posted 17 April 2002 09:19 PM
Here's an interview I found years ago in Guitar Player magazine. I think it's from 1971. Like it's been said, transcribing the exact spoken word into written form can sometimes be difficult, but overall, I think it flows well. I hope everyone enjoys!
If you play steel, you know of Jerry Byrd. His music is much like he is, friendly, sensitive, compelling. Jerry is totally dedicated to the steel guitar in all forms. He loves all kinds of music and plays them with uncanny expression. Undoubtedly, Jerry has influenced the playing of more steel guitarists than any other man. His style is universally appreciated, and he can rightfully be heralded as the player's player, and the fact that he doesn't play pedals is not missed (or even desired).
Truly the master of tone and expression, Jerry is credited with (among other things) blending the guitar's natural Hawaiian flavor into country, and subsequently into popular music. He does it so well that few recognize that it has been accomplished.
Under his own name, Jerry Byrd has more singles and albums than any other lead steel guitarist. At present, he is the musical director for the syndicated TV show, "That Good Old Nashville Music," and is the A&R man for Acuff-Rose Publications and Productions in Nashville.
(Interview by Tom Bradshaw)
>GP: How long have you been in the music business?
>JB: I started before I got out of high school at the "Renfro Valley Barn Dance" which at that time, in the late 30's, was probably one of the biggest country music shows we had in the United States; that, and the "Nashville Barn Dance." At that time they originated the show from Dayton, Ohio, at the Memorial Auditorium. They were looking for a steel guitar player, so I went down, played on the show, and got a great reception. Of course, at that time I was very young. I guess they probably liked it because a kid can steal a show. Anyhow, it started from that, and I went down there every Saturday and played on that show. Then they moved to Renfro Valley, Kentucky. Naturally I wanted to go down and go to work, but my dad said, "No, you're going to finish school." I did, and the summer I graduated, my dad was painting houses at the time. I helped him paint until fall to get his jobs all done. Then I took my guitar and left, and I've been gone ever since.
>GP: What year was that?
>JB: About 1939. So I went down to Renfro and I started work there, but there sure wasn't any money involved. Strictly experience is all I got out of it. Anyway, I worked there until 1942 when Ernie Lee and I went to Detroit with another boy, Barnie Reynolds, and worked on WJR. We stayed up there during the war years and then I went to work with Ernest Tubb about a year and a half. Then I worked with Red Foley on the Prince Albert NBC part of the "Grand Ole Opry." Then in 1948 the band that had worked with Red went back to Cincinnati and played on the "Midwestern Hayride" for three years. I came back to Nashville in '52. I did my first recordings as a soloist in Cincinnati in 1949 on Mercury.
>GP: About how many records did you cut with them as a soloist?
>JB: I would say maybe 50 or 60 sides, something like that. Of course, then they were 78 singles. When the 33 LP's and the 45's came in, they transferred them over so they packaged a lot of them and put them into albums, many of which are still available. But during the time I was doing that I was also doing a lot of recording with the big country singers.
>GP: Would you list some of those people you recorded with?
>JB: Well, of course in the country field (when I say country I mean strictly country, not pop singers singing country, which there were many of at the time), there were Red Foley, Ernest Tubb, Cowboy Copas, Hank Williams, Jimmy Wakely, Eddie Dean, many like that. I also did some sessions with pop singers like Guy Mitchell and Patti Page. They were doing a lot of country oriented songs, and some of them were big hits. Then when I came to Nashville I cut with a lot of people like Burl Ives and some of those whom I don't remember. I think probably Burl Ives was the last of the big name movie star/singer types that I cut with. He had a hit record called "Pearly Shells" a few years ago that I played.
>GP: When you got into the recording business did you do an awful lot of nightclubbing?
