“If I’m lying, I’m dying” was a typical refrain Howard Gerald “Jerry” Clower used to punctuate his comedy routines inspired by growing up in the rural South. He was born on 28 September 1926 in Liberty and liked to say he “backed into show business” as a popular humorist. He was already in his early forties when MCA Records signed him. He made nearly thirty albums, spun tales as a member of the Grand Ole Opry, and was a frequent guest on the television variety series Hee Haw.
Some of the first audiences who enjoyed his homespun humor were aboard the USS Bennington C-20. Clower joined the US Navy when he was seventeen and served on the aircraft carrier during World War II, earning three battle stars and a presidential citation for bravery. After the war Clower attended Southwestern Mississippi Community College and Mississippi State University, where he played football. In 1947, he married Homerline Wells, his high school sweetheart, whom he said “flung a craving” on him. They went on to have four children. Clower graduated from Mississippi State in 1951 with a degree in agriculture and moved to Oxford, where he worked as an assistant county agent. Two years later he accepted a job as a fertilizer salesman for Mississippi Chemical Corporation in Yazoo City. His sales increased when he entertained farmers with stories about “coon hunting, rat killin,’” and his colorful neighbors, leading to his new career. His first album, Jerry Clower from Yazoo City, Mississippi Talkin’ (1971) was a recording of one of his talks. It became one of his two gold records, selling more than half a million copies in just one month.
Clower was proud to be a Southern Baptist and served as a deacon at East Fork Baptist Church. His faith informed how he saw the world and, as he wrote in his autobiography, “pricked his conscience” about race relations. By 1970 he was publicly denouncing hypocrites and often asked how they could “let God run every fiber of their being except how they treat blacks.” His public statements about his convictions led to verbal abuse of his children and to threats to burn down his house.
Rednecks and good old boys were staples of his comedic routines. Like other gifted southern storytellers, he drew out vowels (“JAY-reee Clower”) to add color and rhythm to his stories. “You know a man is a Redneck if the front porch falls and [pause] always kills about four dogs,” he’d say. He was a major influence on comedians Jeff Foxworthy and Bill Engvall. Clower’s albums made eight appearances on the Billboard country list between 1971 and 1981, including Clower Power, which reached No. 7 in 1973. The posthumously released double-CD Classic Clower Power hit No. 4 among Billboard’s top comedy albums for the week ending 3 June 2006.
Clower was a tenacious man with a strong will to succeed. He called this quality his “bulldog, hang-on feverishness.” Known for his flashy suits and vivacious personality, he delighted audiences at military bases, association meetings, and state fairs, performing until just prior to his death in Jackson on 24 August 1998 as a result of complications from heart bypass surgery. In 1991 he said, “Ain’t no feeling like that of walking away from where you’ve performed knowing you’ve pleased the audience, you’ve pleased the man that hired you, and you’ve pleased the critic.” Part of Highway 49 in Yazoo City was renamed Jerry Clower Boulevard, and the city holds an annual Jerry Clower Festival.
- Simon J. Bronner, in Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, ed. Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris (1989)
- Chet Flippo, Billboard (5 September 1998)
- Wade Jessen, Billboard (3 June 2006)
- Mississippi Writers Page website, www.olemiss.edu/mwp/