Homer Haynes remains the standard by which two things are judged: rhythm guitarists and, thanks to his comedic legacy as half of Homer and Jethro, the song parody.
Henry Doyle Haynes was born July 27, 1920 in Knoxville, Tennessee. His father, Henry Sr., was a baker by trade. He built his son, nicknamed "Junior," a guitar when little Henry was four. The youngster began teaching himself how to play the instrument. By the age of 12 Junior was a seasoned veteran performer, having sung in the church choir that his father directed and mother played the piano for as well as on the radio with his older sister.
In 1932 Junior and two friends went to radio station WNOX to audition for an amateur musician contest. As he waited to perform Haynes began chatting with the mandolin player from another band also there to try to win the audition. The mandolin player introduced himself as Dude Burns. In their conversation they discovered they had music tastes that were similar yet very unlike most of the other boys in Knoxville. While others listened to the Carter Family and Pop Stoneman, both of these boys professed a love for Django Reinhardt and Fats Waller. They began to pass the time by playing some of the tunes they both knew. When the talent judge came to get another act for the audition he overheard the two boys playing and decided their skills were far too advanced. "You ain't amateurs," he told them as he disqualified them from the competition. The next day, both boys were members of the WNOX studio band, each earning three dollars a week.
By 1935 Dude -- whose real name was Kenneth Charles Burns -- and Junior had a jazz/swing band called the String Dusters. Within this act Dude and Junior had a comedy routine of performing pop songs with exaggerated, nasal vocals and fast-paced melodies. Although the music of the String Dusters was hardly successful in the city that gave rise to the careers of many future Country Music Hall of Fame acts, Dude and Junior were a big hit.
One night in 1936 they waited to perform in the theater next to WNOX's studios when Lowell Blanchard, the program director for WNOX and event announcer, forgot their names. He called them to the stage with an improvised name, one they kept from that day forward. Their new names were Homer and Jethro.
By 1939 the String Dusters, after numerous jobs in Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Bristol, were history, leaving Homer and Jethro alone. They moved to the Renfro Valley Barn Dance in Kentucky at the end of 1939, shortly after the death of Homer's father Henry Sr. at the age of 43 from heart disease. They became regulars on the popular barn dance program that had the added feature of being carried on network radio.
While Homer and Jethro enjoyed success at Renfro Valley and on personal appearances the nation was bracing for World War II. Since both were of draft-eligible age, Jethro joined the Army shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor. While waiting for his number to be called Homer remained at Renfro Valley as a solo performer. He also married Elizabeth Coleman, a bass player and notable yodeling singer on the Barn Dance program.
Homer was drafted in September 1942, just two months before the birth of his first son. He named his son Kenneth, the same first name as his musical partner who, by that time, was an infantryman in the Pacific theater. After his basic training Homer was assigned to the 414th Medical Corps where he trained as a medic. He was promoted to corporal then to Tech5 before being shipped to the European theater.
Jethro was discharged from the Army on November 1, 1945 after serving his four years. One month later, December 1, 1945, Homer's tour of duty ended. He and his family settled in Cincinnati, where Jethro had discovered they could find work at WLW in Cincinnati. A week after Homer's discharge the duo resumed performing on the radio. Homer and Jethro would never be apart again for the rest of their career.
The duo was signed to King Records in 1946. WLW, however, prohibited its artists from making records. Some artists used pseudonyms to get around WLW's ban; others, such as Homer and Jethro, marched on to their own beat. By 1948 they left Cincinnati with a new bride for Jethro (he had married a member of WLW's singing "Johnson Twins") and a new record label: RCA.
The first thing they recorded was a parody of pop songwriter Frank Loesser's big hit "Baby, It's Cold Outside." The girl part in the song was performed by June Carter, a member of the Carter Family. RCA thought Loesser might take issue with the song so they let him hear it before release. Loesser put the label's minds at ease when he asked that RCA issue the single with the songwriter credit, "With apologies to Frank Loesser." Later, when Homer and Jethro released Homer & Jethro Fracture Frank Loesser
, Loesser gladly wrote the liner notes.
