The Unlikely Guitar Man: Jerry Reed

Jerry Reed was making records with Elvis and picking with the likes of Chet Atkins and Glen Campbell long before he ever graced a movie screen. Yet, when most of us think of the lanky Georgian, we see him in a beat up CAT hat and red polyester pants, a hound dog riding shotgun with him in an 18-wheeler, dragging a trailer full of illegal Coors across the sunny South. While Smokey and The Bandit might be one of his most memorable contributions to American culture, there’s such a boon of talent and personality behind it as to make it pale in comparison. Jerry Reed was a “jack-of-all-trades” in the entertainment business and he was at the top in every one: songwriter, session and touring guitarist, and actor.

Jerry came from humble beginnings, born in Atlanta, GA on March 20, 1937. His parents split up when he was a child, so part of his formative years were spent bouncing to and from different foster homes. He was reunited with his mother and new step-father in 1944, and not long after that he was given his first guitar from his mother. She’s credited with teaching him his first chords, G, C and D, but from there it was all Jerry; “She bought me this guitar for seven dollars from a guy across the street, and I didn’t have any picks, so I used nickles. I really never took lessons. I learned by hanging out at clubs, watching other players, stealing their licks and practicing 16 hours a day”.

While in high school he started playing out publicly and eventually dropped out, opting for a road gig with country stars Ernest Tubb and Faron Young. By the time he was 18, he got his first record deal with Capitol. He concentrated on turning out a mix of country and rockabilly songs to no avail. Gene Vincent cut his “Crazy Legs” in 1958, which finally made the tables turn. He joined the army for a two-year stint, still writing and performing. 1960 saw Brenda Lee take on of Jerry’s songs, “That’s All You Got To Do” onto the charts, further pushing him into the limelight. By 1961, Jerry decided to move his family to Nashville, where he got gigs as a session guitarist, capturing the ear of Chet Atkins, the country guitar legend and producer. He took Jerry under his wing, producing his next few singles. They became close friends until Chet’s death, often playing and touring together.

It wasn’t until 1967 that Jerry got his big break. Sometimes these things happen silently, without expectation. A lifetime of buildup to the moment when that call finally comes. It was just another regular day, finding Jerry out on the water, fishing. He wasn’t expecting a call from Felton Jarvis, the guy producing Elvis Presley’s latest album. He wasn’t expecting Elvis to take an interest in his latest song, “Guitar Man”. He wasn’t expecting much else than the fish to bite, but today was different. Felton called.

Next thing you know, Jerry is in the studio, with Elvis and his entourage, laying down the opening licks to his own song. The reason they called Jerry was because no matter what they tried, they couldn’t get the feel right. Reed’s signature “claw-style” playing was all over the map. He mixed rock, Cajun and country-style playing, all of which he picked up without being formally trained, so it was unmanageable for the straight-picking Nashville guys in the studio. It went off seamlessly, and Elvis ended up cutting another Reed song, “U.S. Male”. They were played on Presley’s upcoming ’68 Comeback Special giving Jerry a permanent place in American music history.

The 1970s saw him carve out a place for himself as a formidable guitar player, although he always considered himself a songwriter first. He made regular appearances on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, put out multiple albums with Chet Atkins, including Me and Jerry (1970) and Me and Chet (1972). He did a recording session and subsequent tour with Joan Baez and also with Ringo Starr. 1970 also brought the hit “Amos Moses” his classic rock/country/cajun hybrid about an alligator poacher from Louisiana. 1971 was the year of his biggest charting hit, “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot”.

It wasn’t long until the Jerry that I remember came around. I was introduced to him as an actor, knowing that he was also a musician, but having no idea about what caliber he was. He teamed up with Burt Reynolds in 1974 for W.W and The Dixie Dancekings, followed by Gator (1976), Highballin’ (1978), and Hot Stuff (1979). His greatest achievement in film came in 1977 with Smokey and The Bandit, as a truck drivin’ “son-of-a-gun” they called “Snowman”. He and Reynolds made the truck driving industry look cool and probably lead to the careers of many current truckers. He cut three songs for the Smokey trilogy, including “Eastbound and Down”, “The Legend” and “Texas Bound and Flyin'”.

Jerry’s last three charting singles came in the early 1980s, with “She Got The Goldmine (I Got The Shaft)”, “The Bird” (1982) and “I’m A Slave” (1983). He continued making movies and tv appearances, but his star was fading a little. His 1986 album, Lookin’ At You didn’t do well, so he refocused his attention on performing and touring until 1992. At that time, he teamed back up with Atkins for another record, Sneakin’ Around, but then went back out on the road.

In later years, he settled down at home, often fishing and spending quality time with his family. He passed away from complications with emphazyma on September 1, 2008. I was at work when I found out; despite knowing little about him, I felt a twinge of pain. From everything I have read about him since, and from the voice I’ve heard coming from behind the studio microphone, I have a feeling I would have gotten along with him tremendously. There’s a little diner on 8th Ave., in Nashville that he would frequent, so I am told. Any given day, you could walk in and find him sitting there, enjoying the conversation of folks around him, cracking them up with his jokes, I’m sure.

For those of you who have only heard of Jerry in passing, do yourself a favor: buy a six-pack of Coors and some Camel lights, call  up your best friends and settle in for an evening of Smokey and The Bandit. Search iTunes for The Essential Jerry Reed and download it. While you’re sitting there, pay attention to the swampy guitar licks; you’ve heard them in your favorite players, but you had no idea they came from Jerry. Listen to the easy laughter of your friends; you’ll hear Jerry there too. Save him a cold one and set aside a couple cigarettes. He’ll probably show up and join in, without you even realizing it happened.

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