Homer & Jethro

TrackSingle / EP / Album
Over The RainbowMurder The Standards EP
Let Me Go, Blubber/ FascinationAt The Country Club
You Belong To Me No.2The Worst Of Homer & Jethro
Daddy Played First BaseThe Far-Out World Of Homer & Jethro
Baby It's Cold OutsideRCA Victor 48-0075 (1949)
(How Much Is)
That Hound Dog In The Window
RCA Victor 47-5280 (1953)
The Billboard SongRCA Victor 47-4936 (1952)
Don't Let The Stars
Get In Your Eyeballs
RCA Victor 47-5214 (1953)
Hillbilly HippieThere's Nothing Like An Old Hippie
Gonna Send 'Em HomeCornfucius Say

Homer & Jethro photo 3

Kenneth ‘Jethro’ Burns (left) and Henry ‘Homer’ Haynes

 

 

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Homer & Jethro playlist

 

 

Contributor: David Lewis

Homer and Jethro were an award-winning comedy duo whose popularity lasted through the mid to late 30s till 1972. 2020 marks the centenary year of their births.

Henry “Homer” Haynes and Kenneth “Jethro” Burns met as teenagers in their native Knoxville TN at a talent contest sponsored by the local radio station. They were considered too good for the talent show but hired as session musicians for the station. Quickly realising that they had potential, the duo began their professional life as Junior and Dude (pronounced Dudee), nicknames given to them by friends and family. With Jethro’s brother Aytchie (bass) and guitarist Charlie Hagaman they performed as The Stringdusters.

During one show, famed radio producer, presenter and impresario Lowell Blanchard forgot their nicknames, and inadvertently rechristened them Homer and Jethro. They liked the new names, so kept them.

They worked tent shows, county fairs, small venues and radio broadcasts around the country. They were drafted and served in World War II; Burns in a combat unit in the Pacific, and Haynes a medical unit in Italy. Upon their return they picked up where they left off, building the act to massive success including coast to coast touring, some 40 albums, appearances on virtually every TV variety show, a Kellogg’s Corn Flakes ad campaign, a Grammy Award, instrument endorsements for Gibson and Fender.

In 1971, Haynes died suddenly of a heart attack. Burns went on to a solo career, but the legacy of the duo continues today.

Like “Weird Al” Yankovic knows, parodies work best when they match or exceed the quality of the work that is skewered. Homer has been described as one of the best jazz rhythm guitarists of the period. Jethro is a giant in mandolin playing. (We’ve looked at Jethro’s solo work previously, Toppermost #865.)

They used the model of a typical country duo: harmonies – they called themselves the Everly Brothers of the Stone Age – and guitar and mandolin. The boys fashioned their vocal styles after the Blue Sky Boys, one of the brother bands of the day. Homer and Jethro were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001. They are, incidentally, pioneers of electric instruments – they endorsed Fender solid body guitars at one point in the 1950s.

As with the Jethro Toppermost, I’ve asked Don Stiernberg to pick 10 Homer and Jethro tracks. Don was a student of Jethro’s, and became a colleague, playing in his band and on his final recordings. A superb mandolinist himself, he has recorded several albums of jazz, both solo and with his trio – these are recommended listening. He is also a superb teacher, and his teaching materials can be found at his website.

 

DL: Don, thanks again for your generosity and time in indulging us at Toppermost. Homer and Jethro weren’t the first comedians to parody songs – Looney Tunes and Disney were parodying popular songs in cartoons in the 1930s – but as far as I can tell, Homer and Jethro were among the most popular, and until “Weird Al” Yankovic, were unprecedented in the length of their career. Why do you think they remained so popular for so long?

DS: You’re right, there’s a long tradition of parody and musical comedy, much of it before Homer and Jethro, say in vaudeville. I think their popularity and longevity was somewhat complex, meaning based on their overall act, not just the parody component. They were brilliant musicians and also entertainers. This gave them more than the average number of ways to connect to an audience and build a fan base. The mixture of elements must have been very intriguing: two guys with Southern accents playing pop tunes with changed lyrics (often irreverent) playing jazz style backgrounds on string instruments, dressed often in stylish suits. Were they funny or were they serious? Country or urban? People had to go see them to try to figure it out. In a lot of ways their act had something for everyone.

DL: Like Weird Al, they preferred to deal directly with the artists, rather than management. Management tended to not want their product lampooned, whereas most artists loved the idea – Hank Williams said it wasn’t a hit until Homer and Jethro had mangled it. Do you know if they had any songs they wanted to do that were knocked back?

