Mt. View, Arkansas – March 21, 2011 by Bob Phillips
What started as a ‘doodle pad idea’ in Hidalgo, Texas, in 1996, eventually evolved into an incredible resurgence of interest in old-time ‘rural’ corn pone humor. Dr. Robert Earl Reed was trying to figure out a way to regain the popularity of old-time rural humor. What he dreamed up was an act called ‘Ooty, Cooty, and Pooty,’ a comedy mainstay that would later become his “Chicken House Opry.”
“I had a pretty good career in traditional country music,” Dr. Reed said, “I recorded for Arco Records in California, and then K-Ark Records in Nashville, Tennessee. To see me over the rough spots in the road, I became an auctioneer, and discovered early on it’s as easy to get big bids on earth-moving equipment as it is a box of buttons, so that’s the direction I took. I teamed up with Leroy Van Dyke (the Singing Auctioneer), hiring him to help me with the business, and that led to a direct relationship with Hank Thompson, a western swing artist. I had a band that occasionally backed Thompson for our smaller projects. Lucy Jackson was my keyboardist. Hank took such a liking to Lucy’s music, he eventually included her in his own band, and started using her regularly. At the same time, I was taking a personal interest in Lucy, and was also pursuing a way to bring back good down-home humor to country music.”
Rural humor goes back a long ways in the American psyche. Sometimes just mentioning a name brings instant recall. Judy Canova! Homer & Jethro! Minnie Pearl! Rod Bradsfield! Andy Griffith! Yes, even Andy Griffith. Before he played the bashful Sheriff in Mayberry, he began a recording career at a very young age, recording an LP as a young mountain boy describing a football game that he had seen for the first time. The dissertation is hilarious. Dolly Parton’s hour-glass figure and outrageous outfits, along with her angelic voice, played perfectly against Porter Wagoner’s corn pone humor and his use of old-fashioned country sensibility. A guaranteed laugh usually told about the wealthy city-slicker wanting to get out of his congested, smelly, dirty, traffic snarled big town and go to the country. Once there he gets lost, and in trying to get directions from a hillbilly, the story relentlessly ends with the same punch line, as the hillbilly says, “I’m not the one that’s lost, you are.”
Corn pone humor goes back even further. Vaudeville was home of old-time medicine and minstrel shows, even black-face comedy as portrayed by Amos & Andy. This kind of humor didn’t last very long, but taking its place early on, was a comedian by the name of Cliff Arquette. His basic comedy was reading a ‘Letter From Mama.’ He became a regular on the NBC-TV ‘Tonight’ Show when Jack Paar hosted it in the 50’s, as a comic character named Charlie Weaver. Later on, even Johnny Carson used corn pone as the character of a Minnesotan farmer, utilizing a plaid cap with ear muffs sticking straight out.
Rural humor was also a mainstay in early television programs, especially shows like the ‘Beverly Hillbillies,’ and ‘Green Acres.’ And, who can forget the down-to-earth humor of Ma & Pa Kettle in the movies. Perhaps the most successful of the television offerings was ‘Hee-Haw,’ a genuine corn pone approach to everything they did. Grandpa Jones grew into the character he represented on this show.
Nationally known comics also used a similar approach to humor. Will Rogers used the formula to intimidate politicians, and made Presidents laugh. Mark Twain once said, “You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I’ll tell you what his ‘pinions is.”
Dr. Reed has his own ‘pinions. “Our unique combination of great old-time country music performers, along with a huge helping of Hee-Haw style comedy, while seated in comfortable theater seats, having just finished an enjoyable delicious meal, makes for a fun and relaxing time.” The good Doctor’s ‘Chicken House Opry’ has done well in three locations. Branson, Missouri, where they did shows during high-peak tourist season, and Mission, Texas, where they function in the winter time at their own theater. According to the Doctor, “I like our ‘Chicken House Opry’ in Mountain View, Arkansas, the best. We’re there through the summer time. We own the Fiddler’s Valley RV Park, which is only a few steps from the Court House Square, where so much of Arkansas’s great old-time music is played. Our venue at the RV park is the ‘Wild Horse Theater.’ We’ll begin our 2011 summer season there on April 9th. I believe one of the reasons I like Arkansas so well, is because this was the home of perhaps the greatest of the corn pone humorists, ‘Lum & Abner.’ A national radio program on NBC, it automatically garnered knee-jerking belly laughs from all those who tuned in. They go all the way back to 1931, and presented their humor from the make-believe town of Pine Ridge, Arkansas. The folks in Waters, Arkansas, were so impressed by the program, they officially changed their name to Pine Ridge. Lum & Abner were so popular, tourists came to Arkansas just to say they had been near ‘Lum & Abner.’ This is the kind of humor that took America by storm back then, and the same kind of humor that is re-affecting Middle-America today.”
The ‘Chicken House Opry’ is also in demand in other locations of America. Dr. Reed, and his wife Lucy (they finally wed in 2009), have been nominated to be inducted into ‘America’s Old Time Country Music Hall of Fame,’ located in the Pioneer Music Museum in the very rural village of Anita, Iowa. According to Bob Everhart, the President of the National Traditional Country Music Association, and curator of the museum, “We want to keep not only the music of rural America alive, but rural comedy too. Dr. Reed (better known in Arkansas as his comedic character Punjo) and his wife Lucy will be inducted into the Hall of Fame at our annual convention of old-time music August 29-September 4th, in LeMars, Iowa, at the Plymouth County Fairgrounds. They’ll also be performing all seven days. Last year we had the Grand Ole Opry’s superstar Bill Anderson with us, and he wowed the audience with just his guitar, himself, and some self-deprecating humor. We also had the legendary Patti Page, and she too couldn’t help using a little corn pone. When I told her on stage that my wife and daughter and I drove all over the state of Vermont, looking for the maple syrup farm she and her husband owned, we never did find it. Patti Page dead-panned to the audience and calmly said, “It wasn’t in Vermont, it was in New Hampshire. The audience roared.”
According to Lucy Jackson, “I never dreamed we would be nominated for this wonderful honor from rural folks, just for trying to save some corn pone humor.” But she wasn’t done yet. At the close of a recent ‘Chicken House Opry’ show, standing behind her keyboard that flavored the music of Hank Thompson, she deadpans to her husband Bob. “Punjo, do you think it is wise for parents to train their children on the piano?” And, Punjo responded, “Naw, they should probably use newspapers.”
Prepared by Bob Phillips, Public Relations Director
National Traditional Country Music Association, 501(c)3 corporation devoted to preservation of America’s rural life style
This post was submitted by Bob Phillips.