Billy Byrd

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The Independent Online

William Lewis Byrd, guitarist: born Nashville, Tennessee 17 February 1920; married (four daughters); died Nashville 7 August 2001.

Billy Byrd was one of the most influential guitarists in country music. Best known for his long association with the great honky tonk vocalist Ernest Tubb, he also proved an important teacher and innovator. He was, alongside his friend Hank Garland, directly responsible for the development in 1955 of the Gibson Guitar Company's landmark Gibson Byrdland, a semi-hollow-bodied instrument with a short-scale neck that enabled players to handle effectively the often complex fingering pioneered by both musicians.

Although a native of the city now synonymous with country music, his primary influences lay in jazz. As a result he brought an experimental approach to his playing that has continued to resonate in the country field.

Byrd learned to play the guitar at 10 and was appearing on local radio whilst still in his teens. In 1938, having worked on WSIX's Old Country Store, he joined the house band at Nashville's WSM Grand Ole Opry and then landed a position with Herold Goodman and the Tennessee Valley Boys.

Following Second World War service, he returned to Nashville and spent two years with Wally Fowler and his Georgia Clodhoppers. In April 1948 he appeared alongside the Four Deacons on the inaugural broadcast of KWKH's Louisiana Hayride, the only country radio show ever seriously to challenge the dominance of the Opry. A little more than a year later he succeeded Tommy "Butterball" Page as lead guitarist with Ernest Tubb's Texas Troubadours, kickstarting an important musical association.

His first recording session with Tubb, a duet with Red Foley entitled "Tennessee Border No 2", was followed by scores of others. His fluid guitar breaks on Tubb's hits, characterised by a distinctive climbing phrase, were regularly introduced by a name check from his boss demanding that he should "Play it pretty, Billy Byrd". His playing can be heard on Tubb classics like "Letters Have No Arms" (1950), "Two Glasses Joe" (1954) and "Half a Mind" (1958) and he also recorded with Little Jimmy Dickens, the Oak Ridge Quartet, Tex Ritter, George Hamilton IV and one-time teen idol Tab Hunter.

In 1959, galavanised by the success of a solo album, I Love A Guitar, and tired of Tubb's punishing touring schedule, he headed for the West Coast where he worked briefly with the fiddler Gordon Terry. A year later, he returned to Tennessee where he balanced the demands of session and nightclub work with regular appearances on early morning television. He also recorded two more albums, Lonesome Cowboy Songs (1962) and The Golden Guitar of Billy Byrd (1964).

In 1969, at Ernest Tubb's request, he rejoined the Texas Troubadours, remaining with them, on-and-off, until 1973, at which point he effectively retired from the music scene to run a cab company in Nashville.

Paul Wadey

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