Tennessee Ernie Ford was the first to have a weekly television show in the late 1950’s, featuring country as well as show tunes and contemporary music. This was more than a decade before Hee Haw. Ford’s show was folksy and traditional.
Then along cane Jimmy Dean, who also got a musical show. Dean was arising star on radio and the musical scene. He also was folksy, but he was younger and hipper.
Dean’s was popular enough that he guest hosted The Tonight Show in the early 1960’s. This was back when the show was edgy and intellectual.
In 1961, Dean had a hit with “Big Bad John” a spoke-word folk-type song about larger than life miner. This was kind of a novelty song although it was a clever, story song. Dean and Roy Acuff wrote the number one hit which went on to sell a million copies.
Jimmy Dean was popular enough that he was offered another television series, on the last place ABC network, that he injected as much country music onto the show that he could.
Back in the 1950’s, country music, or Country & Western as it was known, was regionally popular, but nationally was very separate from more traditional popular music. There were a few singers that were accepted by both genres, but if you watch the old videos, these folks wore suits and formal clothing in television appearances, just like Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby. They dressed up on Ernie Ford’s show.
Eddy Arnold and Patsy Cline were two popular singers that managed to appeal to fans of both genres.
Dean’s weekly show lasted three seasons and for a mainstream show, focused on country artists, but not entirely. Country music was popular, but is wasn’t near as popular as pop music, so it only made sense to have wider appeal. Rosemary Clooney, Eydie Gorme, John Davidson, Vicki Carr and other pop singers appeared on his show. Rowlf the dog, Dean’s comic sidekick, was the first regular network appearance of a Muppet. Jim Henson was so grateful for introducing his Muppets to a national audience that he offered Dean a large percent of his company, which Dean turned down.
Comics were also a feature on Dean’s show, including a young George Carlin. Roger Miller was also an occasional guest.
Roger Miller had a difficult start to life. But he never forgot where he came from. Starting with a poor childhood, separate from his family, where he picked cotton in Oklahoma, to a theft charge that got him into the Army and Korea, to his attempts to break into the music biz in Nashville to playing every backwater honky-tonk in the South, Miller worked his way from being a backup musician to finally gaining a foothold as a writer. Fame proved to be illusive as he treaded water as a solo artist. Jimmy Dean, guest hosting on The Tonight Show in 1961, invited Miller to perform on the show.
Miller was also famous for novelty songs. “Dang Me,” “Chug-a-lug” and “Do-Wacka-Do” were among the songs Miller recorded in sessions in advance of his desire to move to California. Miller was a prolific writer, but the music business ate songs and had to be replenished. Chart success didn’t mean lasting success as he continued to play one-nighters all over the country. On one such trip he say a billboard that would inspire his biggest song, “King of the Road,” which was a number one country hit and a number four pop hit. Five Grammy Awards and a $160,000 royalty check sealed his future. That was a long way from picking cotton as kid when his family was too poor to keep all their kids together.
Miller was getting a ton of publicity, but not always the kind he appreciated. Life Magazine called him a “cracker-barrel philosopher.” His weekly variety show premiered but Miller didn’t cotton (sorry, bad pun) to the way he was pre-packaged for television audiences. While the show was not a success, and his own hit records began to dry up, Miller continued to spread his wings as a personality, actor and entertainer. He would continue to record, drawing upon songs from more contemporary writers, as his own songwriting did not seem to match the the vibe of the 1970’s.
Roger Miller was a popular figure on talk and variety shows, appearances on Hollywood Squares to acting on series like Daniel Boone (like Jimmy Dean also did). Roger Miller, famous a singer/songwriter, became more famous as a personality, which made him a frequent guest on The Tonight Show, Merv, Dinah and Mike Douglas. He also became a successful voice artist.
In the 1980’s, Miller scored (literally), his most lasting accomplishment, writing the Broadway hit, Big River, which won seven Tony Awards. After his untimely death from lung cancer, Miller was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Dean and Miller also had the easy-going charm and sense of humor that appealed to a wide variety of audiences. They weren’t just country singers, they proved to be personalities. Their weekly television musical series wasn’t just country, but also included comedy, as well as more pop music. As their own popularity increased, Dean and Miller appeared on other variety shows and performed music besides country. They were good-looking guys who in a tuxedo looked like Bobby Darin or Dean Martin. Dean and Miller also recorded songs that would cross over to the contemporary charts.
In the late 1950’s Jimmy Dean had gotten his first television hosting gig. He parlayed that into a higher television profile and began guest hosting talk shows like The Tonight Show. After his huge hit “Big Bad John” and a few other hits, he returned to television hosting with a weekly show on ABC. He kept recording, and occasionally had a song on the chart, but he never gave up television appearances and drifted into acting, where he frequently appeared on Daniel Boone (the destination of singers and athletes), and a large role in the Bond film, Diamonds Are Forever.
Jimmy Dean never abandoned performing but was intent on diversifying his career by becoming an actor, hosting radio and television programs, and making sausage.
His charm and friendly manner were perfect for hosting, and paid dividends later when he became the spokesperson for the sausage company he built. Those commercials were folksy but gave his product brand loyalty. He sold the company in 1984 to a large conglomerate, but for awhile they continued using Dean as the face of the company. Eventually, they phased him out, but a few years after his death, the company began using his voice in their commercials. How’s that for life after death.
Country music outgrew the “hillbilly” label, same as NASCAR outgrew the bootlegger label into a billion dollar industry. According to a CBS poll in 2108, country music is the most popular genre of music, besting rock 21% to 18%. Performers ditched the suits and formal attire decades ago for jeans and cowboy hats. Country music found it’s audience over many years, and some rock and roll performers have extended their careers with music aimed at the country audience (Don Henley, Bon Jovi, Steven Tyler to name a few).
Hee Haw was given credit for opening doors for country artists (without suits) but before that were a couple of guys named Dean and Miller. Dang me.