Obituary: Jerry Clower

FROM THE minstrel tradition of the black-face duo Jarnup and Honey in the 1930s through the "Golden Age" of Minnie Pearl and Rod Brasfield, to the current redneck humour of Jeff Foxworthy, comedy has long played an important, if underrated, role in the history of country music.

Simple, direct and invariably drawing on the Southern character, it has been both light relief from the hardships endured by its core audience and a cultural barrier that outsiders have found difficult to surmount. Its appeal is largely regional - a New Yorker is as likely to sit stony- faced through such a routine as is a Londoner - but that alone ensures it an audience of millions.

Known as "The Mouth of the Mississippi", Jerry Clower was for nearly 30 years the biggest star in the field, with a string of gold discs, countless television appearances and membership of the famed Grand Ole Opry to his credit.

His monologues were bathed in nostalgia for simpler times and for activities like 'coon hunts, impromptu rodeos, molasses-making and church picnics. Many chronicled the comic misadventures of the fictional Marcel Ledbetter and his family, whilst others were laced with an overt and sometimes distasteful patriotism. Although he always maintained that his shows were firmly family- oriented, his humour occasionally verged on the amusingly tasteless. A memorable publicity shot, for example, shows him cradling a 'coonhound under his right arm whilst balancing a chainsaw on his left knee.

As with many comics, he loved the interaction a performer has with his audience and refused to use canned laughter on his albums, believing it to be dishonest. "I am convinced," he once declared, "that there is only one place where there is no laughter and that's Hell. I have made arrangements to miss Hell. Praise God, I won't ever have to be anywhere that there ain't no laughter."

Born in Liberty, Mississippi, close to the Louisiana border, Clower joined the US Navy on graduating from high school but found himself drawn increasingly to the world of farming. On leaving the navy, he enrolled at Junior College before heading to Mississippi State University on the back of a football scholarship. He graduated with a degree in agriculture and joined the Mississippi Chemical Company, based in Yazoo City, where he eventually rose to become Director of Field Sales.

He began to develop a series of routines based on his early life, using them to enliven his sales patter and when these proved popular was persuaded to record them for the local Lemon label. Entitled Jerry Clower from Yazoo City, Mississippi, Talkin' (1971), the disc sold so well that Clower found himself signed to MCA. His albums for the label included Clower Power (1973), Country Ham (1974), The Ledbetter Olympics (1980), Dogs I Have Known (1982) and Top Gum (1987), which featured a rather bizarre country rap number.

In 1973 he joined the cast of Nashville's Grand Ole Opry, going on to become, with his gaudy suits and outgoing personality, a popular fixture on the television chatshow circuit. He also wrote four books including Ain't God Good (1977) and, more recently, Stories From Home (1993) and for 10 years running was named "Country Comic of the Year".

A devout man, Jerry Clower was a deacon of the First Baptist Church of Yazoo City and enjoyed a long-time association with the Gideon Bible Society. In 1997 the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame presented him with its Distinguished American Award. Yazoo City honoured the man who made it famous by renaming a local thoroughfare Jerry Clower Boulevard.

Jerry Clower, comedian: born Liberty, Mississippi 28 September 1926: married 1947 Homerline Wells (one son, three daughters): died Jackson, Mississippi 24 August 1998.

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