Left to right: Promotional images of Roni Stoneman as “Ida Lee” from Hee Haw from the Birthplace of Country Music Museum archives, Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon as Minnie Pearl sporting her signature hat and price tag courtesy of the Grand Ole Opry archives and Cynthia Mae Carver as Cousin Emmy courtesy of Georgia State University Digital Collections
Toni Doman-Vandyke is Grants Coordinator and Curatorial Specialist at the Birthplace of Country Music
August 16th is National Tell A Joke Day! Comedy and country music have a long and enduring history. From the extravagant days of vaudeville variety act performances in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to early barn dance radio programs of the 1930s, comedians and musicians were regularly featured.
Comedians brought their wit – be it silly, old-fashioned, and sometimes crude – to the stage to entertain audiences, oftentimes with humor focused on a rural country lifestyle. Some of the first comedians to be a part of the WSM’s Grand Ole Opry program in the 1930s included Sarie and Sally, a female comedic duo, and arguably the Opry’s most well-known comedian, Minnie Pearl, who later went on to be a cast member of Hee Haw, which ran for 25 seasons from 1969 until 1993. Humor can break down boundaries, engage and entertain people, and has the ability to connect listeners and audiences deeply through a shared experience of laughter. Comedy is deeply intertwined with the genres of and relating to country music, with many memorable funny and satirical songs by musicians through the years. Today contemporary artists still carry on the tradition of writing ironic, satirical and humorous songs.
I’m a huge fan of side-splitting country songs, with some of my earliest musical memories include “discovering” Ray Stevens and “The Mississippi Squirrel Revival“,and listening to every whimsical goofy tune by Roger Miller (personal favorite: “My Uncle Used to Love Me But She Died”). Upon doing research for this blog post, I found that most “funny country songs” are written and performed by male artists. However, female performers – despite historically facing challenges, such as the assumption that women aren’t funny and gender discrimination surrounding what might be appropriate for a female performer to sing or speak about on stage – have made their comic mark in the country genre too. Therefore, to celebrate National Tell a Joke Day, here’s a roundup of music and stories by some of my favorite funny female country music comedians and entertainers. From Cousin Emmy to Dolly Parton, women have been getting the last laugh for years!
Lulu Belle and Scotty – “Store Bought Teeth”
How are false teeth like stars?
They come out at night!
This novelty song about “store bought teeth” by Lulu Belle (born Myrtle Eleanor Cooper) and Scotty Wiseman features comical lyrics of problems that might just occur should you have fake teeth and you dig into the taffy candy (not advised). Lulu Belle and Scotty were known as “The Sweethearts of Country Music” first meeting one another on the WLS National Barn Dance in the mid 1930s. Together they both had successful careers in country music performing across the Midwest and even appeared in seven films.
“Well a feller called and said his name was Slim, and he wanted me to work for him
And I said boy I always aim to please
So I signed upon the dotted line and everything was just going fine
Then he led me to a 90 foot trapeze
Well he handed me some kites like them folks wear
And he pulled me way up in the air
Then hollered “hang on by your teeth and wait!”
And then it happened the things I feared
When the screaming stopped and the dust had cleared
The only thing hanging was my plate
Store bought teeth and taffy candy
Store bought teeth and taffy candy”
Cousin Emmy on Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest
What kind of music do balloons hate?
Cynthia Mae Carver, known professionally as Cousin Emmy, began playing music as a young girl, mastering the fiddle, banjo, guitar, harmonica, ukulele, and musical saw, and even playing music on a rubber glove. She performed on local radio stations, and in 1935 she won the National Old Time Fiddlers’ Contest, which brought her better gigs and eventually larger radio markets in Knoxville, Tennessee, and St. Louis, Missouri. Very few recorded performances exist of Cousin Emmy, though this excerpt from the 1944 film “Swing in the Saddle” by Lew Landers features one of her stage performances during her career heyday. The video below features another rare recording from Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest, a program focused on folk music. At mark 7:30 of the video, you can catch Cousin Emmy playing “You Are My Sunshine” on the rubber glove!
Roni Stoneman – “Going Up Cripple Creek”
How can you tell the difference between all the banjo songs?
By their names.
Veronica “Roni” Stoneman is an accomplished banjo player and comedian, and she was a long-time cast member of Hee Haw from 1972 to 1990, known for playing the skillet-wielding “Ida Lee Nagger” character, as seen in this YouTube clip. She is the 14th child and youngest daughter of Ernest and Hattie Stoneman, old-time artists who recorded at the 1927 Bristol Sessions. With a career spanning a lifetime in music and stage performances, Roni is a true entertainer. This video of “Going Up Cripple Creek” features a performance by the Stoneman Family from 1967, with Roni playing the banjo with a stoic attitude and expression-less face, totally out of character (but still a hilarious performance) from her normal upbeat and energetic stage personality.
Mother Maybelle and The Carter Sisters – “Well I Guess I Told You Off”
Did you hear about the cow that tried to jump the fence and missed?
Some of my absolute favorite funny recordings feature Mother Maybelle Carter and The Carter Sisters with tunes like “Root Hog Or Die”, “Too Old To Cut the Mustard” and “Well I Guess I Told You Off” when sisters Helen, June, and Anita each take turns singing lines of the chorus. Their amusing performances always make me laugh!
The three daughters of Maybelle Carter began performing with her publicly as The Carter Sisters after the original Carter Family (A. P., Sara, and Maybelle) disbanded in 1943. The Carter Sisters appeared on numerous radio and television shows, performed live, and became regulars on the Grand Ole Opry. June, in particular, honed her comedic skills with the group, bringing a folksy charm and humor to many of their stage performances.
“If brains were thousand dollar bills
I’d tell you what we’d bet
You wouldn’t have enough
To buy a cup of coffee yet
Well, that ain’t the way I heared it
But here’s a thought for you
Your’s might as well be coffee grounds
For all the thinking they’ll do
Well I guess I told you off
That ought to hold you for a spell
Furthermore if you don’t like it
You can pack tonight, get out of sight
And go jump in the well!”
Dolly Parton – Songwriter and Storyteller
“I’m not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes because I know I’m not dumb…and I also know that I’m not blonde.” – Dolly Parton
Finally, this clip features legendary living musician and singer-songwriter Dolly Parton, highlighting her character and charisma through humor and storytelling – a regular hallmark of her shows and appearances. With a successful career spanning over 50 years, she released her first album Hello I’m Dolly, in February of 1967, which included her first hit, “Dumb Blonde,” a song that called out female stereotypes. Soon after she was invited to be the regular “girl singer” on The Porter Wagoner Show. At the six-minute mark in the video below, Dolly dives into a witty and humorous tale as a guest on The Tonight Show, cracking the entire audience up by the end of her tale.
If you liked the female artists and their featured funny songs, check out these additional hilarious comedic country songs by female artists:
- “You’re the Reason Our Kids are Ugly” by Lorretta Lynn & Conway Twitty
- “Ugly and Slouchy” by The Maddox Brothers and Rose
- “Plastic Jesus” by Tia Blake
- “Harper Valley P.T.A” by Jeannie C. Riley
- “Did I Shave My Legs for This?” by Deana Carter
- “Philadelphia Lawyer” by Rose Maddox
- “Goodbye Earl” by The Chicks