Jimmy Day – King for a Day
Jimmy Day walks into the ballroom of the Regal Riverfront Hotel with a hard-earned grace. It’s Labor Day weekend 1997, and about two blocks from the statue of Stan Musial, in the sweaty heart of St. Louis, the songs of Bob Wills and Duke Ellington reach out from the stage at the 26th annual International Steel Guitar Convention.
Ambling through the ballroom doors, Jimmy is immediately surrounded by fans. They come to shake his hand, ask how he’s doing, express admiration, laugh about old times and just quietly stand close to him. They wait patiently because they know Jimmy will in turn give each of them his full attention. The grace that gently moves this lanky, soft-spoken country boy through the crowd is the same grace Jimmy expresses to his fans, both in person and when he puts his hands on the Blue Darlin’, his pedal steel guitar.
Ever look at Jimmy’s hands? They look like they were carved by Michelangelo, or painted by Norman Rockwell. We have played lots and lots of shows together and when someone compliments him on his playing, lots of times I’ve seen him hold them up and say, “These help.”
His are the hands of a sideman. Indeed, they are the hands of one of the musicians who defined the job of the sideman in country music, as well as one who helped set the highest standard for country musicianship. Day, who was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in 1982, has made his living sitting on the side of the stage, out of the spotlight, making so many of country music’s stars sound good. But Jimmy didn’t need the spotlight. Like all true legends, he provides his own illumination.
Asked where that light comes from, he looked at the ballroom ceiling, raised both arms as if to say “the grace of God” and touched his chest as if to say “his soul.” Then he smiled, shrugged and rolled his eyes as if to say he knew where the light came from but didn’t know how it got there.
For Jimmy, it’s always a long walk from the Regal’s ballroom doors to the stage. But the real journey began more than six decades ago, and stands as one of the richest stories in American country music. What follows is just a few pages from that story.
Shot Jackson and Jimmy’s first lap steel
“Tuscaloosa, Alabama” rolls off the tongue like Jimmy’s accent: slow, southern, and sweet like bee’s honey. Day was born there in 1934; in ’37 his family moved west to Louisiana. He always knew he wanted to play country music. His folks gave him a guitar but he got discouraged with it because he had trouble with the left hand work on the fretboard. The discouragement ended in 1948 when he saw Shot Jackson perform. In an interview with Steel Guitar World magazine, Jimmy recalled, “I was 14 and that’s when I decided that I wanted to be a steel player. When I saw Shot, I thought that here is an instrument where I didn’t have to be real fancy with my left hand in order to play it. Just hold that piece of metal and slide it up and down the neck. It looked easy and sounded real good. Once I started, I stuck with it.”
Day and Jackson also became lifelong friends — a friendship that not only had a serious impact on Jimmy’s career, but also would result in changes to the steel that were, in 1948, only beginning to be considered. As Jimmy’s first real influence and mentor, Jackson gave him the best advice he ever received: “Shot told me, ‘If you always stick close to the melody you can’t go wrong. Try to play every tune so that if your mama walked in in the middle of it, she would know what you were playing.’ And for almost 50 years I’ve always tried to follow that advice.”
The beginning of those 50 years came on Christmas 1949, when Jimmy got his first real steel guitar, a six-string model. The next year, 16-year-old Jimmy played the first of thousands of honky-tonk shows yet to come. In 1951, after he graduated from high school, he auditioned for and was hired by the Louisiana Hayride, a radio show in Shreveport that had made its debut three years earlier. In hindsight, it’s hard to imagine the changes that were fixing to storm across American music — and it would have been even harder for a young steel guitarist to imagine he was walking into the eye of that Louisiana hurricane.
The Louisiana Hayride:
A pair of kings, the birth of the pedal steel
When Jimmy got the gig with the Louisiana Hayride, he began working for Webb Pierce. Shortly thereafter, Pierce went up for his first Nashville recording session and took lap steeler Billy Robinson with him, but on the follow-up session Pierce took not only Jimmy but also a piano player Jimmy had been friends with since the seventh grade, Floyd Cramer. That session produced several songs with Jimmy on steel, including “This Heart Belongs to Me”, which went to No. 1 before Jimmy’s 18th birthday.
In the spring of 1952, Jimmy started playing some shows with Hank Williams. In November, Hank asked Jimmy to be in a new band that he was going to start a few weeks after New Year’s. As it turned out, it was a sad New Year’s for Jimmy and all Hank Williams fans. “I came over for dinner on New Year’s Day and my mom was listening to the radio. She told me, ‘Hank’s dead.’ Everybody was very sad,” Jimmy remembers.