Henderson County native was country music legend.
Louis Marshall Jones, best known to the world as “Grandpa Jones,” died 15 years ago today, Thursday, February 19, 1998
in Hermitage, Tennessee following two strokes in January of that year.
Music City paid tribute to the 84-year-old Country Music Hall of Famer on February 24th, 1998, during the first memorial service ever held at the Grand Ole Opry. With Jones’ death came the end of such immediately recognizable symbols as wire-rimmed glasses, banjo, old knee-high boots and suspenders. These items were placed on a corner of the dimly-lit Opry stage during the service.
Born Louis Marshall Jones in the Henderson County, Kentucky community of Niagara on October 20, 1913, his father, David Clinton Jones, bought farms and sold them, moving frequently. Within the first 10 years of his life, Louis lived in Niagara, Smith Mills, Kentucky, Evansville, Indiana, and back to Smith Mills. His teen years saw the family in Ohio.
Jones began playing mandolin and fiddle as a youngster, and also learned to play a 75-cent guitar.
He is credited with being one of the most recognizable country artists in the industry, with his trademark suspenders, banjo, white moustache and mischievous grin. The man who dubbed himself “everybody’s grandpa” actually started that act when he was only 22, while working with ballad singer Bradley Kincaid at WBZ Boston. Kincaid complained that Jones’ grouchiness during early morning radio shows reminded him of an old man, according to Barry McCloud’s “Definitive Country.” Vaudeville comic Bert Swor helped Jones develop his “Grandpa” look and act.
Jones married Ramona Riggins, also a talented fiddler who often performed with him. They were married in 1947 by the late Rev. E. Keevil Judy of Henderson County.
After they married, the couple moved to Nashville, where Jones first worked on the Opry in 1946. He traveled throughout the United States – working on a variety of radio and television shows – until 1959, when he returned to Nashville and became a regular on the Opry.
Ten years later, he joined the original cast of television’s “Hee Haw.” Jones was best known for his banjo playing, singing and comedy on the show, which ran from 1968 to 1993.
In his most famous segment, cast members would ask in unison, “Hey Grandpa, what’s for supper?”
Jones would respond exuberantly with a lip-smacking menu of country food, “Corn bread and gravy, candied yams, butter beans, and blueberry cobbler. The more to eat, the more to spare.”
Jones was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1978. He also received honors from his home county. In 1996, Smith Mills Cemetery Road was renamed Grandpa Jones Drive. In 2002, Jones was among 12 “pioneers” of Kentucky music who were inducted into the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame & Museum in Lexington. “Pioneers” are defined as “those who shaped or so profoundly affected the evolution of music that it prepared the way of others who followed.”
Jones visited his birthplace occasionally. Among his local appearances in recent years was a show at Henderson Community College in 1991 that was part of the Raymond B. Preston Lecture Series.
Throughout his life, Jones remained the same person, never changing despite his success, said Jones’ niece, Eleanor Jones Burdge, who lives in the Smith Mills area. “He was country,” Burdge said. “He was the same man as when he left here.”
Bob Whittaker, president and General Manager of the Opry, listed qualities he remembered about Jones: quick smile, quick wit, ever-present twinkle in his eye, the times he would forget the punch line to a joke or the name of his longtime friend and famous supper menus he could quickly reel off in rhyme.
Vince Gill, who performed at the Opry the weekend following Jones’ death, remembered Jones with a song Gill had written 15 years ago for his own grandfather, titled “My Old Grandpa.” “As all of you know,” Gill told the audience, “we lost one of our real heroes two nights ago. I’ve written a song that I wrote a long, long time ago after my grandfather passed away, and I thought it’d be appropriate to sing tonight. Never recorded it, so enjoy a song about grandpas.”
Many of Jones’ Opry and “Hee Haw” friends were among the 1,200 people in attendance at his memorial service on February 24th. Following the memorial service, a private ceremony was held by the family near Goodlettsville, north of Nashville.
“The world is a sadder place without the laughter that always surrounded Grandpa.”
Sources: www.hendersonkyhistory.com; Netta Mullin, HCH&GS 2002