June 26, 1997 * Vol. 7, No. 25
Songwriter/comedian/cable access character extraordinaire Hogman lures our writer into the pen
by Randall Brown
Heads turn only for a moment in the Shoney's at I-40 Exit 347 when Jerry Isham, the artist known as the Hogman, walks past the "All You Care To Eat" hot vegetable bar. Perhaps Roane Countians are used to seeing one of country music's rising stars dine among them. Perhaps the tall fellow in high-water overalls, bright red neck-tie (with the rollicking-piggy design), and wide-brimmed straw hat is a sight they have become accustomed to, like Prince wandering around Minneapolis boutiques or Elvis browsing a Michigan deli counter. Perhaps they're just being polite. It's safe to say, though, that no other performer on the East Tennessee music scene strikes as distinctive a figure as the Hogman. In fact, very few actually try. Whether this is due to a lack of ingenuity or a misguided sense of good taste remains to be seen.
In any case, it's Hogman's style and songwriting that set him apart from the usual gang of city-slicker, Beatles-inspired rock 'n' rollers. Not only does he not dress like the Beatles, but he has (at least) seven songs about pigs to their one. And that's just for starters. He has hundreds of other songs that aren't about pigs (some suitable for Sunday school, others saved for the night clubs), and he's now the official co-host of GTV, Knoxville's infamous cable access source of music and mayhem. To hear him tell the story, it's all out of necessity.
"I'm too lazy to work and too nervous to steal," jokes Isham. "That's the reason I've been singing."
Truth be told, Isham has put in more than his share of a day's work, from four years (and 10 days, "because of Castro," he says) in the Navy to a 19-year stint at the Harriman paper mill to running his own boat business for 22 years. And in the midst of all that, he came by his stage name the old-fashioned way.
"I used to raise hogs," explains Isham. "When I was little, we always had two or three of them. And then when I got out on my own, I got me a few hogs. I had as high as 40 or 50 at a time."
He describes hog-raising as "a lot of fun," though not always as lucrative as one might think. "Raising hogs is about like saving your money," says Isham. "You're better off putting it in a piggy bank."
The Hogman gets most excited when he's talking about songwriting. He's an enthusiastic member of the Knoxville's Songwriter's Association, a group of amateur and professional songwriters that meets weekly to workshop songs and make connections for its members. It's this network that Isham credits with helping him get down to seriously composing his not-so-serious tunes. An occasional hobby since his Navy days, songwriting's become a full-blown calling in the last few years.
"July of 1960 is when I really started," says Isham. "I was three miles from land--it was straight down. I didn't know at that time though that you have to craft a song. I thought you could write it and that's the way it would be. These songs that's good, somebody spent 40 hours on it. A lot of folks say, 'This is the way God give it to me.' But you know, if He give it to you like that, it better be perfect. Every song don't come out right the first time, it has to be crafted. That's what they call it."
Hogman's attention to his craft has earned him a number of songwriting and performing awards. Most notably, the Country Music Association of America chose him as their Country Comedian of the Year in 1995, both here in Knoxville and at the national competition in Las Vegas.
"I was runner-up in '96," he says. "I did my nightclub act, then somebody told me three of the judges were Sunday school teachers. I didn't know to make it snow white, you know--it was Las Vegas and all."
Amidst all this attention, the Hogman stays focused on songwriting, packing his demo tapes (he's currently on "Hog Lot #7") full of foot-stomping, tongue-in-cheek hoedowns concerning hogs and other important issues, covering everything from true love and fine cuisine ("Trailer Park Woman," "Road Kill Café") to items lifted straight from the day's news ("Dead Pigeon River," "Goodbye Marshall Applewhite").
"I like different subjects, you know, not hogs only," laughs Isham. "People get tired of hogs only. I like to mix other subjects in with it. I like to catch people off guard, lead them into temptation, don't let them stray too far, and then jerk them back into reality."
And while the Hogman also has several demo tapes full of straight country love songs that he shops around to other artists, he's happy to be known for his comedy.
"I write love songs, but what I sing is humorous stuff," he says. "Nobody wants to hear me mock Johnny Cash. I do it for the enjoyment and the laughs and applause. That's my pay, and I like that."
© Metro Pulse