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About The Artist
Manuel Clark was an East Tennessee boy who became known as "Old Joe" Clark during a long career, based mainly but not exclusively in Renfro Valley, Kentucky.
Clark was also one of the best examples of a long line of banjo picking comedians that began with Uncle Dave Macon and included Stringbean, Grandpa Jones, Herman the Hermit, and most recently LeRoy Troy.
Clark was given his name from the well known old song of that title and used his old man costume long before he aged into it. But before that, his other nickname was Speedy Clark. Apparently he formed a band when he was in the sixth grade and they called themselves Speedy Clark and the Prairie Cowboys. That effort led to them winning an amateur contest and an appearance on Cliff Carlisle's radio program over WWNC in Asheville, NC.
The story goes that the boys traded a banjo for a radio transmitter and they started doing their broaddcasts from an old chicken house in Erwin. But as fate would have it, someone from the FCC was driving along the highway and found them on the radio and put an immediate stop on that 'operation.'
A native of Ervin, Tennessee, his first association with Renfro Valley dated back to 1942, although he later left to work as a comedian with Bill Monroe about 1949 and 1950.
An obituary indicated he enjoyed the role of "...the grizzled, leg-slapping, foot-stomping, story-telling banjo-plunking Old Joe Clark." The role grew out of a need for a quick change, old-character act for Renfro Valley that wouldn't be hard to get into costume between acts. He was quoted, "So I became everybody's old drunk grandpaw or an old uncle they knew about" from a 1982 interview. He said he was using the voice of his old aunt, the way she talked and his grandpaw's sayings. He said they broke up the English language in such a way that you would sweart it came out of a book.
In 1949, John Lair went on a tour of the south. The Mulkey Brothers (Ray and Shug) along with Old Joe Clark and Shorty Sheehan took John's 7:15am show over WHAS in Louisville. The four of them were also known on other programs as the Glory Land Quartette, where Old Joe would do the bass harmony.
Clark returned to Renfro Valley in 1950 and spent most of the remaining forty-eight years of his life there. As Renfro Valley downsized with the decline of network radio, he added such talents to his resume as disc jockey at WRVK and also operated a service station and with his wife a restaurant called Belly Acres.
He recorded mostly for smaller record labels over the years and was known for such songs as "Old Age Won't Kill You," "Lost John Dean," and familiar numbers associated with his trade as "Mountain Dew" and "Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy."
On May 16 and 17, 1964, Old Joe Clark was part of a Grand Ole Opry cast that put on a show at the Madison Square Garden arena that was put together by Vic Lewis.
He was in a movie called "Country Music on Broadway." Ralph Emery played the emcee in the movie and the stage coordinator. During the movie, the script called for Old Joe Clark to go up to Ralph at various times to try and get on the show. But Ralph's character would not let him. Well, Ralph noted that some folks in Kentucky thought it was 'real' and were kind of ticked off at Ralph's treatment of one of their own.
In later years, he was usually accompanied by his son Terry who sang standard bluegrass songs and served as straight man to Joe's comedy.
He passed away in 1999 after undergoing agdominal surgery in a Richmond hospital. Ironically, another banjo player named Grandpa Jones had passed away the day before.
Credits & Sources