Jerry Reed—One of a Kind

From the day he held his first guitar at age 7, Jerry Reed did what God put him on earth to do—entertain.

Shortly after the 2005 release of his first-ever live album—Jerry Reed Live, Still—guitar legend, humorist, songwriter, actor and all-around great guy Jerry Reed sat down with Country Weekly’s David Scarlett for an expansive interview about the new record and a lot of other things. With Jerry’s passing on August 31, it’s appropriate to offer that interview here as a complement to our coverage in the Oct. 6 Country Weekly magazine. Here’s that 2005 interview in its entirety.

JR
What do you want to jaw-bone about?
CW
I want to talk about your new record in a minute, but first I have to tell you I learned to play your instrumental “La Madrugada” song when I took some classical lessons in college.
JR
I don’t know what went wrong with my brain when I put that together. I remember sittin’ around dronin’ that G-string. I thought, “Man, it’d be great to write a song and never quit dronin’ that G-string. Boy, wouldn’t that be great.”
CW
How’s your health since heart surgery in ’99?
JR
Yeah, it was seven years ago. Well, it’s back to nearly normal. You know, your heart only pumps 50 percent of the blood out, and mine’s pumping 45 percent, so I feel like I’m scorin’ pretty good.
CW
Doing any rehab or other exercise?
JR
Well, they want me to exercise. That’s hard for me, ‘cause I’m a lazy guitar player. I like to fish.
CW
Is your heart problem what prompted the AP story about your early demise?
JR
Yeah, it came over the AP wire, I think one Thursday a couple years ago. So it was a long time after my surgery—“Actor/Singer/Songwriter Jerry Reed passed away Thursday, surrounded by his family.” One of my buddies called, I answered the phone and he said, “You’re alive!” I said, “Yeah, I’m alive. What are you talkin’ about?” And he said, “Well, I just heard over the radio you were dead!” And I said, “Well, they must’ve been talkin’ to my agent!” [laughs]
CW
Is that what prompted the title of the new CD?
JR
Absolutely. We got through mixin’ the album, and they said, “What are we gonna call it?” I said, “Ain’t but one thing to call it–Jerry Reed Live, Still.”
CW
I love the new song “Father Time and Gravity.”
JR
Well, I wrote that about people like you . . . [he laughs] and me. I look in the mirror every mornin’. Well, once you get around 35, things start happening. And they are caused by two public enemies number one, and that’s Father Time . . . and gravity, and the effect they have on this human species that bounces around this planet, acting like a bunch of idiots.
One day you look up and your chest has fell down around your belly. I tell everybody under 30, this is previews of coming attractions. But it beats the alternative.
CW
How’d the song come to you? The songs I’ve written in my life, I believe the Good Lord give me. ‘Cause I can feel it when a title comes . . . ”I can write that.”
But I’m not a prolific writer. I’m not a Roger Miller. I’m not Harlan Howard . . . or Bill Anderson. I don’t get up and write every day. I’m a guitar player and entertainer. And I’ve just been fortunate to write some songs that . . . set the hook, so to speak.
CW
Does something external—something you might see or hear—prompt you to write?
JR
No, I’ve written songs around guitar licks . . . fingerings I did. Like “Amos.” “Guitar Man” was written around that guitar fingering. I tuned the E string down and played the boogie on the bass strings and did a little horn lick on the top strings . . . and I needed a song. So I said, “Well, I’m the guitar man.” And here I went.
CW
How’d you learn about open tunings?
JR
I think every guitar player knows about open tuning G . . . and after you’ve been playing as long as I’ve been playing, there weren’t any mysteries. You know, you tune the E string down, you’ve got a low D. And nobody told me about tuning that D string up. I just knew I wanted a straight fingering so I’d have some fingers loose. So I could do the boogie with these fingers, and hold this down. You know . . . it’s stuff you figure out.
CW
Why didn’t Columbia know how to record you? Did it take another good picker to know how . . . like Chet?
JR
I think we were spiritually connected. You know, when I moved up here, he had recorded two of my instrumentals. And I had stumbled into that counterpoint stuff I do. And “Down Home” just blew his mind. He loved “Down Home.” And I was livin’ in Atlanta when he recorded that.
Then I sent him “Scarecrow.” So he was the first man I came to see when I came to Nashville. And we started hangin’ out a lot. And, since I knew he liked that kind of stuff, I said, “Well I’m just gonna write as many of those things as I can.” And during the process, over a period of time, he saw my records and said, “You need to come over here and let me record you. They’re not recordin’ you right.”
He said, “You’re not fiddles, and steel guitars.” He said, “You’re what you play when you’re over at the house singin’ those songs and pickin’ that guitar . . . that’s what you are. And we’ll go in the studio, and we’ll record that way. And I’ll bet you . . . we’ll hit pay dirt.” And he was right.
And I think it was our association. ‘Course Chet was always right on the money, anyway. There won’t ever be another Chet Atkins. And we were guitar players, and he loved that stuff I played.
