Obituary: Jerry Rivers

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The Independent Online
Jerry Rivers played fiddle with the Drifting Cowboys, a band who will be forever associated with their "frontman", the legendary Hank Williams.

Rivers was, with steel guitarist Don Helms, bassist Hillous Butram and guitarist Bob McNett part of a quartet whose work with Williams has given them a special place in the affections of country music fans. That they largely stuck with the most troubled and behaviourly erratic figure in the genre's history is a tribute not only to their patience but also to the loyalty they felt towards the man they knew as "Bones".

Raised in Nashville, Jerry Rivers took up the fiddle as a teenager and was, by the mid-Forties, playing it semi- professionally whilst working during the day as a salesman for an electronic components company. He turned professional, briefly toured with the Short Brothers and then found himself back in Nashville working with Big Jeff Bess, husband of Hattie Louise "Tootsie" Bess, owner of the famous Tootsie's Orchid Lounge on Music City's Lower Broadway.

It was whilst working with Bess that Rivers was first approached by Williams. Although Hank had performed with groups from the mid-Thirties on, it was only following his successful early appearances on the Grand Ole Opry in 1949 that he began to see the merits of a permanent backing band.

Despite Williams' status as a rising star, Rivers was not impressed with the financial terms on offer and initially declined. Later however, he had second thoughts and headed for the radio station WSM where he found his future boss at the shoe-shine stand.

They briefly talked before Williams grabbed Rivers' instrument and began playing the fiddle standard "Sally Goodin". When he had finished he challenged the younger man to follow suit whilst he accompanied on guitar. As Rivers later remembered: "We must have played it for five minutes, then he set down his guitar and I set down the fiddle, and he said, `Well, anyone (who) can play "Sally Goodin" better 'n me is a darn good fiddle player. You're hired.' "

Rivers cut his first discs with Williams on 9 January 1950, in a session that produced classics like "Long Gone Lonesome Blues", "Why Don't You Love Me?", and "My Son Calls Another Man Daddy". Nicknamed "Burrhead" because of his haircuts, he performed on every major Williams session that followed.

At the suggestion of Williams' mentor, the producer and publisher Fred Rose, he adopted a characteristic double-stop style of bowing: playing the melody and harmony simultaneously on two strings. It was a style that Hank dismissed as "garden seed" fiddle, but one which served Rivers well on many of Williams' greatest recordings, among them: "Moanin' The Blues" (1950), "Cold, Cold Heart" (1950), "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still In Love With You)" (1951), "Hey Good Lookin'" (1951) and "Jambalaya" (1952).

Following Williams' death in the early hours of New Year's Day 1953, Rivers and the other Drifting Cowboys had few problems finding work, making valuable contributions to the music of Ray Price and Ferlin Husky, Marty Robbins and, eventually, Hank Williams Jnr.

In the early Sixties, Rivers cut a now rare solo album for Starday, Fantastic Fiddlin' and Tall Tales, on which he both explains and demonstrates the evolution of various country fiddle styles, and in 1964 his biography of Williams, From Life To Legend, was published (revised edition 1980).

In 1976, the Drifting Cowboys reformed for a series of radio shows with the country comic Whitey Ford and enjoyed renewed popularity, especially on the Opry stage and in Britain where they performed at the Wembley Festival.

Together, they cut a series of albums: A Song For Us All (1979), A Tribute To Hank Williams (1980), Live! (1981) and Classic Instrumentals (1981), before largely retiring to enjoy their status as Nashville icons.

Jerry Rivers, fiddle player: born Miami 25 August 1928; married; died Nashville 4 October 1996.