Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Grandpa Jones

Today I take a moment to remember one of the Opry's all time greats, Louis Marshall Jones, otherwise know to one and all as Grandpa Jones, who was born on October 20, 1913. As we remember him on what whould have been Grandpa's 97th birthday, I thought I would print the tribute to him that was in the Opry's program for the weekend of February 20-21, 1998.

"It's a sad day, indeed, whenever the grandfather of a family dies. But when that man is Grandpa Jones, then his Grand Ole Opry family and his friends and fans from around the world suffer the loss of an American treasure, the likes of which we'll never see again.

Grandpa Jones died this past Thursday, February 19, at a health care center in Hermitage, Tennessee, from complications of a massive stroke he suffered on January 3, following his final Grand Ole Opry performance.

Louis Marshall Jones was born in Niagra, Ky., October 20, 1913, the youngest of 10 children. At age 10 he remembers sneaking in and "foolin" with a guitar left in their house by a farm worker. Later, one of his brothers came home with a 75-cent guitar. It was the one Marshall would use when he and a friend began playing local dances and parties. In 1928, the family moved to Akron, Ohio, and two years later Marshall got his first big break in the music business, winning first place over 450 contestants in a week-long amateur talent contest. The next day he got a radio job on WJW in Akron and used his $50 prize money to buy a better guitar. Teamed up with harmonica player Joe Troyan, Marshall moved to a Cleveland radio station which led to a stint in the house band for the popular "Lum and Abner" radio show. Later Jones and Troyan, billed as Zeke and Harve, moved to WBZ in Boston. There they joined Bradley Kincaid's troupe. And that's where Grandpa Jones was "born."

On an early morning in 1935, Kincaid chided his guitar player to "Come on an' get up here to the microphone; you're just like an old grandpa." That introduction, along with the musician's elderly voice prompted listeners to write in asking "How old is that old man?" Marshall was only 22 years old at the time, but a pair of 50-year-old high top boots, bright suspenders, a false bushy mustache, fake white eyebrows and wrinkles drawn on his face with a grease pencil helped turn him into "Grandpa" Jones.

More jobs with radio stations in West Virginia, Connecticut and Cincinnati and a stint in the Army in Germany kept Grandpa Jones busy in the 1940s. After the war in 1946, he moved to Nashville and worked with Pee Wee King. This led to appearances on the Grand Ole Opry where he became a member in March 1947. By this time Grandpa had traded his guitar for a banjo which he played using the drop-thumb technique. His distinctive banjo pickin' style and his down-home country humor made him a natural for the television show "Hee Haw" when it made its debut in 1969.

"What's for supper, Grandpa?" soon became as familiar to country music fans as Grandpa's recordings of "Old Rattler," "Good Ole Mountain Dew" and his version of the Lonzo and Oscar hit, "I'm My Own Grandpa." Grandpa also proved marvelously adept in Hee Haw's comedy skits and was a vital cog in the Hee Haw Gospel Quartet during the show's record-setting 25-year run. It was during this period, in 1978, that Grandpa was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

During his long career Grandpa recorded numerous albums on a variety of labels and toured extensively. His wife, Ramona, who plays fiddle and other instruments, often joined him on tour. His book, "Everybody's Grandpa-Fifty Years Behind the Mike, was published in 1984.

Grandpa's death brings to a close one of the most important chapters in the life of the Grand Ole Opry. He was an active, supportive member of the Opry for more than half a century and brought a unique and distinctive kind of music to us and to the world. The Grand Ole Opry will simply never be the same without Grandpa, and there is no way to replace him. Although his death was not totally unexpected, there is still personal sadness and grief to realize that this wonderful gentleman who was loved so much, and in turn, loved the Opry so much, will no longer be with us. But while we will miss his presence, Grandpa's distinctive old time music and spirit will forever be a part of this show and a part of all the lives he touched. Our memories of Grandpa Jones will always be happy ones, and we are indeed thankful for all the years we were able to enjoy his love and friendship. He truly was "Everybody's Grandpa!""