DS: Without Homer and Jethro there would be no Weird Al. Guidelines about intellectual property rights and publishing and who owes what to whom were in the early stages of development when Homer and Jethro were getting going. In fact, it was Hank Williams who broke things open for them. He wrote (in pencil on legal pad) something like “I, Hank Williams, hereby give Homer and Jethro permission to do whatever they want with my songs”. Jethro told me that after that every major songwriter did likewise because everyone wanted to be like Hank, he was the biggest thing going at that time. I suppose there must have been a song or a writer here and there that was problematic, but Jethro seemed to indicate that the letter from his buddy pretty much opened the door for them. I saw that letter at his house one time and got chills, started crying. Hank Williams, Homer and Jethro, Jethro Burns: All-Time Greats!

DL: What prompted their choice of song? Obviously, the song was well known (otherwise a lot of the humour is lost), but did they hear a song, think “there’s a funny idea in there” and start working? Or did they have an idea and try and find a song that hit? Or both? I can see in things like We Didn’t Sink The Bismarck the idea would have come from hearing Johnny Horton’s Sink The Bismarck. But was that the usual approach?

DS: I should have talked to Jethro more about their process. There are SO many things I should have talked to him more about. I’m sure popularity of a song or act played a big part in how or what was parodied. Some of their albums have themes: Fractured Folk Songs, Zany Songs Of The 30s, and so on. There I sense a record company initiative. Other times hit artists were the focus – Elvis, the Beatles, Patti Page, Perry Como. Maybe a line Jethro said on stage a lot while making fun of people sums up his approach to creating the parodies: “No one is safe tonight!”

 

DL: Over The Rainbow is one of the most beautiful standards; they murder it by putting it to John Henry, with a nod to the Andrews sisters. Jethro’s solo punctuated by asides by Homer: “Take off your gloves” etc. is superb. Unusually, they leave the lyrics alone. Is there anything you’d like to say about this version?

DS: I chose Over The Rainbow because it’s an early example of the formula that started them off: take a super well-known song and sing it ‘country’, say like the Blue Sky Boys. They also simplified the music big time: the beautiful and sophisticated Harold Arlen chord progression was stripped down to 2 or 3 chords. The resulting mashup of simple and sophisticated is instantly hilarious. They were doing these things as youth, in their teens. It’s what got them noticed, bringing on the move from 4- or 5-piece string band to duet.

 

DL: While listening to this list, I realised that they fit right into an American tradition of parody: Let Me Go, Blubber might have jumped out of the pages of “Mad Magazine” or been done by the Marx Brothers or “Saturday Night Live”. Other examples of this type of humour might be “Airplane!” or “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy”. How deeply did they study comedy, if at all?

DS: That’s it exactly – they are definitely a part of the pantheon of American comedy. Let Me Go, Blubber, by the way, was based on Let Me Go Lover which I think was a hit for Sunny Gale. The beautiful waltz Fascination (hit for Nat King Cole, Dinah Shore and Jane Morgan) may still be a dance hall favourite. Their medley allows for all manner of schtick: funny (if not politically correct) lines, wrong notes played on purpose, etc. As you can tell from live versions, it cracked people up good. Did they study comedy? Yes. Jethro’s father was a vaudevillian, so he was exposed to comic timing and material from a young age. He especially liked Jack Benny among others. People would come backstage and try to crack Jethro up, he would only smile politely. He said, “Donnie, these people don’t understand, I know every joke there ever was …”

DL: Another thing that needs to be mentioned is their vocal blend. It’s very much underrated – they have gorgeous harmonies, and Homer, I think, is somewhat of an underrated singer. You Belong To Me No.2 showcases not only their rather subversive humour, but their vocals. Did they work on their vocals in the same way they worked on their instruments?

DS: Great ears, David! Homer did have an outstanding voice. Late in their career he cut some songs ‘straight’, pursuing recognition as a vocal stylist. Come to think of it, his smooth style may have contributed to the selection of tunes such as You Belong To Me. Another one was I’m Walking Behind You, check that one out! He was also a terrific impressionist, nailing the styles of Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, et al. My favourite examples of his vocal genius are on the Tenderly And Other Great Love Ballads LP where he sings tunes wrong on purpose … adding beats to phrases, singing in a different key than the band is playing in. That stuff is actually very hard to do.

Jethro often joked on stage, “I have a great voice … for cooling soup!” His vocal parts were more character oriented, exaggerating his accent. His terrific musicianship undoubtedly contributed to their choice of harmonies.

DL: Daddy Played First Base is a wonderful tribute to the Carl Perkins’ penned Daddy Sang Bass. I’m most familiar with the Johnny Cash version which has the Statler Brothers and the Carter Family in the background. But Homer and Jethro changed the theme to a baseball one (with some risqué puns in the verses). Given that Bill Monroe also hired his band based on their baseball skills, did Homer or Jethro play baseball?

