Jerry Reed, country music’s howling virtuoso and a star of stage, studio
and screen, died Sunday, Aug. 31, just before midnight, at his Brentwood home.
Born Jerry Reed Hubbard, Mr. Reed suffered from emphysema and was in hospice
care. He was 71, and he leaves an unparalleled legacy of laughter and song.
By the time Mr. Reed came to popular attention as Burt Reynolds’ truck-driving
sidekick “The Snowman” in the Hollywood trilogy Smokey and the Bandit, he was
already a musical deity to the guitar players who admired the syncopated
flurries he unleashed with a casual gleam. He was also a hit-making
singer-songwriter by then, having topped the charts with “When You’re Hot,
You’re Hot” and “Lord, Mr. Ford,’ and having written songs for Elvis Presley,
Johnny Cash, Porter Wagoner, Brenda Lee and others. Then there was his work
as session guitarist for Presley, Waylon Jennings, Bobby Bare and many others.
Mr. Reed enjoyed his comedic Hollywood roles (which included a part in the
1998 Adam Sandler film, The Waterboy), and he often smiled when movie fans
would ask for an autograph without realizing that he was a singer and
guitarist of significance. Music was most important to him, though.
Asked by interviewer Frank Goodman which facet of music he preferred – songwriter,
solo guitarist, session man or entertainer – Mr. Reed said, “Hey, that’s
like trying to pick out your favorite leg.”
“There’s nothing on earth as powerful as music, period,” he told Goodman.
“I mean, it’s pretty hard to fight and hate and be angry when you’re
making music, isn’t it?”
As Mr. Reed’s health declined in recent years, he focused on spiritual studies
and on bringing attention to veterans’ issues.
“For 50 years, all I’d done was take, take, take,” he told The Tennessean’s
Tim Ghianni in 2007. “I decided from now on it is going to be giving. And
I’m way behind. We’re all way behind. We live this life like what’s down
here is what it’s all about. We’re temporary, son, like a wisp of smoke.”
Mr. Reed was born in Atlanta, Ga., on March 20, 1937. He was the son of
cotton mill workers Robert Spencer Hubbard and Cynthia Hubbard, who divorced
in their son’s first year. From fall of 1937 until 1944, the boy lived
in orphanages and foster homes. He rejoined his mother when she married
mill worker Hubert Howard in 1944.
Already transfixed by music, Mr. Reed listened to the Grand Ole Opry
on the radio each Friday night, jumping around on a woodpile in lieu
of a stage, and playing a hairbrush as if it was a rhythm guitar. Noticing
his enthusiasm, Cynthia Howard bought a used guitar from a neighbor for $7,
presented it to her son and taught him two chords. He began striking the
strings with a thumb-pick, a practice he continued throughout his career.
When a guitar teacher told him to discontinue that method, an already
headstrong Mr. Reed dropped the teacher rather than the pick.
Hearing finger-style guitarist Merle Travis play “I Am A Pilgrim” caused
young Mr. Reed to aspire to something beyond simplicity.
“I thought when I heard it, ‘Boy, there it is! That man is walking with
the big dog. He knows where the bodies are buried, and I want some of that,’”
Mr. Reed told Bob Anderson in a 1979 interview.
In 1954, he played a self-penned song called “Aunt Meg’s Wooden Leg” for
Atlanta publisher and radio host Bill Lowery, who began managing and booking
the young man. A 30-day tour opening shows for Ernest Tubb and the Texas
Troubadours ensued, and the experience was enough to convince Mr. Reed that
high school was of little use to him.
“I knew what I was going to spend my life doing,” he later said. “Nothing
else made any sense. Nothing else made any difference.”
In 1954, a 17-year-old Mr. Reed played a show in Atlanta in honor of
country star Faron Young, who had been discharged from the Army. Ken Nelson,
who ran Capitol Records, attended the Atlanta show. Lowery, who had hired Mr. Reed
as a disc jockey at Atlanta’s WGST, told Nelson that Capitol could do worse than
to sign the cotton mill boy from Georgia.
