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Rod Brasfield: The Comedian in the Family

By Dale Short

I never got to meet my cousin, Rod Brasfield. But when I was 12 years old, my grandparents took me to see Rod's gravestone in Smithville, Mississippi. The cemetery is just across a two-lane blacktop road from the Pearce Chapel Freewill Baptist Church, in a remote area among pine trees and red clay.

The only things my grandparents knew about cousin Rod was that he was a famous comedian on the Grand Ole Opry, that he died fairly young, and that his favorite performing partner was Minnie Pearl.

A sample of their radio routines...

Minnie: “Rod, do you know what Brother has did recently?”

Rod: “No, what has Brother did?”

Minnie: “He's crossed a goat with an owl.”

Rod: “Great gobs of goose-eggs! What did he get?”

Minnie: “He crossed a goat with an owl and got a hootenanny.”

My grandparents told me that Rod had died from “women and whiskey.” Though that sounds suspiciously like a joke that was told back then on the Grand Ole Opry: “It was women and whiskey, what killed him. He got so old he couldn't enjoy neither one, so he just laid down and died.”

What my grandparents DIDN'T know about Rod Brasfield was that he had a second career as a movie star. Well, “star” is probably an exaggeration. He was in two films...the best known of them was 1957's “A Face in the Crowd”

Director Elia Kazan cast Brasfield alongside a young Andy Griffith. And though both men were professional comedians at the time, they played straight roles in the film. Griffith is a charismatic drifter who's corrupted by his sudden rise to media fame. Brasfield plays his faithful manager and sidekick.

In the movie, the two men meet in the Tomahawk County Jail, where Griffith's character is serving time on a drunk-and-disorderly charge. One of the opening scenes has the sheriff offering Griffith a reduced sentence if he'll make nice and play a song on his guitar for a visiting reporter doing a feature about the jail:

Sheriff: “If you cooperate, I might see my way clear to let you out of here first thing in the morning.”

Rod: “Me too, Sheriff? I'm his manager.” [Laughter from the other inmates]

Griffith: “The boys in here say you don't keep your word any too good.”

Sheriff: “You live up to your end of the deal, I'll live up to mine.” Griffith: “It's a deal. Tomorrow morning. I'll sing you a song...”

And sing a song, Griffith's character does. All the way to celebrity in the national media and his own talk show, where he uses his money and popularity to become a political king-maker.

Is it possible that his character is obsessed by power? According to the studio's somewhat lurid tag-line at the time: “POWER! He loved it! He took it raw, in big gulps. He liked the taste of it, the way it mixed with the bourbon and the sin in his blood!”

I think it's safe to say that the vast majority of people below a certain age have never heard of Rod Brasfield. Until recently, the only two places my family has found tributes to him are some photographs backstage at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, and a showcase display at the nearby Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

But then, came the Internet. If you Google the term “Rod Brasfield,” you get almost 16,000 results. YouTube has dozens of his comedy routines, alongside such stars as Cowboy Copas, Hank Williams, June Carter, and Jimmy Dickens. Each video has thousands of views, and the total is growing daily. You can even see a picture of Rod's tombstone at the Pearce Chapel church, and leave messages in a visitors' book for his friends and family.

It's not exactly immortality. But these days, I guess it's the next best thing.

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