Jerry Byrd

Country-music steel guitarist

Jerry Byrd was one of the most influential steel guitarists in country-music history; his sweet, warm tone adorned many of the genre's most enduring records. The steel guitar was developed in Hawaii in the late 19th century and found its way to the United States on the back of the Hawaiian craze that followed the islands' new status as an American territory in 1900. It was adopted by a number of leading hillbilly musicians, including Cliff Carlisle and Jimmie Tarlton.

Jerry Lester Byrd, steel guitarist: born Lima, Ohio 9 March 1920; twice married (two daughters); died Honolulu, Hawaii 11 April 2005.

Jerry Byrd was one of the most influential steel guitarists in country-music history; his sweet, warm tone adorned many of the genre's most enduring records. The steel guitar was developed in Hawaii in the late 19th century and found its way to the United States on the back of the Hawaiian craze that followed the islands' new status as an American territory in 1900. It was adopted by a number of leading hillbilly musicians, including Cliff Carlisle and Jimmie Tarlton.

In 1931 the Rickenbacker company developed the first electric model and it was this that became a mainstay of the western swing bands that flourished in Texas, Oklahoma and California, with steelies like Bob Dunn, Leon McAuliffe, Noel Boggs and Joaquin Murphey exploring and exploiting its range. Although companies such as Gibson and Epiphone later became involved in steel-guitar manufacture, Jerry Byrd always preferred a Rickenbacker.

He was born, to a non-musical family, in 1920, making his radio début some 15 years later. A fan of the great Hawaiian guitarists of the era, notably Sol Hoopii and Benny Nawahi, he drifted towards hillbilly music, appearing on both Cincinnati's WLW Mid-Western Hayride and the Renfro Valley Barn Dance before the decade was out.

In 1944 he joined Ernie Lee's Happy Valley Boys and began making a name for himself in Nashville where he found occasional work behind the Grand Ole Opry stars Ernest Tubb and Red Foley. Two years later, he joined Foley's band, the Cumberland Valley Boys - the fiddler Tommy Jackson, electric guitarist Zeke Turner and rhythm guitarist Louis Innis - on a more permanent basis.

As Foley's was the first band to double as a studio outfit, Byrd found himself in the recording studio backing not only his boss ("Satisfied Mind", "Never Trust a Woman") but also other leading country stars of the era, including Grandpa Jones, the Delmore Brothers and Hank Williams. It is Byrd's characteristic playing that can be heard on Williams's classics such as "Lovesick Blues" and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" (which Williams later cited as a favourite).

Byrd returned to Cincinnati and WLW in the late Forties, inspiring the future steel guitar wizard Curly Chalker, before returning to Nashville. In 1949 he signed with Mercury Records and over the next few years recorded numbers he had written himself, like "Steelin' the Chimes", "Limehouse Blues", "Beyond the Reef" and "Byrd's Boogie".

At his first featured session for the label he wrote an instrumental number, "Steelin' the Blues", on the spot and was somewhat surprised when the producer Fred Rose insisted that the singer and western movie star Rex Allen add a crooning vocal. He later recalled: "The DJs complained. They wanted to use the song as a theme, but they couldn't because having a singer on it ruined it. I told 'em not to blame me." Despite Byrd's misgivings, the song has since acquired classic status.

He later recorded a number of albums for Decca, RCA and Monument, many of them with a distinctly Hawaiian flavour: Nani Hawaii (1953) with the Kuanna Islanders, Byrd of Paradise (1961), Memories of Maria (1962), Burnin' Sands, Pearly Shells and Steel Guitars (1967) and Polynesian Suite (1969).

Changing fashions in 1950s Nashville, however, were to effect his career adversely. A pedalled version of the steel guitar had been developed which internally altered string pitches and which also expanded on the number of chords available to the player. Byrd, unlike many of his contemporaries, refused to play it and found himself reduced on some sessions to playing bass.

In the 1970s, perhaps inevitably, he moved to Hawaii. He returned to mainland America only for occasional seminars and conventions and in 1978 to be inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame.

Paul Wadey



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