RIP: Jerry Reed

As has been widely reported, Jerry Reed has passed at age 71 after fighting emphysema. Most others are concentrating on his pop-culture high-water mark, his portrayal of "Snowman" in the SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT series.

What most are missing is that, underneath his "good ol' boy" image, Jerry Reed was a country SHREDDER, who's intense fingerstyle fretwork was rivaled only by Chet Atkins, himself!


“If (Merle) Travis’ thumb and index finger picking style was first generation, and Chet Atkins’ use of thumb, index and middle finger was second, Reed’s use of his entire right hand to pick (the famous “claw” style) was the wild, untamed and dauntingly complex third generation,” wrote historian and journalist Rich Kienzle.

Mr. Reed switched from a steel-stringed acoustic guitar to a nylon-stringed Baldwin model, with an electronic “pickup” that allowed the guitar to be heard above a full band. He signed a Columbia Records contract in 1961, but that deal yielded no hits. His songwriting and session playing proved more lucrative, as he performed on hits for Bobby Bare and he penned Porter Wagoner’s 1962 No. 1 hit, “Misery Loves Company.” And Mr. Reed attracted a high-powered fan in Chet Atkins, the guitar star who ran Nashville’s branch of RCA.

Need more proof of cool?

No less than GENE VINCENT became the first major artist to cut one of Reed's compositions, "Crazy Legs", in 1958.

ELVIS PRESLEY, who, along with MERLE TRAVIS and RAY CHARLES, inspired Reed, collaborated with the guitarist on four compositions. Unfortunately, in keeping with the Colonel's "cut his nose to spite his face" style of management, the amazing session was interrupted, in favor of an attempt to strong-arm Jerry Reed out of his publishing royalties on Reed's songs, despite the fact that Elvis was merely trying to "cover" Reed's previous released originals.

Reed details it, with some charity, in a recent interview, although the second volume of Peter Guralnick's Elvis bio, CARELESS LOVE, has it in more detail.

He had just been fishing, he recounted, the first and only time he met Elvis Presley. That was in 1967. Presley had come to Nashville to record, and one of the songs he was working on was "Guitar Man," which Reed had written and recorded. "I was out on the Cumberland River fishing," he recalled, "and I got a call from Felton Jarvis (then Presley's producer). He said, 'Elvis is down here. We've been trying to cut 'Guitar Man' all day long. He wants it to sound like it sounded on your album.' I finally told him, I said, 'Well, if you want it to sound like that, you're going have to get Reed in there to play guitar, because these guys (you're using in the studio) are straight pickers. He picks with his fingers and he tunes that guitar up all weird kind of ways.'" So Jarvis hired Reed to play on the session.

"I hit that intro," Reed said, "and boy, [Elvis's] face lit up and here we went. Then after he got through that, he cut [my] 'U.S. Male' at the same session. I was toppin' cotton, son." There's an outtake from that session that still circulates on Music Row in which you can hear the King and the Alabama Wild Man (one of Georgia-born Reed's nicknames) joking with each other. (link)
Reed and Elvis cut rollicking versions of "What'd I Say?" and "Big Boss Man" before "Reed was hit up for the publishing rights to his song. He refused, and left; and so did the spirit of the session." These four songs, two of them only available on the Elvis box set released in the 1990s, rank among Elvis' best post-Sun work. Imagine an album or two of these gems?

Although that was not to be, Elvis later covered Reed's compositions "Talk About the Good Times" and "A Thing Called Love". Reed was proud that the song, never a hit, became a standard. "(Johnny) Cash cut it. (Glen) Campbell cut it. Elvis cut it. I cut it."

In the 90's Reed joined a "supergroup", consisting of Waylon Jennings, Mel Tillis, and Bobby Bare.

If you want to peruse his discography or filmography, hop over to Wikipedia.