Jerry Byrd: 1920 to 2005
Many sidemen of Jerry Byrd’s generation are forgotten to all but aging fans, fellow musicians and historians, all of whom duly noted the steel guitarist’s April 11 death of Parkinson’s Disease at age 85. In Byrd’s adopted home state of Hawaii, things were different. There, he was mourned as a giant of Hawaiian music who, by having the courage to reinvent himself, single-handedly revived interest in Hawaiian steel on its own home turf.
Byrd was the predominant amplified, non-pedal (or “lap”) country steel icon of the 1940s and early 1950s, prominent on hits by Ernest Tubb (“Seamen’s Blues”), Hank Williams (“Lovesick Blues”), Red Foley (“Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy”) and Jimmy Wakely (“I Wish I Had A Nickel”). Fittingly dubbed “the master of touch and tone,” Byrd had a warm, sensitive style that could be understated one moment, powerful and assertive the next. He was a fountainhead for many future pedal steel giants; most copied the C6 tuning he invented.
Born in Ohio, Byrd turned to the steel at age 13, after he heard one played in a touring Hawaiian show. Starting with a beginner’s instrument, he played constantly, inspired by Hawaiian steel records and radio shows such as Hawaii Calls. As his playing improved, his father remained quiet as his wife outspokenly scorned her son’s musical aspirations. Byrd ignored her. He began playing on the Renfro Valley Barn Dance (then based in Ohio) while still in high school. The disconnect with his family proved too much; he left home after graduation in 1939, and in 1941 he made his first records with the Happy Valley Boys.
During World War II, he worked radio in Detroit and Cincinnati, then joined Tubb’s Texas Troubadours, moving on to Foley’s Pleasant Valley Boys and George Morgan’s band. In the late ’40s his session career took off. He remained in demand, recorded on his own for Mercury, and often played on early ’50s sessions with his friends Chet Atkins, Homer & Jethro and fiddler Dale Potter. After RCA sessions, they sometimes unwound by recording pop and jazz, released under the name the Country All-Stars.
Webb Pierce’s 1954 hit “Slowly”, the first Nashville hit to feature pedal steel, turned everything upside down as most non-pedal players embraced pedals. Byrd stood firm — and he paid the price. His own albums emphasized Hawaiian music, but except for specialized sessions such as Marty Robbins’ Hawaiian records, Byrd had to diversify. He survived playing electric bass on sessions, gigging in Nashville clubs, and working in song publishing.
For Byrd, 1972 was a defining year. With his marriage collapsing and musical outlets disappearing, he left Nashville for Honolulu, where he was already respected. In the late 1800s, Hawaiian Joseph Kekuku had created and developed the steel guitar there, and its popularity had surged. But in the ’70s, lounge crooners such as Don Ho and slack key guitarists dominated Hawaiian music. Byrd vowed to restore the steel to its rightful place.
To say he succeeded was an understatement. Performing in Honolulu’s better venues, he evolved into a revered figure. A natural teacher despite his modesty, he taught steel to many young Hawaiians and tutored longtime steel lover Jimmie Vaughan. In 1978 he became the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame’s first inductee. He retained his many friends in Nashville, but he never discussed his career in detail until his 2003 autobiography It Was A Trip On Wings Of Music.
A Honolulu newspaper obituary quoted friends who visited Byrd near the end recalling his satisfaction with his career, declaring, “I did it all. Everything that I wanted to do.” True enough.