Reluctant to sign such a young act to Capitol, Nelson acquiesced. He told
Mr. Reed to wait until his 18th birthday before recording, and in October 1955
the men entered a Nashville studio and made a record. First single “If The Good
Lord’s Willing And The Creeks Don’t Rise” did not make any great commercial waves,
and neither did follow-up single “I’m A Lover, Not A Fighter.” And neither
did any others of Mr. Reed’s Capitol recordings, as he flailed about for a
form that rang true. He moved through country, pop and rockabilly, to little avail.
“My records were selling like hot cakes: About fifty cents a stack,” he often
joked in later years.
In 1958, Mr. Reed ended his association with Capitol. He enlisted in the
United States Army in 1959, the same year he married Priscilla “Prissy”
Mitchell. Army brass thought Mr. Reed’s talents better suited for a stage
than a battlefield, and the would-be warrior became a member of the army’s
Circle A Wranglers band.
Brenda Lee — a member of both the country and rock ’n’ roll halls of fame —
remembered that Mr. Reed was in full military uniform when he saw her at the
Atlanta airport and mentioned that he had a song that would be good for her.
That song, “That’s All You Gotta Do,” was a Top 10 pop hit for Lee, and it was
the “flip” side of Lee’s wildly popular single “I’m Sorry.” That success was a
change for the better, as was a 1961 military discharge and the development of a
unique guitar-playing method that would later be called “Claw style.”
“If (Merle) Travis’ thumb and index finger picking style was first generation,
and Chet Atkins’ use of thumb, index and middle finger was second, Reed’s use of
his entire right hand to pick (the famous “claw” style) was the wild, untamed
and dauntingly complex third generation,” wrote historian and journalist Rich
Mr. Reed switched from a steel-stringed acoustic guitar to a nylon-stringed
Baldwin model, with an electronic “pickup” that allowed the guitar to be heard
above a full band. He signed a Columbia Records contract in 1961, but that deal
yielded no hits. His songwriting and session playing proved more lucrative, as
he performed on hits for Bobby Bare and he penned Porter Wagoner’s 1962 No. 1
hit, “Misery Loves Company.” And Mr. Reed attracted a high-powered fan in Chet
Atkins, the guitar star who ran Nashville’s branch of RCA.
“Chet and I had got friendly, and he told me, ‘You ain’t never going to have
a hit recording what’s not you. Just go in there and be what you are.’ Chet
thinks I’m funky,” Mr. Reed told Morton Moss of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner.
Atkins was determined to record Mr. Reed as an atypical artist rather than
molding him into a pre-established model. In his guitar work and in the songs
he wrote, Mr. Reed revealed a humor and a wit that set him apart from other
performers and endeared him to audiences.
The key was capturing that in a way that didn’t dull spontaneity or intelligence,
and Atkins figured quite correctly that he knew how to do this. Rather than asking
Mr. Reed to write or record for a particular audience demographic, as he’d done
on Capitol and Columbia, Atkins insisted that Mr. Reed be Mr. Reed.
“I owe almost every bit of success that has come to me to Chet Atkins,” Mr. Reed
told the Associated Press in 1999. “He’s a nonconformist, and he suggested that
I just play my guitar and sing my songs and he’d release singles.”
The first best result of Mr. Atkins’ prodding was instrumental showcase “The
Claw,” so named because of the way Mr. Reed’s hand looked when playing in his
Then, Mr. Reed came up with “Guitar Man,” which showcased his guitar work,
his voice and his storytelling ability. “Guitar Man” was followed by “Tupelo
Mississippi Flash,” which became Mr. Reed’s first Top 20 hit, in 1967. “Tupelo
Mississippi Flash” was a funky laugher that poked fun at an industry executive
who didn’t understand the power and reach of Elvis Presley.