I was in Nashville for the Opry's shows that weekend and there was a note of sadness in the air. The tribute that I just posted was read before Saturday night's show, and on stage there was a stool with Grandpa's banjo next to it, and his hat on it, with a lone spotlight shining on it. A half hour of the Opry was televised on TNN that night, and sorry to say on the televised portion, there was no tribute to Grandpa, at least on the Opry stage. However, in the segment following, which featured Porter Wagoner as the host, the cast came out on stage, along with Ramona and Grandpa's children, and led by Vince Gill and Bill Carlisle, the cast sang the great Grandpa Jones song, "Falling Leaves." I can remember all of the performers holding pieces of paper with the words of the song. It was a fitting tribute to this great entertainer.

I find it sad that within the words that were printed in the program that night, we these that were in the last paragraph: "But while we will miss his presence, Grandpa's distinctive old time music, humor and spirit will forever be a part of this show." Can we really say that today? Nobody plays Grandpa's style of music any longer. We still have Mike Snider on the banjo, but that is it. Mike might be the last in the string of banjo players and comedians to be a part of the Opry. But, Grandpa's style of music no longer fits in with today's Opry.

As a rememberance to Grandpa Jones, here is the line-up from the first show on Saturday night, February 21, 1998, when the Opry dedicated the show to the memory of Grandpa Jones. The tribute on stage took place during the 8:00 segment.

6:30: GHS Strings
Bill Anderson(host)
Skeeter Davis

6:45: Jogging In A Jug
Jimmy Dickens(host)
Bill Carlisle

7:00: Shoney's
Johnny Russell(host)
Charlie Louvin
Jimmy C. Newman
Stonewall Jackson
Jeanne Pruett

7:30: Standard Candy (televised)
Lorrie Morgan(host)
Leroy Van Dyke
Jim & Jesse
Jeannie Seely
Vince Gill

8:00: Martha White
Porter Wagoner(host)
Oswald & Charlie
Jack Greene
The Whites
Opry Squaredance Band/Melvin Sloan Dancers

8:30: Clifty Farms Country Meats
Ricky Skaggs(host)
Jim Ed Brown
Riders In The Sky
Mike Snider
The 4 Guys


  1. Your tribute was great--and so was the Opry program's. I had to mention that I counted 22 members on the first show that night and one guest who actually was older than some of the members, i.e., Leroy Van Dyke.

    Also, I noticed that half a dozen of the acts included performers who have died, and Jeanne Pruett has retired and the 4 Guys were let go. And I felt a twinge when I saw Ricky Skaggs hosting at 8:30 and remembered that at that point, Hank Snow was too ill to perform.

  2. Everybody in Nashville seems to have a Grandpa story. Here's mine: Back in the early 80's I was doing some work for the Opry while Hee Haw was being taped in the TV studio. There was a group of people visiting in the back hallway, including Grandpa, when a couple of the "Hee Haw Honeys" came walking down the hall in the their "Daisy Dukes". Grandpa watched them as they went all the way down the hallway and just before they turned the corner to head into the studio he turned back the assembled group and said in his slow, Kentucky drawl, "Ya know, if I could walk like that I'd walk everywhere I went!" Needless to say, the entire assemblage fell on the floor with laughter.

    There are lots of stories about Grandpa's famous temper but I heard a new one from his daughter-in-law. At one time, Grandpa purchased a motor home to travel to his tour dates that had a cabinet over the little stove that was just inside the door that apparently stuck out a couple of inches and Grandpa would hit his head on it every time he climbed aboard. One day at the house, he hit his head on the cabinet...for what would be the last time. He went to his workshop, pulled out his chainsaw, and promptly removed the entire offending cabinet in one fell swoop!

    He was also famous for forgetting people's names...even people he knew well. One night at the Opry, he had to introduce Marion Worth but all he could remember was that her name started with an M and a W...and said "let's give a big hand to pretty miss Martha White!"

    One of favorites is one that I'm not entirely sure is true (because I've heard it told on a couple of different people) but it certainly sounds like classic Grandpa. One time they were on tour in Canada and Grandpa was driving. He missed his exit and drove on past the town where they were supposed to play. As the sun began to set and they weren't seeing their destination, Grandpa began to realize that he was lost and decided to stop at a gas station and ask for directions. When he asked the attendant where they were, the attendant replied "Saskatoon, Saskatchewan". Grandpa turned to the others the car and said "Wail we've done it now. We've gone so far they don't even speak English anymore!"