DS: Daddy Played First Base was on The Far-Out World Of Homer & Jethro, which I think was their last album. Homer may have passed even before it was released. Jethro was indeed a baseball fan, not sure how much playing they did. He said he moved to Chicago because it has two major league teams, he really loved watching major league baseball, then joked “I may move for the same reason.” He named his son after Johnny Mize, star player of the era. With Steve Goodman he played Take Me Out To The Ballgame and A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request. Always loved watching the games for sure.

 

DL: June Carter joins them on Baby It’s Cold Outside. The tempo and rhythm change bring out the ridiculousness of the lyrics. Did they know the Cash’s well? There’s video of them on the Johnny Cash show. It seems like Homer and Jethro were country music royalty. Is that a fair assessment?

DS: June Carter recorded a Homer and Jethro version of Baby It’s Cold Outside long before she met Johnny Cash. I would imagine they knew members of the Carter Family going back to their early days working The Renfro Valley Barn Dance, live and on radio. Renfro Valley was home territory for the Carter Family. Were Homer and Jethro country music royalty? Well, yes and no. They certainly were in on the development of the music and connected in so many ways. The aforementioned friendship with Hank Williams, their records being produced by Jethro’s brother-in-law Chet Atkins, early session work for the Delmore Brothers, Cowboy Copas, Slim Whitman, and Chet Atkins, countless radio and TV appearances on ‘country’ themed shows such as Tennessee Ernie Ford, Jimmy Dean, Johnny Cash, WLS Barn Dance. But for some people, success in country music is measured in Grand Ol’ Opry membership. Some speculate that those particular Nashville insiders did not welcome Homer and Jethro because they became superstars by (in part) making fun of country music. Near the end of his life Jethro mentioned he wished he could have been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame while he was still around. Homer and Jethro were inducted in 2001. In their incredible career they certainly garnered the love and respect of an immeasurable amount of musicians and fans. Royalty indeed.

 

DL: And almost as if it answers my last question, this next one won them a Grammy. (How Much Is) That Hound Dog In The Window. Did they ever get complaints? Was there a backlash to their comedy? How did they deal with it?

DS: Like most comedians they had to endure hecklers. Apparently, that became easy work for Jethro: he could despatch someone trying to bother their act in countless ways. I’ve heard of a record or two not being played on the radio, but remember it was a different time in their halcyon years – the idea of political correctness came a bit later. I think their fan base probably loved their irreverent material and delivery.

One time the Jethro Burns Quartet got trashed in a review, the critic noting jokes that were not in good taste for that time and place. Jethro said “Aw, Donnie, I learned long ago you can’t read that stuff.”

DL: The next one, The Billboard Song, plays with the concept of advertising by mangling advertisements into incongruous statements. They clearly had a lot of fun playing these songs. As far as I can tell, it’s an original melody. How did they split the work of songwriting? Who wrote the words, and who did the arrangements? Or was it a 50/50 arrangement?

DS: The Billboard Song was written by Charles Grean (bassist) and Cy Coben. Homer and Jethro recorded several Cy Coben songs. He also wrote Good Woman’s Love a non-comedy song recorded by Bill Monroe, the New Grass Revival, and others. I imagine they were drawn to The Billboard Song by its crafty writing, and poking fun at the ad biz must have been fun too. I got the idea somewhere that Jethro was the main writer of the parodies. I’m not sure if they had a defined process for writing and arranging. Jethro was really proud of their work ethics though. He observed how everyone thought what they did on stage was very easy, when in fact they thoroughly rehearsed every detail, from notes and chords to facial reactions to punch lines. In the studio they were so efficient they would get done early! Often an album was done in a day, one or two sessions. With leftover time they might play swing instrumentals mostly for fun.

DL: They were marvellous subversives. Dressed in a comedy country style, playing precise rhythms and impossible-seeming leads, they touch on ‘unspeakable’ things – Hillbilly Hippie and Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyeballs introduce concepts that a modern audience might not appreciate. Don’t Let The Stars … is a beautiful ballad turned upside down and has the unforgivable sin – counting! Hillbilly Hippie mentions the “cigarette the hippies call Mary Jane”. How liberal were they? It doesn’t seem to have the stentorian judgment of many people of their age and background. Did they ever do things they later regretted?