Mr. Reed wrote “Alabama Wild Man,” a Top 50 country hit in 1968 that gave the
native Georgian a fun but geographically incorrect nickname. Anyway, Bare said
the only thing wild about Mr. Reed was his onstage persona.
“He was actually the opposite of the ‘wild man’ thing,” said Bare, who spent
hundreds of hours fishing with Mr. Reed on placid lakes where wildness isn’t
in demand. It should be noted that Mr. Reed, the product of a broken union, stayed married to Prissy Hubbard until his death.
“Jerry was as funny as the day is long, but he was a gentle, kind, sweet
family man,” Lee said. “He was precious.”
A breakthrough career moment for Mr. Reed came in late 1970, when the funny,
funky and swampy “Amos Moses” landed in the Top 10 of the pop charts and in the
Top 20 of the country charts. An instrumental with Atkins won a Grammy in 1971,
and the following year Mr. Reed won a best country male performance Grammy for
his first No. 1 country smash, appropriately titled “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot.”
Two years later, he hit No. 1 again with the modern times lament, “Lord, Mr. Ford.”
During this time, Mr. Reed was also appearing regularly on friend Glen Campbell’s
Goodtime Hour, and television types took notice of his charisma. In 1974,
he played a joke-cracking role in W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings. His best-loved
film role came in 1977, when he starred as Cledus Snow, a.k.a. “The Snowman,”
in the Reynolds’ flick Smokey and the Bandit. Mr. Reed co-wrote the movie’s
theme song, “East Bound and Down,” which spent two weeks at No. 2 on the Billboard
Country singles chart.
“We were fishing out at Percy Priest Lake and Jerry told me about a movie
coming out called Smokey and the Bandit,” Bare said. “I didn’t think too much
about it at the time. We were chasing rockfish. But when I watched him on the
screen, I realized he was a really good actor.”
The Hollywood success and country hits provided smiles for Mr. Reed’s casual
fans, but musicians also took notice of the staggering virtuosity behind the
records. Brent Mason, now a top session musician in Nashville, calls Mr. Reed
“my favorite guitar player of all time.”
“He called himself a ‘guitar thinker,’ not a ‘guitar player,’” Mason said.
“He would find new ways to play things, and you can play his songs over and
over and hear something new inside them every time. I’ve been stealing from
Jerry Reed for years. It was extraordinary, brilliant playing.”
Mason and scores of others sought to decipher the secrets behind Mr. Reed’s
rocket-fueled licks. As Guitar Town struggled to catch up, Mr. Reed notched
another No. 1 hit with “She Got The Goldmine (I Got The Shaft)” and a No. 2.
effort with “The Bird,” in which Mr. Reed displayed his spot-on impressions
of Willie Nelson and George Jones.
Mr. Reed’s own assessments of his career involved smiling, head-shaking disbelief.
“I got to write hit songs,” he told interviewer Calvin Gilbert in 2005. “And
I got to be on phonograph records… I’m a cotton mill boy, and I got to go to
Hollywood. Can you imagine that? Why, yeah, my goodness gracious. Go figure.”
In the end, Mr. Reed sought neither acknowledgment nor celebration, to the point
that he requested a quick and private funeral. He was buried Tuesday afternoon
in Nashville, and he is survived by wife Priscilla Hubbard, by daughters Seidina
Hinesley and Charlotte Elaine “Lottie” Stewart and by grandson Jerry Roe and
granddaughter Lainey Stewart.
Mr. Reed’s only regret regarding the guitar was that his declining health meant
he could no longer play. Making music would have been a comfort in his final
months. Instead, he enjoyed the company of family, and the visits from old
friends like Lee and Bare.
They told stories and jokes, and Reed sometimes got to laughing so hard that
he had to pause and try to be serious in order to catch his fragile breath.
They talked about the good times and the dumb luck, and the fullness of some
lives. And on an August day, Reed told Bare something he’d been thinking
a lot about: the fact that everything he’d ever dreamed had come true.
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