Thanks to the success of their first single, the two became known as "The Song Butchers." No one was safe from Homer and Jethro. Very few wanted
to be safe, for the parody was a good way of keeping interest in a song. No less than the country music legend, Hank Williams, declared that no song could be rightfully considered "successful" unless Homer and Jethro had performed a parody of the song.
Homer settled with his family in the Chicago suburb of Lansing, Illinois close to his mother-in-law's residence in Hammond, Indiana. Jethro and his wife and baby were on the opposite end of Chicago, in the northeast suburb of Evanston.
Throughout the 1950s Homer and Jethro released numerous singles, winning a BMI award for "I'm Movin' On #2" and a gold record for "How Much is that Hound Dog in the Window." They joined the WLS National Barn Dance, which was (at the time) the oldest country radio barn dance-type program on radio. They also became one of country music's first acts to appear regularly in the posh, pop-oriented entertainment venues of Las Vegas.
1959 proved to be a magical year. It began in January when Homer and his wife became the parents of twins. Later that year Homer and Jethro became parents of their biggest hit, a spoof of Johnny Horton's historically-themed smash hit "The Battle of New Orleans." Their rendition, "The Battle of Kookamonga," raised a few eyebrows and a considerable amount of negative reaction from the Girl Scouts of America because of the playful antics of the boys in the camp watching the Girl Scouts while hiding out in the woods. On November 30 Homer and Jethro were awarded the Grammy for "Best Comedy Recording - Musical." To date, they remain the only act in country music to ever receive a Grammy in the "Comedy" category.
Fresh off their Grammy victory, Homer and Jethro recorded a landmark live album, Homer and Jethro at the Country Club.
It remains one of the most popular albums in Homer and Jethro's discography as well as praise as one of the best live albums ever. They would record another live album a year later, Homer and Jethro at the Convention
. In 1962 RCA allowed Homer and Jethro to step out of their comedy roles and into the role that everyone in the industry respected them for: their outstanding musicianship. Their album Playing It Straight
allowed the general public an opportunity to discover what most professional musicians had known for decades: neither Homer, on rhythm guitar, nor Jethro, on mandolin, had a musical equal.
Throughout the 1960s Homer and Jethro were everywhere: salesmen for Kellogg's Corn Flakes, in the movie Second Fiddle to a Steel Guitar
, touring nightclubs, Vegas, and fairs, and in record bins.
By 1971 Homer's wife saw a kidney ailment she had suffered with since childhood worsen to the point where she required a transplant. Homer logged countless miles touring and recording then flying home to be with his ailing wife. The stress took its toll.
On August 7, 1971, Homer was preparing to join Jethro at the Great Midwest Fair in Crete, a small village just 15 miles from his home, when he was stricken with a heart attack. His older son called an ambulance, which rushed Homer to the nearest hospital, five miles away in Hammond, Indiana. The doctors were able to temporarily stabilize Homer's condition, but the damage from the heart attack, coupled with the family history of heart disease that had killed his father in 1939, was beyond repair. Henry "Homer" Haynes passed away, just eleven days after his 51st birthday.
, devastated by the loss of his friend and the only musical partner he had ever known, sat in his home for weeks mourning the loss of his best friend. Jethro eventually resumed performing, first with his brother-in-law, Chet Atkins, then with noted singer/songwriter Steve Goodman. He also formed his own act, the Jethro Burns Quartet, and performed jazz and comedy until cancer claimed his life in 1989 at the age of 68.
With the new Country Music Hall of Fame opening its doors in 2001, the Country Music Association decided to induct an unprecedented twelve acts into the Hall of Fame. One of those acts was Homer and Jethro. In November 2001 Homer's three children accepted their father's plaque.
Homer Haynes left behind a reputation as one of the true great rhythm guitarists in any genre of music. Chet Atkins said he was "the finest rhythm player I have ever heard." In 1988 the Fender Guitar Company honored his prowess when they issued a replica of the Stratocaster model that they had custom built for Homer in the 1950s. The model was named the Homer Haynes Limited Edition. It was a most fitting tribute to one of music's greatest performers.