Jimmy Day: 1934 to 1999
[The following remembrance was originally posted by Joe Gracey to the Postcard2 internet mailing list, a few days after the death at age 65 of legendary pedal steel guitarist Jimmy Day on January 22. (It subsequently also appeared on the website for Gracey’s wife, singer-songwriter Kimmie Rhodes.) Gracey is a producer, engineer and musician who has worked for many years with Willie Nelson and many other Texas artists.]
God-damn, I had forgotten about the pedal steel guitar. Yesterday at Jimmy Day’s funeral — made fragrant by the odor of band bus fumes wafting through the funeral parlor when the doors would open, fittingly — I remembered.
Jimmy Day, possibly the greatest steel player of all time, was buried on January 27 in a little town south of Austin called Buda. There were a bunch of people there, overflowing out into the front yard, a testament to how much love and respect he engendered.
Jimmy and I went back to the early ’70s when he was in Willie Nelson’s band and I was a progressive-country DJ and music writer. I remember the first time I noticed him much; Willie played at a Ford dealer’s here (in return for a new station wagon so they could get around), and I suddenly noticed what a beautiful sound he created around Willie’s voice. I subsequently became a producer and used him every chance I could on sessions. Kimmie and I brought him into our Texas Swing band for several years; then he turned around and started a band and pretty soon we were in it, traveling around Texas doing gigs.
Having Jimmy in your band was pure joy. He was always the one you could turn to to give you a rock-solid intro, even if he had only heard the song one time three years before. You could always lean on him for a great solo, with a perfect handoff into the chorus. His pickup notes would be cues to everybody else in the band so they all knew where it was headed next.
Sessions were the same. He defined “pro.” He came on time, sober, didn’t talk about his problems, kept his mouth shut unless asked for his opinion, and played totally usable, brilliant stuff, normally on the first take. He wouldn’t write a chord chart; he would just play through the song a couple of times, memorize it (no matter how tough the changes might be), and nail it. He said he learned his studio chops doing demos at Tree Music, where they got paid ten dollars per demo. This encouraged speed and not screwing up, since the more songs you got cut in a session, the more money you got paid.
Later I got to record several records for him. They turned into great projects, with guests like Johnny Bush and Willie and Johnny Rodriguez. One of them transmogrified into a Willie Nelson record because Willie came in to sing a song and stayed for four days. Not long after that, Willie and I recorded Spirit, so I have Jimmy to thank for that. I considered him to be a soul brother, something far beyond a professional relationship. If I was still a hippie I’d say I’d known him for a thousand lifetimes.
There is debate, of course, on who is the best. I have worked with Tom Brumley (Buck Owens, Rick Nelson), Buddy Emmons (Ernest Tubb, everybody), Leon McAuliffe (Bob Wills), Herb Remington (Bob Wills), and a lot of other players, including getting to watch Lloyd Green do a session with Gene Watson, and to my way of thinking, Jimmy had the ability to project more of his spirit into his playing than anybody. Obviously all of those guys could play their asses off, and most people probably give Emmons the nod as to technical proficiency, but for pure searing blue soul, it was Jimmy for me.
Jimmy’s Blue Darlin’ steel and amp were set up and turned on next to the casket, ready to be played, at the funeral. This was pretty tough, but I was OK. But then they started to play some of his famous records — “Crazy Arms”, some Patsy Cline songs, Willie, George Jones, and finally some of the stuff we did together for his own records. The enormous depth of feeling in his playing hit me harder than ever before, and I couldn’t help but cry like an idiot then. Man, steel is such an emotional instrument in the right hands.
Jimmy played on every record that Kimmie and I have made. We recorded one of his songs, “Home John”, on West Texas Heaven. I almost wish I could die right now just to hear Jimmy Day play steel with Bob Wills and Hank Williams. I am honored to have known him and loved him and recorded his otherworldly art. Sometimes when I question my daily existence, I remember that I was the one lucky enough to be at the console to put his music on tape, and that is reason enough for me.
Smoke ’em if you got ’em, boys and girls. They don’t last forever.