Jesse Lee Turner: A Life in Music and Film
Plus a Film Review of his 1978 film, Smokey and the Good Time Outlaws
The concept of hicksploitation, aka rednecksploitation and backwoodsploitation, is insane: Everyone south of the Mason-Dixie are uneducated, inbred moonshine running religious zealots (see the Deliverance-inspired subgenre) — and sometimes cannibals (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre subgenre) — who defy authority and society and strand Yankee motorists for car parts — and other “parts” — with a glee in their eye? All of the Sheriffs are incompetent and corrupt with dumb sons and dumber deputies (see the superior Smokey and the Bandit)? It’s ludicrous.
Imagine a film that, for 90 minutes, rolled out one slanderous, stereotype after another on any other racial heritage or culture. It would be offensive. You’d defy the hate. You wouldn’t celebrate the ignorance displayed in those films and there’s not one excuse about your affection for the “video fringe” that would justify the merriment.
The reality for the many of those Southern denizens of the backwoods and deep mountains south of the Mason-Dixie spoofed in the Drive-In exploitation canons of the ’70s and ’80s is a life of poverty and hunger that rivals the worst of third-world countries. It’s worse than any reality you and I live in — flesh or celluloid. As my educated, film-reviewing adult self looks back on my clueless, Drive-In attending and video-renting younger self, I type this humbled and ashamed. I wouldn’t make a joke at the expense of those suffering the realities of third-world poverty or inner-city urban hardships. . . .
Then why is it acceptable for Southerners to be cast as the butt of jokes, pigeonholing, and stereotyping in films?
The truth is that we don’t buy into the “reality” of the hicksploitation genre — be it comedy, action, or horror — no more than we buy into the “reality” of the ’80s endless drove of Die Hard knockoffs. When Dwayne Johnson jumps architectural chasms 1500 hundred feet in the air — on a prosthetic leg, no less — and grips a Skyscraper girder by the fingertips, we cheer.
Because we live in a non-TV reality “reality” and that reality not only bites, it sucks the very fibers of our being. We don’t want reality in our films. If I want an introspective, politically correct, Tinsel Town drama with award-winning cinematography and Oscar hopes that reminds me of the pain and anguish in this world, I’ll go sit in a dark, air-conditioned cavern for two hours. If you want to spelunking for your celluloid fix and nosh on over-priced popcorn, go for it.
I’m exploring the forgotten video fringes and exploitation crevices introduced to me during my UHF-TV and Drive-In upbringing. In the video-store ’80s of my youth, if I was blowing one of my 5 Videos-5 Days-5 Bucks selections on a film, that film best shatter my realities into dust with an over-the-top hyper reality. I wanted to be shocked. I wanted to flinch. I wanted my brain to be pushed to the point where the only logical response to the analog upload was to laugh out loud or groan out loud at the blatant absurdity of it all. We celebrated the sheer audacity of exploitation filmmakers and the outrageousness of their Deep South storytelling,
At their core, film reviews — especially of the long forgotten titles and genres of the past that this writer champions — are historical documents. When you log onto B&S Movies, where I am a film critic, or crack the pages of a hardcover film encyclopedia or any other blog, message board, or vanity site dedicated to film: you’re opening a history book about the craft — good, bad, or indifferent — of filmmaking.
The influential good ol’ boy films of Burt Reynolds that ignited its own genre.
Smokey and the Good Time Outlaws
So, imagine if Jimmy McNichol’s Roscoe Wilton from the good ol’ boy exploiter Smokey Bites the Dust was a musician in search of a recording contract. . . .
Wait, even better. How about the original: Burt Reynolds’s Bo “Bandit” Darville from Smokey and the Bandit having aspirations to make it as a singer on the stage of the Grand Ol’ Opry?
How’s about a good-time film that doesn’t digress into offensive, negative “southern boy” stereotypes and pigeonholes country musicians as a crop of bumpkins being screwed by a corrupt country-music industry? How about a fun film about the people and for the good people south of the ol’ Mason-Dixie Line? Oh, by the way, Big Hoss: Don’t confuse this movie with Smokey and the Hotwire Gang (1979) and Smokey and the Judge (1980). That’d be a whole ‘uther puff of BBQ smoke to review, Luke Duke.
