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Roy Clark, country star and longtime 'Hee Haw' host, dead at 85

Roy Clark was best known for hosting the TV show 'Hee Haw' for nearly a quarter century.
Credit: Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Country Music Hall of Fame
Roy Clark arrives at The 2016 Medallion Ceremony at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on October 16, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee.

According to his publicist, Country Music Hall of Fame member and versatile entertainer Roy Clark died Thursday at his Tulsa, Oklahoma home due to complications from pneumonia. He was 85 years old.

A fleet-fingered instrumentalist best known for his 20-plus years as a "Hee Haw" co-host, the affable Clark was one of country music's most beloved ambassadors.

He brought heart and humor to audiences around the world, guest-hosted "The Tonight Show," worked with greats like Hank Williams and blues artist Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, and inspired countless pickers, including a young Brad Paisley, with his instructional guitar books.

"He's honest," said fellow Country Music Hall of Famer Harold Bradley when Clark was inducted in 2009. "Whether he's playing guitar or singing, he's honest. Whatever he does, he sparkles."

Roy Linwood Clark was born Apr. 15, 1933 in Meherrin, Virginia. The oldest of five children, he grew up in a musical family.

He learned how to play banjo at a early age, but it was the guitar that spoke to him. "When I strummed the strings for the first time, something clicked inside me," he told The Tennessean in 1987.

Within weeks of learning his first chords, the teenage Clark was playing behind his father at area square dances. Not long after that, he was performing on local radio and television.

"The camera was very kind to me, and I consider myself to be a television baby," Clark said in 2009. "At first, it wasn't that I was so talented, but they had to fill time...So they'd say, 'Well, let's get the kid.' Later, I got to where when I looked at the camera, I didn't see a mechanical device. I saw a person."

While still in his teens, he won banjo-playing championships, and, in 1949, worked briefly on a show fronted by Hank Williams.

Clark's deft musicianship caught the ear of Jimmy Dean, who performed on television and radio in the Washington, D.C. area. Dean hired the young musician, then fired him due to his repeated tardiness. "He said, 'Clark, you're gonna be a big star someday, but right now I can't afford to have someone like you around," Clark remembered in a 1988 Tennessean article.

Dean's prediction came true, eventually.

During his early days in Nashville, Clark and banjo player David "Stringbean" Akeman worked any stage they could find. "We would play drive-in theaters, standing on top of the projection booth," Clark told The Tennessean in 2009. "If the people liked it, they'd honk their horns."

Las Vegas to Leningrad

In 1960, Clark joined rockabilly/country artist Wanda Jackson's band, playing guitar and opening her shows at the Golden Nugget Hotel in Las Vegas.

Jackson was on Capitol Records, and after Ken Nelson, the label's A&R man, heard Clark at one of her concerts, he signed him.

As a solo artist, Clark's breakout hit in 1963 came when his version of Bill Anderson's "Tips of My Fingers" hit No. 10 on the country charts, and he found crossover success with the 1969 smash "Yesterday, When I Was Young." (In 1995, he performed that song at Mickey Mantle's funeral.)

Clark's role as Buck Owens' overall-clad comedic foil on "Hee Haw," combined with hits like "Thank God and Greyhound" and "Come Live with Me" endeared him to country audiences in the '70s. In 1973, he won the Country Music Association's Entertainer of the Year Award; later in the decade he won a slew of CMA Instrumentalist of the Year Awards, both as a solo musician and with Buck Trent.

As an entertainer, Clark forged his own trail. He became one of the first country stars to tour the Soviet Union when he embarked on an 18-date excursion with the Oak Ridge Boys. Twelve years later, he returned to the U.S.S.R. for a "friendship tour."

He was also first country star to open a theater in Branson, Missouri. The Roy Clark Celebrity Theater opened in 1983 —the same year he won the Best Country Instrumentalist Performance Grammy Award for his recording of "Alabama Jubilee" —and several other artists followed him to the tourist-friendly town.

In 1987, Clark became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2009 alongside Barbara Mandrell and Charlie McCoy.

When the Country Music Association celebrated the 50th annual CMA Awards in 2016, Clark, seated with a five-string banjo on his lap, and Paisley helped kick off the show. They played Buck Owens' "Tiger By the Tail," but it was their reenactment of Owens and Clark's most famous "Hee Haw" lines that brought the loudest cheers: "I'm a-pickin'..."

"...and I'm a-grinnin'."

After the awards, Paisley wrote on Twitter, "I will never, ever get over this moment."

Funeral arrangements are unknown at this time.