DS: I never got a sense of any political leanings, but they definitely projected an edgy vibe. You just never knew what they might say. They were both so secure, everything came off as casual, irreverent, and smart. An example is on The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson asked Homer “you always chew gum don’t you?” and he said “what else you gonna do with it?” Next question was “How long have you been playing?” and the answer was “about two and a half minutes”. They made fun of everybody, including themselves. I am certain they didn’t do things they later regretted. I wondered for years how Jethro could be so secure. After he was gone it dawned on me – after surviving 10 months of front-line WW II duty a person is not likely to be bothered by details or what people think.

 

DL: The tenth and final track, Gonna Send ‘Em Home, is one of the better Beatles parodies – unlike many of them, there’s not a nasty undercurrent. They do plead for them to go home but that’s with tongue in cheek. They also did a very funny take on She Loves You, with the notion being she loves you, so please take her. My bet is that Lennon and McCartney would have rolled around laughing. How familiar were they with the Beatles work? And do you know if the Beatles were familiar with their work?

DS: Gonna Send ‘Em Home is set to the music of one of their earliest recordings, Boll Weevil, which may have been originally an old-time folk number. They did a few Beatles things, and why not? The Beatles were the biggest thing going at that time. Chet Atkins made guitar versions of their tunes, maybe his familiarity with the music contributed to the idea of Homer and Jethro parodying them. In Jethro’s basement was a picture of Paul McCartney taken in Chet’s house. I don’t know who met who exactly but I’d guess there was a good amount of mutual respect amongst Homer, Jethro, Chet and the four lads. The scenario you envisioned of rolling around laughing is most likely spot on.

* * *

Humour is very much of its time. Some humour loses its lustre in a week, or a month, or a year. Some lasts a long time. Some of Homer and Jethro’s humour might not fly with a modern audience, but much of it is as fresh and funny as it was when it was recorded. They retain an important influence in music and comedy.

I cannot convey my appreciation enough for Don’s patience, insight and wisdom. He is a superb musician and a great teacher, and should you wish to play mandolin, I can highly recommend Don’s teaching materials, and I fully recommend purchasing his albums, particularly if you are a jazz fan.

David Lewis breaks the fundamental rule of comedy often – if you’re not funny, don’t try to be funny. But rules are meant to be broken, right? He’s also a professional mandolin player and guitar player (and bassist and banjoist) and has written over thirty-five toppermosts.

Don Stiernberg is regarded as a leading exponent of jazz mandolin style, and a respected teacher. The most recent of his nine recording projects is “Good Numbers”, a collection of standards and jazz tunes played by his working band, The Don Stiernberg Trio. Also available are four online video mandolin instructional courses for Soundslice.com. More info on where Don or the Trio might be playing next is at his website.

 

Footnotes

For guitar fans, Homer owned Fender Stratocaster 000001. One should note that Fenders serial numbers were not terribly sequential – the manufacture at Fender was usually parts thrown into barrels in the requisite areas and then put together randomly. Which means a part stamped with that number may have been put on the first guitar made, or it may have been the 25th guitar or some other. Nonetheless it was a very early Stratocaster.

Sam Bush plays The Billboard Song – in his Homer & Jethro’s Corner while in isolation during the coronavirus crisis – playing one of Jethro’s mandolins, and wearing one of Jethro’s ties.

 

Let Me Go, Blubber, You Belong To Me #2, Baby It’s Cold Outside, The Billboard Song, Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyeballs, (How Much Is) That Hound Dog In The Window? can be found on the 1997 Razor & Tie CD compilation America’s Song Butchers: The Weird World Of Homer & Jethro. A 2CD set from Jasmine Records, Slaughter The Standards (2013) contains the following Homer & Jethro albums: Barefoot Ballads (1957), The Worst Of Homer & Jethro (1958), Homer & Jethro Strike Back (1962), At The Country Club (1960), Songs My Mother Never Sang (1961). Their version of Over The Rainbow was originally a shellac release in 1947 on King Records, King 596.

 

Homer & Jethro photo 2

Henry “Homer” Haynes (1920–1971)

Kenneth “Jethro” Burns (1920–1989)

 

Country Music Hall of Fame: Homer and Jethro

Homer & Jethro LP Discography

Homer & Jethro singles/EP Discography

Jethro Burns Toppermost #865

Don Stiernberg official website

Homer & Jethro biography (AllMusic)

And these are just some of David’s other Toppermosts: Sam Bush, J.D. Crowe, Béla Fleck, David Grisman, Bill Monroe, New Grass Revival, Buck Owens, Punch Brothers, Hank Williams, “Weird Al” Yankovic

TopperPost #870

1 Comment

  1. Andrew Shields
    May 29, 2020

    Another fine interview. Not completely sure how some of the humour would play with people nowadays – a few of the people I teach would probably have them lynched for it. But what superb musicians they were and the ‘Over The Rainbow’ here is great.

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