Now you’re up to speed on this obscure hicksploitation romp featuring an admirable acting debut by the subject of this piece: country musician Jesse Lee Turner — and an always welcomed Slim Pickens with his hilarious turn as the obligatory Sheriff Buford T. Justice-clone in this BBQ’d musical adventure. Somewhat reminiscent of Jerry Reed’s equally enjoyable written-produced-directed-acted country music comedy, What Comes Around (1985), ’60s country singer Jesse Lee Turner serves as the executive producer and screenwriter, composer and star of this 1978 entry in the hicksploitation canons concerned with the pitfalls and pratfalls of the country music industry — with a few car chases and crashes added for good measure.
Turner, who made it into the Top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with his 1959 debut single, “Little Space Girl b/w Shake, Baby Shake” (the B-Side is pure Elvis-rockabilly awesomeness), was unable to repeat that initial success with subsequent singles for various labels throughout the remainder of the ’60s; he finalized his career with a 1975 singles-deal with MCA Records. During his ups-and-downs in the music business, Turner found the time to incorporate a successful crop-dusting business (he was a long-time certified pilot) and came to own restaurants, a cattle ranch, a small community airport, and a few oil wells.
It was after Robert Altman released his comedic satire on the country music industry, Nashville (1975), that Turner decided to start a new business: a film production company, General Audience Films, to counter the negative light many in the country and gospel music communities felt Altman’s film cast on the industry. In addition to writing the script for what began as J.D and the Salt Flat Kid, Turner wrote four of the eight songs he performs in the film (the rest are written by respected country songsmiths Larry Hart and Ben Peters), including “Make It on My Own, “I’d Like to Be in Nashville,” “Road to Nashville,” and “Made It to Nashville.”
To direct his country-road comedy, Turner hired the always reliable, B-Movie stalwart Alex Grasshoff (which connoisseurs of the B-Movie video fringes remember for guiding a drunkenly gruff Richard Boone through the papier-mâché dinosaur romp — complete with a drilling mini-sub! — The Last Dinosaur). As a sidekick to his J.D character, Turner cast veteran television character actor and B-Movie bastion, Dennis Fimple, as the Salt Flat Kid.
While you’ll recognize Dennis Fimple for his role as “Grandpa Hugo” in Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses: This writer will always have fond memories of Dennis from his recurring roles in two of my childhood’s favorite TV series: the western Alias Smith and Jones and the CB-Trucker series B.J and the Bear, which owes its life to the very same movie Smokey and the Good Time Outlaws emulates. I also have cherished family times with Dennis at The Lake Shore Drive-In watching his films Truck Stop Women, The Legend of Boggy Creek, and Creature from Black Lake, just to name a few. Look at his extensive IMDb resume. You’ve seen at least one TV series or movie featuring the ubiquitous and dependable Dennis Fimple in the cast.
Okay, that’s enough Dennis Fimple love. And now, back to Jesse Lee Turner and the movie. . . .
So, one night after getting into a good ol’ chair smashin’ and table crushin’ honky tonk thrown down after gig, J.D and the Salt Flat Kid end up in jail where they meet a flim-flamin’ impresario (legendary country-comedian Archie Campbell of TV’s Hee Haw) who claims he can take them all the way to Nashville.
“Saddle up, boys! Here’s my card.”
Now we’s all need to keep on stokin’ that Bandit BBQ-smoky flavor . . . we need to spice these ribs with that familiar Sally “Frog” Field frog character. . . .
Because every post-White Lightning and Smokey and the Bandit-inspired film needs a “Frog” to git our good ol’ boys into even more trouble, son!
So J.D’s “Bandit” hooks up with Marcie Barkin (from another youthful Drive-In favorite: 1977’s The Van and 1976’s Nashville Girl) who’s bailed out of a wedding. And you know the rest of the yummy, cookie-cutter adventures: Gailard Sartain (a wonderful, southern-fried comedic actor best known as the put-a-upon police office in the video-rental favorite, The Hollywood Knights, and his star-making turn as The Big Bopper in The Buddy Holly Story) is the jilted bridegroom who calls his Texas-hating uncle, Tennessee Sheriff Ledy (Slim Pickens), into action to bring back his lady love. Hey, the Salt Flat Kid needs a little lovin’ too! In steps Dianne Sherrill (a Nashville singer who starred with Jerry Reed and Claude Atkins in the short-lived 1977 TV series, Nashville 99). And while Barkin and Sherrill are only supporting characters — and the film isn’t about them — they are, of course, the “Outlaw Women” of the film’s alternate title — more on that later. . . .