> JB: No. When I started in Cincinnati we had an early morning radio show. I worked at WLW and we went on the air at 5 o'clock in the morning, and at that time they would have two hours of country shows of different groups. And they had a farm program every day at noon, and a television show in the afternoon. I would get up at 4 o'clock in the morning and wouldn't get home until 6 o' clock at night, running here and running there and doing shows. Besides that and all the recording sessions that I was doing (which were considerable at the time), my health was bad, and the pace liked to have killed me. For three years I just had to get out of it. I never did do much dance work, and really, as I look back, I wish I had. I did some, but not like the boys that played with Bob Wills and the type that really work dances for a living. I don't know that I would want to; it's a rough go, but it is a great school. Your playing is more relaxed. When all you do is recording sessions you don't have the opportunities to experiment in your playing. In other words, you play it more or less safe, because you can't be taping the song over and over while you're sitting there piddling around trying to find something new. You have to fight the clock. People have a lot of money invested in the sessions and you have to get in there and do it, and do it under pressure. Dance work gives you a chance to experiment. That is where you learn, and so really I never had that much of an opportunity. A lot of times I wish I had because my style of playing (most of my stuff was harmony work) I concentrated on tone and expression. In dance music you get to do a lot of single string work, and it takes a long time to learn to play single string and play it fast. If you play at dances four hours a night it gives you a chance to experiment.
>GP: Did you tend to practice before a session back then and get the idea in your head of what the song was?
>JB: No, that was never done. Oh, in a few rare incidents we did. When I worked with Red Foley we had an early morning radio show WSM, and occasionally we would sit around the studio after the show and play and mess around. There were a couple of things: I do remember that Red wanted something different, and so we experimented and I came up with the idea of playing the three-part harmony with two guitars, a steel and electric, which Zeak Turner was playing at the time. Zeak would play the melody and I would play the tenor and baritone parts with it, and it would sound like three guitars. It was a new sound at that time, and we did a whole series of sessions with Red using that sound. It goes back to, "Blues In My Heart," "Picking Up the Pieces Of A Broken Heart," "Ruby Red Lips," and "Tennessee Saturday Night" and all of those in that certain era. So we sat and woodshedded on that mainly to get a sound. It's hard to do when one guy has to play one part and stay on it, but it was a good sound and it was different at that time. But that really was the only time that I remember rehearsing as such for a record session.
>GP: When you started playing as a young boy, were you in high school?
>JB: Yeah, I was about in junior high school.
>GP: What kind of guitar did you begin with?
>JB: I had a Spiegel which was from the Spiegel mail order house. At that time it was a big business comparable to Sears and Roebuck. This was about 1934. I worked two summers for a contractor at .25 cents an hour. Well, the second summer I got a raise to .30 cents an hour. We worked ten hours a day, six days a week. I also had to buy my own clothes and buy my schoolbooks and all like that, because my family was very poor as far as money is concerned. I also had to buy my own uniforms and my paintbrushes out of the .25 cents per hour. So it left very little, and I paid $5.00 a week room and board at home. So after two summers I had $65.00, enough to send off to get this guitar from Spiegel. I remember I ordered it through my uncle. You know, I sweated it out every day. I couldn't stand the suspense waiting for that guitar to get here. Finally I borrowed a bicycle and rode it way out in the country to see him, and he said he had got the letter and the guitar was up at the Railway Express office. So I rode that bike all the way downtown in Wymore and saw that it was there. I couldn't take it on the bicycle. I don't remember how I got it home. I hooked it up, though, and thought it sounded great; of course, it was probably terrible. You can imagine what it would have been then.
>GP: You had an amplifier of sorts?
>JB: Yeah, a guitar and amplifier for $65.00.
>GP: Was that a wooden guitar?
>JB: No, it was metal with kind of weird strings. That's all there was then. So I kept at it for a couple of years. There was a fellow in my home town, Ron Derth, who had a guitar school there and taught steel. At that time, they were playing a lot of Dick McIntire and Sol Hoopii and all these records on the radio in the afternoons, like 15 minutes. I could hear these tunes and immediately play them and know what tuning they were using and how they were doing it.
>GP: You picked that up out of your head?
>JB: Yeah, I don't know, I played so much. I would get up at 2 A.M. (you know how you lay in bed thinking about your steel guitar and about tunings and one thing and another) and get it out.
>GP: While you were still in high school?
