Review: Jerry Reed – The Unbelievable Guitar & Voice of Jerry Reed / Nashville Underground (RCA 1967/1968, Real Gone 2012)
Singer, songwriter and certified guitar player Jerry Reed found his musical calling as a child, and by the time he turned 18 in 1955, he was already making records. Sides cut for Capitol (catch the rockabilly “When I Found You” here), NRC and Columbia failed to ignite a performing career, but his songwriting and session guitar work garnered traction in Nashville. By 1965 he’d come to the attention of Chet Atkins, and two years later he released his debut LP, The Unbelievable Guitar & Voice of Jerry Reed, on RCA. The album was stylistically schizophrenic, ranging from folk-country tunes similar to Waylon Jennings early RCA sides to faux British Invasion pop to rootsy blues-country. It’s the latter, including the album’s first single, “Guitar Man,” that came to define Reed’s sound.
In 1967, though, Atkins was still trying to find a place for Reed within the Nashville Sound. Atkins added badly-aging harpsichord to many of the debut’s tracks, and though Reed, Wayne Moss and Fred Carter Jr. cut loose with gut-string picking on several tracks, including the instrumental “The Claw,” there were still the doubled pop vocals of “If I Promise” sharing track space with the sly talking ablues “Woman Shy” and the Everlys-styled “Long Gone.” It’s interesting, albeit a bit disconcerting, to hear Reed singing so far outside his earthier country sound, and the folk- and pop-flavored cuts haven’t the swagger of his blues. Elvis Presley covered “Guitar Man,” with Reed reproducing the guitar break from this recording, and “U.S. Male,” with the lyrical intro shifted from Georgia to Mississippi.
Reed returned Elvis’ favor with his next single “Tupelo Mississippi Flash,” on his second album, Nashville Underground. Released in 1968, this second album’s title proves itself ironic with music that’s even heavier on the crossover balladry. Try as he might though, Atkins couldn’t shave the Southern edges off Reed’s playing and singing, highlighted by the hard-picked guitar of “Fine on My Mind.” In addition to eight originals, Reed covers a pair of traditional titles (“Wabash Cannonball” and “John Henry”), and takes a playful, jazzy turn on Ray Charles “Hallelujah I Love Her So.” As on the debut, Reed’s versatility is impressive, but it’s the talking blues and arrangements stripped of Atkins’ crossover production that still leap most energetically from the speakers.
Real Gone’s first-ever CD reissue of these two albums features the twenty-three original tracks, and includes a twelve-page booklet rich with original cover art (front and back), session data and liner notes by Chris Morris. If you only know Reed from 1970s hits “Amos Moses” and “When You’re Hot You’re Hot” (or only as an actor from Smokey and the Bandit), this is a great opportunity to hear his first brush with Nashville. Atkins’ production leaves many of these tracks sounding like period pieces, but Reed’s talent still shines through, and if you pick your way around the glossier pop ballads, there’s some truly rewarding music here.