Yep, we got ourselves sum Burt Reynolds-sauce on those ribs, but they’d be needin’ sumthin’ extra . . . I know, it needs a dash of Clint Eastwood!
Yeah, we need a saucy ‘n spicy old lady with criminal skills just like Ruth Gordon’s Ma Beddoe from Every Which Way But Loose — complete with blueprints to help J.D and the Salt Flat kid to bust into that Grand Ol’ Opey and put on a show. . . . Well, hey, there’s Clara Edwards (Hope Summers) from The Andy Griffith Show and Mayberry R.F.D fittin’ the bill . . . hey, wait a minute . . . that music agent gittin’ in J.D’s way is music agent Eddie Gibbs (Sully Boyar! Yes!) from the The Jazz Singer (1978) and three more favorites from this writer’s teen years: Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Car Wash (1978), and Fort Apache the Bronx (1981). Well, alright! That’s country music legend Mickey Gilley (Urban Cowboy) as a stock car racer . . . and Epic Recording Artist and Outlaw Country rocker Johnny Paycheck . . . and Polydor’s Johnny Russell . . . and the legendary George Jones all showing up for a few tunes.
Yep, this good ol’ boy comedy is a tasty BBQ treat brimming with all the B-Movie and exploitation character actors and country music artists this writer cherishes.
You’ll notice the artwork on the VHS box utilizes the film’s original title: J.D and the Salt Flat Kid. As you can see, the artwork, as well as the theatrical one-sheets — all for the sake of marketing and getting cars into those Drive-In parking spaces — made a point to illustrate Burt Reynolds and Jerry Reed-styled characters bearing zero resemblance to Jesse Lee Turner and Dennis Fimple.
That clever exploitation marketing gimmick carried over into the artwork featuring a pseudo-nude chick loading a gun under the banner of the film’s alternate title of Smokey and the Outlaw Women — and at no point do Marcie Barkin or Dianne Sherrill disrobe into exploitive nudity. So don’t be fooled by the poster that comes courtesy of producer-distributor J.N Houck, Jr. — the brilliant Drive-In huckster-guru of Howco International Pictures.
You don’t know Howco Pictures?
Oh, you may not know ’em, but as with Dennis Fimple, you’ve seen at least one Howco-backed movie. The studio was the driving force behind numerous exploiters — including several Roger Corman movies — from the ’50s through the ’70s, including the most familar: Night of Bloody Horror starring Gerald “Rick Simon” McRaney from TV’s Simon and Simon
Upon the release of Smokey and the Good Time Outlaws, in interviews Jesse Turner began promoting his next feature, the country-gospel music flavored, I’m Only a Man. Sadly, the frustration of seeing his hard work in crafting a feel good film that shined a positive light on the country music industry being mangled into one on a long list of Smokey and the Bandit-clones for the sake making a buck, soured Turner on the business. He never made another film.
In a 1978 interview for the radio and record industry trade paper, Billboard, Turner spoke of his first taste of fame with his 1958 debut single, “Little Space Girl.” Of course, as with the Elvis-inspired careers of Roy Orbison and Fabian, there was an attempt to transition Turner’s handsomeness onto the big screen.
Jesse on his early forays into film:
“After ‘Little Space Girl,’ I went to California and became involved with acting and producing sessions [recording sessions of other artists]. When I started to go on interviews [auditions] for movie parts, the R-rated movies were beginning to take hold [see Valley of the Dolls and Midnight Cowboy as early examples] and I was [auditioning] for movies I didn’t really want to be involved in. So, at that point, I decided to go back to Texas and make it in the business world [which started with his certification as crop-duster pilot].”
And about his plans for I’m Only a Man:
“It’ll be about a sincere, small town, gospel singing, piano playing preacher who makes it big, like a Billy Graham-type figure. He’s ends up going astray with all the glamour and bright lights, but in the end, he comes back around.”
Dianne Sherrill, who planned to reteam with Turner as the preacher’s wife, added:
“I’m looking forward to doing the part because everything I’ve done so far has been sort of within my own character. So this will be a challenge for me.”
In the case of life imitating art: Instead of portraying a rock ’n’ rollin’ preacher on film, Jesse Lee Turner became an ordained evangelist with a Christian-rock music ministry, eventually returning to the film industry — at least according to the IMDb — as a set designer and as a camera and electrical grip on film and television productions.
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