Guitar Man: Jerry Reed, 1937 to 2008

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David Cantwell writes:

The legends have been falling like rain this whole long summer. You hardly pause to honor one of the fallen, it seems, and before you can collect your thoughts another has dropped, and another. Eddy Arnold, producer Ken Nelson, Dixie Hummingbird Ira Tucker, pop singer Jo Stafford, country drummer par excellance Buddy Harman, film critic Manny Farber, jazz organist Jimmy McGriff, steel man Don Helms, folk singer Utah Phillips, Isaac Hayes, Jerry Wexler, George Carlin, special effects master Stan Winston, E-Streeter Danny Federici, Tim Russert, Bernie Mac, Sydney Pollack, Bo Diddley and, just yesterday, honky tonk singer Charlie Walker.

I feel compelled to linger a moment longer in memory of Jerry Reed. To the extent that Reed’s passing will be remarked upon at all (which has not been, and will not be, as much as he deserves), people will cite his rare facility in picking out the country blues, and they should note that as an ambassador for country music, he was, among his contemporaries, second only to Willie Nelson and, perhaps, Dolly Parton or Glen Campbell. This thanks to his several movie roles (am I the only one who fondly remembers Hot Stuff?) and to his 1972 summer series The Jerry Reed “When You’re Hot You’re Hot” Hour).

Reed was also a first-rate songwriter. His songs were recorded by Porter Wagoner (”Misery Loves Company”), by Johnny Cash (”Thing Called Love” and “If the Good Lord’s Willing”), Brenda Lee (”Thats’ All You Gotta Do”), and, most famously, Elvis Presley who used Reed’s “Guitar Man” and “U.S. Male” to bring it all back to rock ‘n’ roll in the mid sixties. In his own hits–”Amos Moses,” “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot,” “Another Puff,” and so on–he was a creator of personalities, via his lyrics and his back-slapping performances, that always struck me as both out-sized beyond belief and exactly like my uncles.

I want to underscore another aspect of his talent, one I imagine will get even less attention than what I’ve sketched above: Jerry Reed was of that generation of good ol’ southern boys who loved country music but who also loved Elvis (or, more like, saw no important difference between the two), which is to say he was at heart a rock ‘n’ roller. He got started working with Bill Lowery’s various concerns in Atlanta–one of Reed’s earliest songwriting successes for Lowery Music was “Crazy Legs,” recorded by Gene Vincent–and before he moved to Nashville for good, he toured as Jerry and Jerry, a rockin’ little duo with longtime friend Jerry Stembridge (liner note readers will know him better as guitarist Chip Young).

Reed’s sense of rocking the country, what we might better call country soul, assisted country in assimilating, yet again, the moods and rhythms of black music. He was always covering rock ‘n’ roll, everything from “Hallelujah I Love Her So” to Leiber and Stoller’s “Framed” to the Monkees “Last Train to Clarksville” to Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice.” He was often singing about rock ‘n’ roll, too, not only in “Guitar Man” but also his “Mississippi Tupelo Flash,” “My Guitar and My Song,” “Johhny Wants to Be a Star,” and “Alabama Wild Man.” And when he covered country songs, or pop songs (such as “You’ll Never Walk Alone”), or played out-and-out blues, as he regularly did (his Explores Country Guitar album would be more accurately titled Explores Country Blues Guitar, what with its versions of “St. James Infirmary,” “In the Pines,” and “Sittin’ on Top of the World”)…when he did these, he made them his own; he inevitably transformed the selection into the funkiest, rockin’est, most soulful country music you ever heard.

To prove that last point, I direct you to check out immediately Reed’s 1970 versions of “Don’t Think Twice” and, especially, of the Mel Tillis song “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” both reminders of the power of Reed the interpreter.

Reed died last month of emphysema, a demise he predicted in his “Another Puff,” a grimly hialrious talking blues about his half-assed attempts to quit smoking: “I wish I could think of something bad to say about cigarettes,” he muses at one point, before announcing, “Boo cigarettes!” He cracks up at his joke, then collapses in a fit of smoker’s cough. I don’t know but I suspect Reed was making those sorts of jokes right up to the end. Another way Reed was a rock ‘n’ roller was that he understood that the blues weren’t just about being down; they were about dancing on your troubles and laughing long and hard to keep from crying.

Jerry Reed “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” and “Turned On” and “Don’t Think Twice” (from When You’re Hot, You’re Hot RCA, 1970)

“Another Puff” (from Ko Ko Jo RCA, 1971)

3 Responses to “Guitar Man: Jerry Reed, 1937 to 2008”

  1. Rick in PV Says:

    Jerry Reed blew me away when saw him at the American Royal, circa 1974. It wasn’t the performance I recall, but seeing him warm up standing on a flatbed trailer just outside the arena floor. I understood at that moment how souped-up a Fender guitar could sound with echo, reverb, sustain, flangers, or whatever else Jerry was using.

  2. Dave Waggoner Says:

    i have been a fan of jerry reed since about 1982. i just turned 40. I wish I could win power ball and pay him to play for a party.

  3. mike manring Says:

    I remeber hearing Jerry Reed for the first time around 1970 I was ten years old I started in the broadcasting industry at the age of 15 which in those days wasnt wasnt uncommon I started out at a country radio station in my hometown of Kingsport Tennessee and I played and followed Jerry Reeds career from there on he was a fantastic guitar player a darn good songwrither a great performer and an excellent actor he and Burt Reynolds made a great duo on screen together and he will always live on in his music and his movies rest in peace mr reed and thanks for the many years of music and humor that you gave to us all!

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