>JB: Yeah, much to the consternation of my mom and dad. They had some serious considerations about my sanity at that time. I remember I was out at the house playing catch and Ron came out and he said, "Get in the car, I want to show you something." So he took me down to his studio, and he had this new black Rickenbacher with the chrome-plates and the amplifier to go with it. As I remember, I sat there and played it I guess 20 or 30 minutes and I started crying. I don't really know why, except that I guess it just sounded so good. It was so much improved over what I had been playing, and I remember it cost $150, which in 1939 was a considerable amount of money. Ron said, "How would you like to have it?" I said, "Yeah, how would I like to have the Empire State Building." He said, "Well, take it home with you," and I said, "Why, what do you mean?" He said, "Well, I'll give you $30 or $40 for your old guitar and that will make a $110 balance. If you want to, you can write me some diagram arrangements of all of these songs you have been playing here which I can't play and I'll give you $2 a piece for them." Man, that was something! It was probably one of the biggest days in my life and I remember I took that guitar home right then. It was, by that time, late in the evening and my aunt and uncle and a bunch of people were playing pinochle. I carried that guitar in, and my mom said, "Where did you get that?" And I said, "I bought it." Well, all of them about went through the roof. Being from German descent, you just take it for granted that you got to work in a shop. You don't play music; you go to work. So, everybody jumped onto me about it and of course the more they did it, the more resolute I became. I said, "No, I'm not taking it back." They said, "Well, you aren't going to play it around here." I said, "Alright, I'll leave."
>GP: How many more years of high school did you have to go?
>JB: I think I was a senior.
>GP: You moved out of the house over that guitar?
>JB: Well, now, not right then. I still stayed at home but it was very strained. They knew that I had made up my mind that that was what I was going to do for a living, be a musician. So, I would write two or three of these things a day and since I walked three miles to school, I would stop by Ron's house and give him three and he would deduct $6 off my bill. So, naturally, I flunked everything in school. Instead of studying, I was writing music and playing the guitar. I flunked Algebra, History, Bookkeeping and everything like this, as I had no interest in school at all. Anyhow, I got the guitar paid off that way. This is the same Rickenbacher that is in the Country Music Hall of Fame now. They have it on loan, and it will go to my kids. I don't know that it will mean anything to them, I have two girls, neither of which likes the kind of music I play. But anyhow, if they want it, it's theirs. If not, I'll give it to somebody some day who it means something to, who identifies with it. I got a pretty good long list of guys that would like to have it.
>GP: What happened next?
>JB: Well, when pedal guitars came in, everything changed. I do very little recording work now except possibly an occasional session, and things that I record of my own. The first pedal guitar I saw was in 1938, believe it or not, before they were being used here in Nashville. Ernie Touvarest, on the West Coast, had one, and in fact I have an old worn album that he played it on. Mechanically, there were a lot of bugs, you couldn't keep them in tune, and that drove me crazy. If there is anything I can't stand it's that. So the mechanics of the thing turned me off. Trying to keep strings on them...a lot of string breakage. Since then, of course, that's all been worked out. But anyhow, I gave it a lot of thought, and at the time that the pedals came in I had my own thing. I hate to use the word "style," it's so worn out, but I had a decision to make as to whether I wanted to keep my identity, or lose it as far as selling records, and as somebody selling the idea of steel guitars to the public. So I decided to stay with what I had and keep my identity and ride it out. So I never made the change-over. That is just one factor, there are a lot of others. A lot of people think I have crusaded against the pedal guitar, which isnít so. I'm for steel guitar, I don't care what it is, or how, as long as it is steel guitar.
>GP: Who do you think was the first person to put a pedal on it?
>JB: Well, the first person that meant anything in country music in Nashville was Bud Issacs. He had one or two pedals, and he made the chord change: E-A-E-A, back and forth. The first record that I can recall was Webb Pierce's "Slowly." People have been trying to find an easy way to play a steel guitar for years. I don't think they'll ever figure out an easy way, because to be a good steel guitar player you have to have a good ear. You're really playing by ear, because a steel guitar is the only instrument in the world you play by sight. You got frets there, but if you're a little out of tune the frets have no relevance. You still have to adjust, and your ear has to hear if you're sharp or flat and make the adjustment. It is an instrument of feel rather than position. Like the Spanish guitar, you have a two-inch space there to get your fingers in between the frets and that's it, basically. To my knowledge, I think steel is the only instrument you have where you have to see what you are playing. That's why it is hard to play in the dark.
>GP: When you were starting to pick up the steel guitar were there certain people you feel were influential?
