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At age 67, Jerry Reed thinks he's finally got it figured out. "Now I know what I'm doing," he chuckles. "I've got 40 years of on-the-job training, son!" In fact, it's been even longer than that - Jerry cut his first record back in the mid-1950s. But it was in 1967 that his nimble guitar licks truly captured the public's imagination, with his Chet Atkins-produced debut album, The Unbelievable Guitar & Voice of Jerry Reed.
"I've been hunkering over guitars since I was 7 years old," says the Atlanta native. "That's my connection to the human race. That little neck of the guitar is my highway. That's what I'm supposed to do. That's what I'm best at."
He had his first minor hit in 1967 with the autobiographical "Guitar Man," which went on to be an even bigger hit the following year for another singer - Elvis Presley. Jerry found his own musical niche with a string of tongue-in-cheek classics including "Amos Moses," "When You're Hot, You're Hot" and "She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft)."
"Somewhere along the line, you realize that you've got a blessed life," he muses. "It's like a gift under a Christmas tree, son. I never wanted to do anything else. I've never done anything else. I guess one of the reasons I might have been successful is that I never changed course."
He did take a couple of side roads, though - including one that led him to Hollywood. Jerry has appeared in hit movies from 1977's Smokey and the Bandit to the late-'90s Adam Sandler comedy The Waterboy.
"Once your movie has been played across the world and become a smash everywhere it went, you're not just a recording artist anymore," figures Jerry. "I wanted to be a little more than just a recording artist, a songwriter and a guitar picker.
"I knew I'd never be a Gregory Peck or a Clark Gable, but I thought I could be a character and a personality and pull it off - and I did. All I wanted to be was a supporting actor. God blessed me with a smash movie or two."
Jerry kept up his acting career despite resistance from the Nashville music industry. "Record people didn't want me taking the time away from my music," he recalls. "But between me and you, I'm glad I did it."
Jerry's turn as truck driver Cledus Snow in Smokey and the Bandit and its two sequels remains perhaps his most beloved role. "It was a blessing," he says. "We didn't have any idea what we were doing. We were just wrecking a bunch of cars and motorcycles, running from the police, jumping ditches - and having the time of our lives!"
These days, Jerry is still having a good time as he settles into what he calls the "second phase" of his life. He spends his time off attending Bible study, reading scripts, watching Atlanta Braves baseball on TV, fishing and golfing with friends.
And while he hasn't made a new album in five years, Jerry still performs several dozen shows annually. "I just put on my stupid-looking straw hat and walk out there," he laughs. "I'm 67 years old, and I don't do a 'show' anymore. It's more fun now than when I was 27, 37 or 47. Now I don't care if my belly sticks out!"
Jerry attributes his longevity to his 45-year marriage to his wife, Priscilla. When they first moved to Nashville in the mid-'60s, it was Prissy who supported the family as a background singer. And after her husband's career took off, she showed tremendous patience.
"God gave me a good woman - and believe me, it wouldn't have lasted without a good woman," he testifies. "I don't know why she didn't hit me right between the eyes sometimes. I wouldn't have put up with me for 15 minutes.
"There was one year when I was only home two days. Two days! She raised the children - took them to school, took them to church, fed them, dressed them. Showed them pictures of their daddy and said, 'This is what he looks like, if he ever comes home.' "
When he looks back at both his rich personal life and professional peaks, Jerry just shakes his head.
"I'm living proof that God is alive and well," he says. "He allowed me to be successful in spite of myself. I did everything I could to screw it up, and I never had enough sense to accomplish what I accomplished.
"I just never looked back. Like a mule with blinders on, I just went that way and things fell into place."
-- Keith Ryan Cartwright