Storytelling is not only something we do in the South, the ability to tell a story is point of pride and even serves to set a man’s status in his community. And nobody ever did that better than the gentleman from Route 4, Liberty, Mississippi, Jerry Clower. These days, he’s a memory of a time gone by, a simpler more honest time when a man wasn’t ashamed to tell a story without cussing, or say he loves his wife and his God, and make you laugh until you cry. Today, some folks would look at him as a bit of nostalgic, corny down-home humor. Those folks would be dead wrong. Clower was as fine an entertainer, comedian and storyteller as anyone you care to name.
Now, mind you, Jerry was already a fixture by the time I heard him, when I was a youngun in the ’70s. In fact, I’m sure his star was at its zenith in those days. Everybody — at least in the state of Mississippi, which, in my world meant everybody — knew who he was and could tell you without a second’s hesitation a favorite Clower story. And, believe me, there were plenty.
Clower was born in the Delta lands of southwest Mississippi in 1926. To say he grew up poor and farming wouldn’t necessarily distinguish him because in those days, nearly everybody in the state grew up that way. He joined the Navy right after high school as a radioman. When his enlistment was up, he returned home and went to Mississippi State University, where he studied agriculture (what else?) and played football. And after getting his degree, he took a job as a salesman, selling fertilizer (a perfect metaphor for a storyteller) for Mississippi Chemical in the ’50s. Naturally, his storytelling skills helped him in his job and his job gave him ample opportunity to hone his storytelling skills.
His reputation flew across the state like a hawk on a mouse, and before long he was making records — and selling them by the thousands. By 1973, he joined the Grand Ole Opry. And by the time I first heard him, when I was about 12 or so, he was seemingly everywhere — radio, TV, 8-track tapes, albums, you name it. Our family car’s AM radio, permanently set to the most god-awful country station my father could find, introduced me to the man who was already being called “The Mouth of Mississippi.” And was he ever. An energetic man, Clower punctuated his stories with a boisterous “HAAAAWWW” and “HOOOOBOY lemmetellyou.” No trip to Granny’s, or to town, or even to the grocery store, was complete without being regaled with a story about the Ledbetters, football, hunting or all of the above.
Nearly all of his stories centered around growing up in Yazoo County (“Route 4, Liberty Mississippi”), and you’d think stories of growing up poor in the Delta would be depressing or boring. But with Clower, it wasn’t so much the story as it was in the telling. I’m sure he could tell a story about checking the mail and make it last 20 minutes — and have you laughing the entire time. Many of his tales involved the famous Ledbetter family: Uncle Versie, Aunt Pet, Ardel, Burnel, Raynel, W.L., Lanel, Odell, Eudel, Marcel, Claude, Newgene, and Clovis. Marcel usually took a leading a role, as in the story we knew as “Marcel and the Beer Joint.” His most famous was “A Coon Huntin’ Story,” which if you’ve never heard, stop what you’re doing right now and listen to it here. If memory serves, it was the first Clower story I ever heard. His delivery was pure country dialect, like when he refers to a lynx as a “souped-up wildcat,” but you never felt it was an act, because it wasn’t.
I saw him perform in Jackson when I was still in high school, at the big city coliseum. He regaled us for what seemed like hours, and finished with a smile. I was part of a huge group of Baptist youth (and Jerry was unabashedly Southern Baptist back before we used words like “evangelical” and “religious right”), and I remember him saying something about all of us (“God’s children”) gathered there and how proud he was to be an American, a Baptist and married to the only woman he ever laid a hand on, Homerline Wells Clower. His legacy was far more than that of a quaint Southern man tellin’ stories. Lewis Grizzard, Jeff Foxworthy, Ron White, Larry the Cable Guy, all of them owe Jerry Clower a tip of their hat.
Do yourself a favor. Sit down with a glass of tea on the porch and listen to a few of Jerry’s tales. He’ll introduce you to a South that’s still out there, if you know where to look.