Country music - it’s all about your dog dying, your partner cheating and just generally drowning your sorrows, right? It’s a genre that tackles real life in a way that no other does, addressing all the heartbreaking moments as and when they inevitably come along. Nevertheless, the doom and gloom stereotypes about this great genre are somewhat off-kilter. In fact, comedy and humour are deeply rooted in country music’s foundations - and not just in specific songs or performances, but in its very culture.
From around the 1940s, the Grand Ole Opry - the home of country music - invited comedians alongside country stars onto its stage. Much of country music’s audience still lived and worked out in rural areas, so satirical performances poking fun at the Deep South and the lifestyle were lapped up by a hardworking community in need of some gentle relief from everyday life.
At the time, a young lady called Sarah Cannon would become as regular a performer on the Opry stage as a certain Roy Acuff, establishing herself as a mainstay on the show with her most famous of characters, Cousin Minnie Pearl.
Dressed in ‘down-home’ dresses and a hat that still had the price tag attached, Minnie Pearl offered self-deprecating humour to which audiences related and empathised, ensuring her spot in the circle for 50 years. Her shrill yet ecstatic southern greeting of “HOW-DEE” is as iconic today as Johnny Cash’s “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”.
Pearl later went on to star in Hee Haw, a country comedy show which ran for a solid 25 seasons, from 1969 until 1993. The variety show fused comedy sketches and musical performances beautifully, dressing up the biggest country music stars in overalls and straw hats just for the fun of it, and bringing audiences to tears of laughter many times from the hackneyed novelty of it all. It offered the stars of the time an opportunity to show they were, at the end of the day, real people, whether they were the butt of Grandpa Jones’ joke or not.
The show, for the most part, was hosted by the singers Buck Owens and Roy Clark, and didn’t just appeal to rural communities, but also garnered attention across the States, propelling its hosts to national stardom. It was a theatrical medium that fused comedy, music and costume together excellently to create an enormously successful show.
Hee Haw’s most memorable moment came when Johnny Cash guest starred in 1973. Cash was set to duet with Roy Clark on the classic ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ – a song you wouldn’t expect to be used as bait for a humorous skit. Nevertheless, Clark managed to pull it off, constantly failing to play the song correctly in an increasingly funny take. From making his guitar sound like a gun to playing the slide guitar riff with an empty glass, Clark had Cash laughing at his antics. He even joined in himself, playing Clark’s guitar with his foot as the sketch descended into pure chaos. The performance not only showed off both entertainers' undeniable senses of humour, but how country didn’t always have to take itself too seriously - something that would stick with it to this day.
Many country artists embrace humour as an integral part of their brand, ensuring they're as much an entertainer and performer as they are an artist or musician. Cash was a terror for it; from ‘A Boy Named Sue’ to ‘Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart’, he fused country storytelling, his dark outlaw image and dry-witted comedy together in a way that was charming and authentic in equal measure. Even Jonny Paycheck’s ‘Take This Job and Shove It’, despite its anger and frustration, is a hilarious anthem for every country fan who has had a bad day at work and wants to scream at their boss.
It’s undeniable that the queen of comedy in country is Dolly Parton, who offers a slice of wit with everything she does. From the moment she patterned her looks off the town tramp to the first time she showed us her uncompromisable stage presence and hilarious mile-a-minute persona, we knew how much Parton could achieve in the genre by simply never taking herself too seriously.
Take her performance at Glastonbury Festival in the UK in 2014 - even after drawing one of the biggest crowds in the festival’s history, her to-the-point banter had each and every member of the audience giggling away, whether she was rapping about the mud or offering out her husband to Jolene since "he’s getting a little grey behind the ears".
Her famous line, "It takes a lot of money to look this cheap" will be adorned across murals and plaques for the rest of time, and it’s that charisma that has helped her capture the hearts of country fans old and young, both through performance and song.
In the present landscape of country, all the great contemporary entertainers have learned that it’s not a bad thing to have a funny bone and an album with a little humour up its sleeve. Ashley Campbell is rising through the ranks with a fresh take on country and comedy, whilst still honouring her roots. With her song ‘Better Boyfriend’, she twists and scoffs at the notion of macho-masculinity as she lists all the ways she could be a better boyfriend than her actual partner: “Like a ninja fighter / I even killed a spider / in the bathroom with the bottom of my shoe”. It’s empowering and hilarious, just what we need today.
If we’re looking for a king of comedy within country today, Brad Paisley is the man for the job. He also brought a concoction of country and dark comedy into the modern age with his song ‘Online’, which pokes fun at the modern world and people’s ability to masquerade as someone different behind a computer screen. It’s certainly not Paisley’s first comedic venture. ‘I’m Gonna Miss Her’, while seeming sorrowful, provides a pretty dry twist as he chooses fishing over his wife when she gives him an ultimatum, and ‘Alcohol’ expertly lists all the highs and lows of drinking in a hilarious and relatable way. It works because, just like the greats before him, Paisley gets the balance right with his repertoire. The ability to perform heartbreaking hits such as ‘Whiskey Lullaby’ in the same set as ‘Online’ is what essentially differentiates entertainers from artists.
Sometimes, it even takes being able to produce a humorous song for fans and listeners to actually take you seriously. Luke Combs - country’s biggest star today - made himself a mainstay in the genre with ‘When It Rains It Pours’. The song lands with the line, “I ain’t gotta see my ex-future-mother-in-law anymore / Oh Lord when it rains it pours,” a rib-tickling punchline that follows all the great things that have happened after his break-up. While it wasn’t his first single, it’s unique take on a break-up made people sit up and listen with a comforting smile creeping across their faces.
It’s unquestionable that songwriters within country music pride themselves on their storytelling prowess. Yet the ability to make a clever play on words is what separates them from their contemporaries, both within the genre and outside of it. Comedy’s continuous influence and impact on country music really hits home when you consider two of the finest songwriters in the genre today. Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark have made us laugh and weep, cry and guffaw – whether it be with their own music or with songs they've written for other artists. Now, the pair are working on a musical based on the enduring influence and impact of Hee Haw. The show that really kick-started comedy and country music’s great relationship may just be making a comeback, giving us even more to laugh about.
Let’s just hope no one gets cheated on or loses a dog in the meantime, right?