>JB: Yes. At that time steel guitar was basically in three categories: country, to an extent; western swing to a greater extent; and Hawaiian music more than any. A lot of the radio stations had standard transcriptions that were made by Dick McIntire and some Hawaiian groups. I guess I get asked a lot of times how come I lean toward Hawaiian music, how I learned it. That's where I learned it, because that's all I had to learn by. There was Dick McIntire, Sol Hoopii, Eddie Bush; then there were some others like Alvino Rey with Horace Heidt that came later when the Big Band era got strong. They used steel in a lot of big bands where they had the volume to hear it. Kay Kaiser, Sammie Kaye, the Blue Baron and all of those guys. Of course, the guys playing steel were basically Spanish guitar players and they would just use a little gliss here and there, you know, for modulation maybe, or something like that. But then Lani McIntire's Hawaiian Orchestra broadcast from the Hotel Lexington in New York, and there were some originating from Chicago. Andy Iona was a great artist. I forgot him, but he did a great deal for steel guitar. But possibly I was more influenced by Dick McIntire. I liked his tone and I liked his style. I liked the vibrato he had with his left hand, which is really what makes steel guitar sound different in each man's hand (what he does with the left hand, not the right). That's basically how I was influenced. It started when I was in the sixth grade. During the Depression years a Hawaiian tent show came to my home town, and I remember it cost a dollar to get in, which to me was unheard of. Who had a dollar? I had a friend of mine that came from a wealthy family and he said, "Let's go see that show and I'll buy the ticket." So we did and this was the first time I had heard a steel guitar. Of course, you open up a whole can of worms. You wonder if maybe this was the reason you were born. Why did I go to that show, why did that instrument hit me like it did, stick with me like it did and become the focal point in my life? When you look back it makes you wonder about this talk of reincarnation and all this stuff. When I heard that instrument, it changed my life just like religion changes a lot of people's lives. So I knew that was what I wanted to do. I think you have to be inspired, and you have to keep it in front of your face all the time, because you have to chase it all the time. It's never still.
>GP: You never got around to really learning music?
>JB: No. Basically I guess I was lazy. Rather than figure out all that stuff, I would sit and play. I could hear something and play it quicker. I could learn ten songs while I was trying to figure out what key one would be written in. And also at that time you have to take into consideration the access to material. I had none. You didn't have the communication in the thirties that you do now, you could be in a good-sized city and still be isolated.
>GP: I guess everybody asks you if you are ever going to get a steel guitar with pedals.
>JB: No. I'm 50 years old, and I don't have the desire. I love it, love to hear it played, and I figure I've contributed what little I can contribute. The only thing that I can still contribute is to keep the guys inspired. I would like to see them do some stuff for steel guitar as far as writing and some instrumentals. I would like to see these companies who depend on steel guitars so much in country music take some of these boys, more than one or two, and record them, and really show steel guitar like it is. A couple of them have. Curley Chalker recorded an album recently for a label, but the label has since gone out of business. What Curley Chalker can't do with it, it's not worth worrying about anyway. He is just fantastic. I would like to see the companies give steel guitar what it deserves, but you usually have a lot of economic factors. It costs a lot of money to cut a record session now. It costs over twice what it cost when I did most of mine. So, when you talk about a $5,000 or $10,000 investment in a steel guitar album they say, well, who's going to buy it. You have to have facts and figures, and once in a while you see a label that won't worry particularly about the money but will do it for art form sake. But it is too mercenary now.
>GP: What's your present situation?
>JB: I work here at Acuff-Rose. Since I have been in Nashville for so many years I know everybody, of course, as far as the A&R men who do the recordings for the sessions and pick the material. I also know nearly all of the artists. I work with our writers here on new material and also the vast Acuff-Rose catalog, and try to get recordings on whatever label by whomever, and really sell songs.
>GP: Well, Jerry, we've certainly covered a lot of area here.
>JB: Well, I've lived through quite a bit but I think steel guitar is alive and very well. I think it could be more alive if we had people that would really (and I'm not talking just about the recording companies and recording executives, I'm talking about the boys playing) just do something besides going in, playing a few licks on a country record. I hate to hear them keep coming out with "Sleepwalk" every other year. The thing about the steel guitar, and it is one of my pet peeves, is that the public still doesnít know what the instrument is. I played a thing in Nashville for the Easter Seal Society's annual dinner. Some lady came up and said, "What is this instrument you're playing?" This hurts me. How long do you have to be around before somebody knows what you're playing?