It Was A Trip – On Wings Of Music
Over 60 years ago, steel guitarist Jerry Byrd made his first recordings with the Happy Valley Boys. He went on to grace a good chunk of country records made east of the Mississippi in the 1940s and early ’50s. A musical fountainhead (he invented the C6 tuning), Byrd is considered the gold standard even by cutting-edge pedal steel players, and for good reason. His warm, buttery tones and voicings and his flawless touch retain a glowing, almost indescribable beauty, and when apropos, he could swing with a bracing ferocity.
Such a career leaves plenty of stories to tell, and Byrd should have told his long ago. Always autodidactic, he’s freely shared tunings with anyone who asked, and over the years has created an impressive run of steel guitar instruction material. Yet despite pride in his achievements, he’s long been reticent to recount them. Approaching his mid-80s, he has relented and produced an interesting, if unevenly told, tale — less an autobiography than a collection of several dozen brief anecdotes.
Byrd was born in Lima, Ohio, in 1920. The steel caught his fancy at age 13 when he heard one at a touring Hawaiian tent show. As he took playing more seriously, his working-class family, particularly his mother, openly scorned his musical aspirations. At 19, he left home to play at the then Dayton-based Renfro Valley Barn Dance, subsequently moving on to Detroit, Cincinnati and finally Nashville. He toured and recorded with Ernest Tubb and Red Foley.
Byrd’s storytelling can be engaging as he discusses Foley’s parsimonious flakiness and George Morgan’s penchant for practical jokes. Short chapters recall his work with Chet Atkins, Homer & Jethro, Marty Robbins, pop producer Mitch Miller, and Grandpa Jones. He realizes he made history when he and Foley’s band, renamed the Pleasant Valley Boys, became country music’s first recording band, moving between Cincinnati and Nashville during the brief period when Cincy rivaled Nashville as a country recording center. Hank Williams’ Cincinnati recordings of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Lovesick Blues” are among the many exemplars of Byrd’s sensitive accompaniment.
“Steelin’ The Blues”, now a steel anthem, launched Byrd’s solo recording career with Mercury in 1950; Byrd recalls with annoyance producer Murray Nash’s insistence on adding lyrics and a gratuitous Rex Allen vocal. Other Mercury instrumentals (such as “Limehouse Blues”) featured an uncredited Chet Atkins. Byrd’s Monument LP Polynesian Suite was an instrumental showcase written for him by “Rocky Top” composer Boudleaux Bryant. His memoir about “Two Guitars”, a legendary 1953-54 live WSM radio program featuring he and Atkins picking instrumentals, makes one pray that tapes someday surface.
Byrd’s situation in Nashville faltered by the late ’50s. With commendable honesty, he describes the one-two punch. Pedal steel’s rising popularity in Nashville led many non-pedal players such as Don Helms to embrace pedals. Byrd would not. Meanwhile, the musically neutral Nashville Sound production style was rendering fiddles and steel unfashionable.
To survive, Byrd performed in local clubs and on TV, and played electric bass on Nashville sessions (when most producers there scorned it as a fad). Eventually he took day jobs with music publishers. All the while, his love of the pure Hawaiian steel guitar music remained.
The setbacks led up to a midlife crisis at 52. Sick of the publishing work and facing a failing marriage, Byrd relocated to Honolulu in 1972. At the time, Hawaiian steel guitar was all but forgotten in the place of its birth. Byrd aimed to change that by performing and reintroducing the instrument. His success gained him a revered status in his adopted state. As in Nashville, Byrd still attracted musician fans: Jerry Garcia approached him about lessons and never followed up, but Byrd taught Jimmie Vaughan for a time.
The weak spots are obvious. The narrative sometimes jumps around, making it a bumpy read in places. One wishes Byrd had written in greater detail about country producers he worked with, such as the volatile King Records owner Syd Nathan. It might have been nice to hear more about other singers he played with, including Cowboy Copas, Zeb Turner and Hawkshaw Hawkins.
As with other Centerstream books, this one suffers from low-budget production. Typos abound, and photo reproductions are hit-and-miss (one was clipped from a magazine).
The book ends well as Byrd explains his general musical philosophies and tunings. Some have assumed he refused to embrace pedal steel because he loathed it. Not so. Byrd, who never cared to compromise and included many pedal players among his friends, just never saw a need to switch. It was that simple.