham, Alabama, on a record that was quite popular with the folks I was hanging out with back then. This one.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:20 AM on October 20, 2012


I have the Bear Family set for Grandpa Jones. It's terrific.
posted by dobbs at 8:21 AM on October 20, 2012


Thanks, flapjax, again you got me started down a road of listening. I remember Grandpa Jones well; my dad and grandparents listened only to irish music and what I thought at the time was 'corny' country music. They never missed Hee-Haw. There's a lot of overlap with the love of pathos and fiddle.

Just got started with Merle Travis, which will see me thru the rest of the housework, thanks!
posted by readery at 8:22 AM on October 20, 2012


Grandpa was a fitting name for someone who was his own grandfather.
posted by 445supermag at 8:26 AM on October 20, 2012


They have all Gone Home except for Roy
posted by Sailormom at 8:29 AM on October 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I live just a mile from where his banjo was stolen! (it wasn't me).
posted by sourwookie at 8:37 AM on October 20, 2012


Come on, sourwookie, 'fess up.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:44 AM on October 20, 2012


Love love love Grandpa Jones. He's a true country great. Did you know he was an MP in WWII?

Here's my favorite, Mountain Laurel.

And who could forget his classic "washing the empty window pane" bit on Hee Haw? That's outRAGEous!

Bonus Round: Here's my favorite version of Dark As A Dungeon (Merle Travis playing and singing on youtube).
posted by Aquaman at 8:55 AM on October 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I looked for years for a song my mother used to sing to me as a child...I finally found it in a Grandpa Jones box set: Somewhere, Somebody's Waiting So lovely!
posted by treasure at 9:11 AM on October 20, 2012


Of course, Grandpa's life wasn't all pickin' and grinnin'; there was also gloom, despair, and agony.
posted by TedW at 9:29 AM on October 20, 2012


My favorite: Eight More Miles to Louisville.
posted by maurice at 10:07 AM on October 20, 2012


This in the category of things that I forget everyone didn’t grow up with. We still say "Hey Grandpa, what’s for supper?"
posted by bongo_x at 10:14 AM on October 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Played on a bill with him in about 1978. We were supposed to open but his manager came back and said he wanted to play first so he could get on the road earlier.

Try following that.
posted by timsteil at 10:24 AM on October 20, 2012 [6 favorites]


Not as flashy as the more modern rolling picking, but still harder than it looks.

It's not flashy because it has something that Scruggs rolls do not, namely character, subtlety, and class. Grandpa Jones was among the ranks of those who enriched the classic clawhammer style with the newfangled bluegrass but stayed true to his picking style of choice instead of just playing the damn thing like a guitar. Personally, I am more into the old time/minstrel/balladeer tradition of banjo but people like Grandpa Jones and Stringbean showed Scruggs that they could roll (no pun intended) with them without having to let the old traditional style of play die.

And yes, it does have a steep learning curve. Particularly if you are a guitar player. Everything you know and learned about fingerpicking a guitar you have to unlearn to play Clawhammer. It took me several weeks of day in day out practice just to get the basic hand motions down.
posted by mediocre at 10:41 AM on October 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Grandpa Jones style frailing is freakin' loud. I took a class with Cathy Barton, who learned and played with Grandpa. Played machine-gun style on a resonator banjo, preferably tuned up to A or however high you can put up with string breakages, it doesn't need amplification.

He doesn't get the respect that other players like Scruggs do, but he was an amazing musician, and also (apparently) a quiet and shy man offstage.

I learned clawhammer first. Every other playing style just feels weird. I'm always amused when really accomplished guitar players try to pick up a banjo and try to copy what frailing looks like — it's a whole other skill set, as mediocre said.
posted by scruss at 10:58 AM on October 20, 2012


I've got a 78 I just dug out to listen to again called "Bread and Gravy" (not the Hoagy Charmichael song, mind you) backed with "Pap's Corn Likker Still." Both of which sadly don't seem to have been given the YouTube treatment, but trying to find it I found this: Grandpa Jones Baked Beans Recipe. Strange. The man had a way with food, I guess.

Anyway, playing clawhammer banjo marks you as a motherfucker to respect in my book, and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my work boots and say that.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 11:43 AM on October 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


Anyway, playing clawhammer banjo marks you as a motherfucker to respect in my book, and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my work boots and say that.

1000 plus points for Steve Earle reference.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 12:21 PM on October 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


"I've met Bob Dylan and his bodyguards, and I don't think Steve could get anywhere near his coffee table."
— Townes Van Zandt
posted by Optamystic at 1:38 PM on October 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


Banjos were used heavily in early, unamplified recordings because they could provide rhythm while making an impression in the wax and not overwhelming the singer. Clawhammer emerged out of this background.

By the time Scruggs arrived, we had microphones and pick-ups, so drums could replace banjos and tubas on recordings. In essence, it was technology that gave the Scruggs lick an opportunity for the banjo to take the stage again.

So you could see rolling replacing frailing as a blessing and a curse for the banjo.
posted by dw at 1:45 PM on October 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


My Dad was born in Pennsylvania and raised in Detroit, but in some ways he was a hillbilly at heart. When he was in his early 20s and riding a motorcycle (his "runnin' around days", as he would describe them to us kids) he and his buddies would regularly ride down I-75 from Detroit to Kentucky or Tennessee on Friday night after work because that's where you found the best bars with the best live music and the prettiest girls. Back home, when the nights were overcast and cloudy, he could pick up WWVA on his AM radio, from Wheeling, West Virginia, where they broadcast the Grand Ol' Opry live. When Hee-Haw debuted on TV, my Dad was glued to the set, as he would be for the 20+ years that cornpone show would air during the rest of his lifetime. And every time Grandpa Jones played a tune, Dad would always announce "See that? He doesn't pluck the banjo, he spanks it!", much to my Mom's annoyance - because not only had she heard that statement umpteen times but also because Dad had no musical knowledge whatsoever (she could play the piano, at least).

I remember watching one of those "true crime" shows on, I dunno, Court TV or something, about the Death of Stringbean. It broke my heart to watch Grandpa Jones describe how he'd gotten up that morning and immediately noticed that there wasn't smoke coming from Stringbean's chimney across the street. He knew that there was something wrong....
posted by Oriole Adams at 1:51 PM on October 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


This brings back such memories from my childhood! My father, not a particularly big country music fan, loved Grandpa Jones. My folks watched Hee Haw every Saturday night, and my dad owned at least one Grandpa Jones record that he played a lot. I think he may have even bought a banjo at one time but I don't think he ever learned to play it.

I love bluegrass music, probably in large part due to Hee Haw and my dad. I think I'm going to wish him a happy Grandpa Jones' Birthday and send him a couple of these links.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 2:25 PM on October 20, 2012


My dad worked for the local TV station that Hee Haw was on. I remember another family coming over to watch the first episode that was on--we made popcorn (not microwave!) and drank ice cold cokes and laughed til we were sick. And I am NOT from the south! Love Grampa--wish we had more like him!
posted by msleann at 9:22 PM on October 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


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