Chances are if you were alive and kicking during the American Graffiti nostalgia-inducing summer of 1973 the name “Jim Stafford” elicits echoes of a charming, guy-next-door singer possessing an undeniable knack for weaving clever, humor-soaked tales depicting the outlandish aspect of Southern living.
Born and raised in the Central Florida citrus-growing community of Eloise, Stafford dreamed of becoming a preacher. But fate serendipitously stepped in as the young dreamer noticed his daddy’s old Gibson acoustic guitar collecting dust in a corner.
By the tender age of 16 Stafford was making a living as a guitar picker, holding down lead guitar duties for the Rumours, an enthusiastic high school garage band comprised of future alt country icon Gram Parsons and soft rock purveyor Kent “Lobo” LaVoie.
Moving to Nashville upon high school graduation, solo fame proved to be elusive. But joining Grand Ole Opry member Jumpin’ Bill Carlisle’s band kept the bill collectors at bay. Years later Stafford, down on his luck gigging at a dive bar in Clearwater Beach, Florida, encountered his old buddy Lobo, who had already notched three Top Ten hits including “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo.”
Stafford implored the burgeoning star to visit the bar during closing hours [i.e. daytime] and listen to some of his original material on a beaten-up tape recorder. A tune with a mysterious title, “Swamp Witch,” permeated the cold, dimly lit atmosphere.
Lobo was blown away and emphatically told Stafford that he had a hit on his hands and should enter a recording studio immediately. Stafford was hesitant—still uncertain of his vocal abilities—but Lobo’s resounding confidence in him won at the end of the day. MGM soon signed Stafford to a recording contract, and Lobo produced all of Stafford’s hits on the record label.
In a two-year period the 29-year-old guitarist amassed six Top 40 pop hits on Billboard: the syncopated bayou funk of “Swamp Witch,” the RIAA gold-certified “Spiders & Snakes,” the comma dependent defiance of “My Girl Bill,” the pun-laden “Wildwood Weed,” “Your Bulldog Drinks Champagne, and “I Got Stoned and I Missed It.” It’s utterly impossible to extricate Stafford’s hook-laden lyrics out of your head.
Unfairly dismissed by some critics as strictly a novelty-leaning country artist, Stafford refocused his priorities on love, ubiquitous touring, and television when the hits stopped coming by the late ’70s, guest starring on all the major variety shows of the era and tackling the occasional non-musical role.
Stafford became besotted when he was introduced to elusive “Ode to Billie Joe” chanteuse Bobbie Gentry. The couple officially tied the knot in 1978 and moved to a 120-acre estate outside Somerville, Tennessee. While their union was inexplicably brief at only 11 months, it yielded at least one positive outcome—a son named Tyler.
The dawn of the ’80s brought an enhanced level of career visibility. Clint Eastwood gave Stafford an on-camera role and the opportunity to deliver the silly “Cow Patti” in the box office comedy bonanza Any Which Way You Can.
Disney’s animated The Fox and the Hound had Stafford prominently featured on the soundtrack. He co-hosted ABC’s reality series Those Amazing Animals with a wet-behind-the-ears Priscilla Presley. Johnny Carson apparently took a liking to Stafford’s witty storytelling, booking him 15 times on The Tonight Show over a six-year period. And there was a stint as head writer on the Smothers Brothers’ failed return to prime time in 1988.
Nowadays fans can catch Stafford performing one man shows in his home state or staging more elaborate productions in his custom Branson theater. Incidentally, 2015 marked the entertainer’s 25th anniversary in the Ozark Mountains’ top family vacation destination.
Normally one to shy away from delving too deep into his colorful 50 years and counting career with a prying journalist, today you’re in for a treat as Stafford removes the gloves for a free-wheeling, honest appraisal of his childhood spent growing up within walking distance of the world-renowned Cypress Gardens theme park—back when times were much simpler.
- The Jim Stafford Interview (Part One)
Exactly where were you born—Eloise or Winter Haven, Florida?
I was born and raised in the little bitty town of Eloise, which is adjacent more or less to Winter Haven. As a matter of fact, Cypress Gardens was on Lake Eloise, and I was born only about a mile or two from Cypress Gardens. I used to go fishing when I was a kid, and I would watch the ski show from the lake.
The thing about Eloise is that it sprang up beside a big ole citrus plant—a place where they processed oranges, grapefruit—stuff like that. Everybody just about that I knew worked at that citrus plant. My daddy, Woody Stafford, had a little dry cleaner’s, and he would service the people there.
People always think of Florida as being palm trees, but Eloise was a very countrified little town. We were a bunch of barefoot kids out wandering around the swamps. We went to school without any shoes, too.
