Bluegrass Comedians


This Contest is Closed
The winner is Todd Evans

In the earlier days of bluegrass, it was standard procedure to have a band member perform “comedy”, usually of the “Toby” variety (“Toby” being an ancient stage trope of a stupid country character). Perhaps the Osborne Brothers were the first band to do away with the bass playing comic in the 1950s. Reno & Smiley did elaborate skits including ALL the band members under the name of “Chicken & Pansy Hot Rod”. Red Smiley in a wig as Pansy was quite a sight. The Country Gentlemen included some light comedy well up into the 1980s or so, usually just gentle kidding or “Dad jokes”. Charlie Waller: What kind of a creature lives in the sea and has two knees? Answer: A two-knee fish…

The most famous and longest running comedy act was Cousin Jake and Uncle Josh with Flatt & Scruggs. Jake even did a comic bit at CARNEGIE HALL when F&S headlined there in 1962. They did some sort of bit on every Flatt & Scruggs Martha White Flour tv show.

The last band that I saw doing comedy bits was in the 1990s – David Davis & the Warrior River Boys. And the bits just didn’t work, as each band member was rooted to his own personal microphone and it wasn’t obvious (visually) to the audience what was going on.

DECEMBER 8, 2023 TRIVIA QUESTION

Here’s your trivia question – among the founders and pioneers of bluegrass, which band had a comic character by the name of “Uncle Puny”?

A. The Stanley Brothers & the Clinch Mtn Boys

B. Jim & Jesse & the Virginia Boys

C. The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers

D. Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys

E. Bill Clifton & the Dixie Mtn Boys

F. Jimmy Martin & the Sunny Mtn Boys

G. None of the above

ANSWER is “D. Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys”

Additional Bowden Comments

Well done to Todd Evans for choosing D, Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys for having a comedian called “Uncle Puny”. Monroe actually had several different comedians over the years, dating all the way back to when he was half of the Monroe Brothers. He and Charlie Monroe actually did blackface comedy bits!! BILL in blackface!!! It was something about a guy (Bill) applying to a factory manager (Charlie) for a job. I’ve never seen it, but I’ve read about it.

Of course banjoist Stringbean worked for Bill for a couple of years during WWII and no doubt he was doing comic bits. When bassist Howard Watts joined the band by 1946 he took on the comic persona “Cedric Rainwater”. Cedric was so popular that later Flatt & Scruggs had a different bass player (Chuck Johnson) and they called him Cedric’s cousin “Little Jody Rainwater”.

Monroe also employed the infamous vaudeville comedian, dancer, and bass and fiddle player Chick Stripling. In fact Chick worked for “the big 3” bluegrass founders; Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers! Chick was kind of a rough character, prone to drink, but he knew how to entertain (if you could keep him under control). I have a tape of a live show by the Stanleys at Oberlin College where Chick is featured — A LOT. He joked (sometimes ribald), he danced, he played bass, and he played a featured fiddle number called “Johnson’s Old Grey Mule” which the band actually put on a record! Chick introduced the piece saying “If you listen real close you can hear a mule in this song — if you look real close you can see one!” Chick was quite funny. But by the end of the show Chick was starting to get a little fresh with the girls in the audience, so Carter Stanley wrapped up the show pretty quick and Ralph played ’em off!

Perhaps the most famous of Monroe’s comedians was a musician/hanger-on who went by the name of “Sparkplug”.

All these guys did what was known as “baggy pants” comedy. A baggy pants comic looked like a dumb hobo but had country smarts and wisecracks.

I have another live tape of Monroe at Bean Blossom in the early 1950s where he did straight man work for Uncle Puny. Here’s a bit they did.

Bill: How do you like it here in Indiana Uncle Puny?
U.P.: Oh fine, while we were over there in Nashville Indiana I went into a rooster-ranch there on the Main Street…
Bill: You mean restaurant..
U.P.: Yeah, rooster-ranch..
Bill: Restaurant…
U.P.: Yeah anyways so I go into this rooster-ranch…
Bill: Restaurant
U.P.: Yeah and I set down and the waitress came over to me and asked what I’d have. I says “Do you have frogs legs?” And she answered, “No honey, that’s just the way I walk…”

For some reason, the comedian was usually a bass player in bluegrass.

The other potential answers:

Stanley Brothers: like Monroe they almost always featured a comedian at least in their “flush” years before rock ‘n’ roll wiped out bluegrass and country. They had a feller named Tennessee Mort who did droll sound effects like farm animals and Model T Fords and trains. Many other Clinch Mtn Boys were expected to do jokes and bits. Chick Stripling was the most famous/infamous. On a tour of US Army bases in Europe in 1965-66 with a big folk music show, Chick got so out of control midway through the tour that Carter beat the sh*t out of him in a hotel room. Chick was taken to an airport and sent back to the USA bloody and bruised! Mike Seeger played bass for the rest of the tour. The Stanleys’ other well known comedian was Big Wilbur, played by Melvin Goins in a horrid pea green suit with HUGE white polka dots on it.

Jim & Jesse in their earlier days of the 1950s and early 1960s had a bass player in baggy pants and a bowler hat named Joe Binglehead.

I imagine the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers did comedy, but have no detailed knowledge. I know Charlie Cline (fiddler/banjo player) was something of a joke teller anyway.

Monroe was the right answer.

Bill Clifton: I’m unaware if he had comedians, but sort of doubt it. He was very serious about the music.

Jimmy Martin: Jimmy was much like Teddy Roosevelt — he wanted to be the star of everything all the time. They used to say about T.R. “He wanted to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral”. That was Jimmy Martin to a T. Jimmy’s idea of comedy was insulting his band members AND members of the audience while on stage. So if there was “comedy”, Jimmy would have been the “comedian”. I saw a lot of Jimmy Martin sets at festivals, and sometimes Jimmy was “inadvertently” funny.

I think a really talented comedian could “work” again in bluegrass! Probably Steve Martin with the Steep Canyon Rangers is the closest thing nowadays.

Dick Bowden

Dick Bowden recently retired after a 45 year career in the paper industry, and moved from Connecticut to Big Indian NY (Ulster County) where he ekes out a precarious existence as a groundskeeper. Dick has been performing bluegrass music on banjo and guitar since 1966 in his home state of Maine, throughout New England, and internationally with The Case Brothers - Martin & Gibson. He has performed for HVBA with the Old Time Bluegrass Singers, and also sent in a squadron of Dick Bowden's Flying Circus. Most recently Dick has played Dobro (tm) with the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band. Dick has written many articles for Bluegrass Unlimited, Bluegrass Today, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass magazine) and HVBA.

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