Actually when I was in elementary school there were times when I would take my dog Bowzer, and he would just sleep beside me by my desk. There was a singer-comic in Sha Na Na named Jon “Bowzer” Bauman. That’s the only time I ever heard that name used again [laughs].
Back in those days several of the grades I went to were in the same schoolroom. You’d have like second and third or fourth and fifth grades combined. It was a pretty laid back, simple way of life, but I wouldn’t take anything for it. I just had a lot of fun back then.
Were you an only child?
No. I had a sister named Beverly who was three years older than me. Beverly wasn’t musically inclined and didn’t sing or play any instruments. She was quite the character though. She could be very clever and a lot of fun. She was always making people laugh. She had a good time. I’m grateful for that. My mom, dad, and sister have all passed away.
Overall, was your childhood enjoyable?
Yeah, I think so. When I was a kid, I just did anything I could to try to put on shows. I had little puppets I would work with. For a long time, I played harmonica and actually got pretty good at it.
My dad was a guitar player, but I never fooled with it much when I was very young. A friend of mine across the street got a guitar and started playing. So I got my dad’s guitar, and he and I started learning to play guitar together. When you can find a friend to have somebody to knock around with is always a really nice way to learn to play an instrument. Of course, a couple of guitars playing together is very pretty music and a lot of fun. That’s how I learned.
I think I was about 12 years old when that happened. And I can tell you this much—because I’m very proud of it—by the time I was 16 I was making a living with my music. I made a living with my music from age 16 on. I paid for everything. I paid my own way.
As a matter of fact, my dad really wanted me to be in the dry cleaning business. He didn’t want it desperately or anything, but he’d have liked it ‘cuz there he was. I kind of felt bad about that. And so, I made enough money as a young fella, not only to make my way, but I paid the guy that replaced me.
How did your mother, Garland Stafford, feel when she knew that you wanted to be a guitar player?
My mom’s a great mom, and she just wanted me to be happy. She was for it. My dad was, too. I think I was living his dream. He always wanted to be in music, and he just was a little bit too shy or afraid that his family might starve if he tried it because he liked to make music and be around music and musicians.
My mom and dad both lived long enough to see me become successful. My mom passed away a few years before my dad, who died of a massive heart attack at age 86 in 2002. So they got to see the whole thing.
Between 1980 and 1986 you appeared an impressive 15 times on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. During your debut Feb. 27, 1980 appearance you mentioned that you wanted to be a preacher when you were six years old.
I did want to be a preacher—for years. A Methodist church was across the street from our house in Eloise. This was before we had addresses on your home. Back then, everybody had a P.O. Box. My address was the second house on the left behind Shorty’s Shoe Shop [laughs]. It was simple like that. I went to that church seven years straight without missing a Sunday from age 6 to 13. Of course, I was just across the street. I was a front row boy—I sat on the front row every single Sunday.
I was still going to church when I began playing guitar in my teens. Matter of fact, there was another Methodist church that was a ways from my house. Reverend Donnelly was a national fiddle champion when he was just a young boy and was a magnificent musician who could play like the wind.
He wasn’t a great preacher. He would get a little bit lost and stuff. Sometimes he would be in the middle of the sermon and he’d go, “And so the Lord said to…uh…Abraham…no…he said to Moses…well…let’s just play some music” [laughs]. Then me and a couple buddies of mine and the preacher would all wind up playing some gospel music. It’d just work out great. I never did sing back in those days. I only played.
Reverend Donnelly was just the jolliest guy in the world. He would preach some then sometimes his wife would preach. She was a wonderful preacher and just one of these ladies who had a great calling and never preached a single sermon where she didn’t get emotional and get a little bit teary.
You know how it is when you’re just in it like that—you’re in it. She wasn’t just up there reciting words. She was inside this deal. I know what that’s like when somebody gets up in front of other people and they are sincerely absorbed by what they’re saying. In reaching out to touch us, she was touched by her own message. I just thought that was astonishing.
I don’t know if I was really cut out to be a preacher, but I think I was cut out to be some guy that had an audience—just like a preacher has. I don’t know how to say it nicely. Maybe I just wanted everybody to look at me. I know that I wanted to be a performer. When I discovered the guitar around when I was 12 years old, I wound up having an audience.
- DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET! “Just Myself and a Guitar: Funny Shenanigans with Branson Raconteur Jim Stafford” is the next installment of Stafford’s thorough sitdown summit. The “Swamp Witch” yarn spinner sheds light on hanging out with guitar mentor Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, Hank Williams’ final recording, Kent “Lobo” LaVoie, Gram Parsons, Monkee Michael Nesmith, the Bellamy Brothers, songwriting, guitar picking, comedy, and Oscar Hammerstein’s sage advice on composing a good tune.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…When Bobbie Gentry burst onto the pop music landscape during the trippy Summer of Love with the mysterious “Ode to Billie Joe”, usurping the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” from its number one perch, who could have imagined the massive success awaiting her? Gentry was an innovative lyricist who wove rural narratives together with ease and poignancy. “Billie Joe”, a brilliant Southern gothic tale sprinkled with controversial subject matter such as young love, a disapproving family, a baby born out of wedlock, and ultimate suicide, scratches the surface of her fascinating, albeit short-lived career. In “Bobbie Gentry Had the Most Gorgeous Legs Ever,” Grammy-winning “Bridge Over Troubled Water” string arranger Jimmie Haskell examines his role in the singer’s climb to the spotlight and exactly why she abandoned the bright lights of fame for relative obscurity.
To connect via social media with Jeremy Roberts, visit Twitter (@jeremylr) or Facebook.
Further Reading: Cherokee Cowboy Ray Price was an undisputed titan of 20th century country music, melding an indomitable synthesis of hardcore honky tonk and Western swing that kept the charts bursting for over 30 years. Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, George Strait, and a host of contemporary performers clearly owe a huge debt of gratitude to Price. One of his performances that inexplicably slipped under the radar is “Rose Colored Glasses,” released at the height of the suave troubadour’s career in 1965. A special feature, “Deep Country Cut of the Day…,” explains exactly what you’ve been missing.
Exclusive Interview: “I’ve watched John Denver captivate 20,000 people with just his acoustic guitar and soft voice. Similarly, the more laid back Don Williams sings a song, the closer it draws the audience in.” A decade after the tragic passing of the “Annie’s Song” balladeer in an experimental, amateur-built aircraft crash, his final touring pianist, Chris Nole, teamed up with Williams. In “Chris Nole Captures the Dynamics and Subtleties of the Gentle Giant,” Nole offers a play by play account of his musically challenging stint in the Gentle Giant’s band of veteran road dogs, including the appropriate mode of action to implement whenever a piano bench unexpectedly collapses—with you on it—during a live performance.
Exclusive Interview No. 2: One of my proudest moments as a working journalist was getting to spend an hour conversing with American treasure Merle Haggard about his storied career. In “Still Holding His Mud: A Day in the Life of ‘Struggling’ Guitarist Merle Haggard,” the ink slinger waxes nostalgic about learning to play both the fiddle and guitar as a poor but blessed nine-year-old Bakersfield kid in the aftermath of World War II, if he still has those crucial instruments gathering dust in a closet somewhere, raising a Fender Telecaster maestro at the dawn of the 21st century, actually receiving inspiration for a song while sauntering towards a London concert stage, his patented songwriting formula, losing anonymity, and whether stage fright can be conquered.
- Exclusive Interview No. 3: Clint Black, a best selling new traditionalist country artist throughout the 1990s, experienced a Top Five country single with “Untanglin’ My Mind” in 1994, incidentally co-written by none other than Merle Haggard. The duo yielded a second, albeit unlikely collaboration the following year with a Christmas ballad entitled “The Kid.” Black’s primary songwriting compadre by a wide margin is Hayden Nicholas, a Fender Telecaster guitar slinger who has penned somewhere in the neighborhood of 68 released compositions with his “Class of ’89” buddy. In an enjoyable conversation entitled “Talkin’ About the Rain, Merle Haggard, Elvis Presley, and an Imaginary Girl,” the soft-spoken Houstonian relives his tour encounters with the oft-unpredictable, hard-to-find “Okie from Muskogee” troubadour.
Exclusive Interview No. 4: Natural-born raconteur and all-around Nashville entertainer Ronnie McDowell scored 27 Top 40 country singles between 1977 and 1990. Remember “The King Is Gone,” “Wandering Eyes,” “Older Women,” “Watchin’ Girls Go By,” “Step Back,” “You’re Gonna Ruin My Bad Reputation,” “You Made a Wanted Man of Me,” and his duet with Conway Twitty on “It’s Only Make Believe?” When “The King Is Gone” sold six million copies in late 1977, McDowell had a potentially life-altering choice—should he don a jumpsuit and become another Elvis tribute artist, or should he strike out on his own merit as a country singer? In “Still Keepin’ the Fires Burning: A Step Forward with Entertainer Ronnie McDowell,” the consummate crooner leaves no stone unturned as he recalls a 40-year career in front of the limelight.
*****For more high-profile interviews, thought-provoking features, and stunning photography delivered straight to your inbox, CLICK HERE to receive your free subscription to Jeremy Roberts’ pop culture column. And whether you enjoyed or disliked this article, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below to join the discussion. Thank you.
© Jeremy L. Roberts, 2015. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed in full without first contacting the author. Do not copy or paste the article text—please share the URL instead. Headlines with links are also acceptable. Posting any links on social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Instagram, or Google Plus is sincerely appreciated.