You know, between he and I, we have written 70 songs. I was on RCA 18 years. But I’ve put instrumentals in my albums, and we’d do albums together and I’d write tunes. And my guitar player, Mark Thornton, said one day, “Do you know how many songs you’ve written?” I said, “Probably 30.”
He said, “How about 70?” I said, “You’ve gotta be kiddin’ me!” And he made me a four-CD anthology of everything I had written. Worked his brains out, puttin’ that on there. It just blew my mind. And every time I was with Chet, we were pickin’.
CW
How are you pickin these days? As good as you were 25 years ago?
JR
Lord, no! I’m getting’ old! 35 years ago, I was full of testosterone that I don’t possess today. I just turned 68.
It’s kinda like Chet said, I’ve played enough. I’ve had my day. And generations are comin’ up behind us who are just incredible. And they’re gonna have their day in the sun. But I don’t pick like I did years ago. Can’t.
CW
How much live playing are you doing now?
JR
Oh, I’ve cut way back. For the next 12 months or so, I’m gonna be workin’ on two albums. Tryin’ to finish them up . . . with new stuff.
CW
Any particular focus . . . Christmas album or anything?
JR
Well, I’m focused on ‘em. But it’s not a Christmas album or anything. They’re just more Jerry Reed, is all I can tell you. Now the second one is really off the wall. I’ll tell you that. It’s got a 22 minute song on it.
CW
Will you share the title of it?
JR
I ain’t tellin’ you nothin’ [he laughs]. But I’ll tell you this, it’s as left-handed as I can get!
CW
Where’d you cut this new live one?
JR
We were out in Kansas. Actually, that was a surprise. The second song on there . . . that I wrote about me and you? I was doin’ it to put in this album I’m gonna release next. But my co-producer, Chet Hinesley, recorded the whole show. And when I got back and listened, I said, “Man! Forget puttin’ this [“God and Gravity”] in our album.” I wanted to do that song in front of a live audience. It was so good, I said, “Shoot. Forget that. We’ll just put this out. I’ll put that one out later and find me another song.”
CW
Nice to find at the end of the night that you’ve recorded an album you didn’t know you were gonna be doin’.
JR
Oh! Yeah! Are you kiddin’ me? I said, “Man, all we gotta do is do some patchin’ here and there where the sound got funky, and we can put this thing out.”
CW
What do you think of the current state of country music . . . and country radio?
JR
Oh, I ain’t gonna get into that. I ain’t gonna get into that. Generations come, and music is always in a state of flux, and it changes. And the old ones say, “Well, look what they’re doin’.” That’s what they said about us in the fifties, you know? “Look what these young kids are doin’. They’re screwin’ up music . . . all this rock ‘n’ roll in there.”
I don’t listen to music. I never listened to music in my life, anyway. All I listen to is talk radio. And I only listen to that if I ain’t got anything else to do when I’m drivin’ down the road. No, I’ve never listened to music.
‘Cause I tend to copy. I do. I’ll hear something that turns me on, and I’ll try to write something around it.
CW
Do you listen to your stuff after you’re done?
JR
Naw. You spend so much time in there mixin’ it, you’re sick of it when you finish it anyway. No, I listen to it critiquing it, when we mix and master it. But, after it’s finished, move on to the next thing. I’ve got something to do.
CW
I really like “A Brand New Me.”
JR
Well, you must be a Brother. And that’s the kind of music we grew up on. And let me tell you what, it kills that audience. Man, they love “A Brand New Me,” son. But I don’t care who you are, you’re powerless not to like quartet music. If you don’t like that, somethin’s bad wrong with you. I don’t care whether you believe in Jesus or not! Boy, if you don’t like that stuff, you’re unplugged somewhere in your brain! [big laugh]
That and “East Bound and Down” probably get the loudest response in the show. Kills ‘em! Yes sir.
CW
When you’re not workin’ on an album or doing something musical . . . is it likely you’ll be fishing?
JR
It is now. I golf some with my friends. My game sucks. Oh yeah. My real passion is fishing. Gonna be fishin’ tonight as a matter of fact. Went fishin’ last night. Out on Priest most of the time. Center Hill’s my heart. Boy, I love Center Hill Lake. Good Lord have mercy. Oh, man. Get up there at night under that moon, fishin’ for them small mouths . . . honey, hush!
CW
Have any regrets about things in your career?
JR
Well, I’ll answer that simply as . . . yes, and I don’t want to talk about it. Not worth talkin’ about it. It’s called peaks and valleys. And everybody goes through ‘em. And life goes on. I’ve taken care of the important things.
CW
Think there’s an appreciation for what you’ve achieved in your career?
JR
Well, it really is a surprise. But it makes me realize that God sends you here with a stamp on you, son. ‘Cause I never wanted to do anything else since I was five years old, setting on a stove wood pile in Palmetto, Georgia. A stick of stove wood and a piece of kindling bark, and I’m the star on the Grand Ole Opry! Man, I’m five years old, son! Do you think I contrived that at five years old, that that’s what I wanted to do? Why, Lord, no!
And the minute I set eyes on a guitar, I knew. I want that. Give me one of those. Somebody give me one of those.
CW
Recall the first time you ever saw a guitar?
JR
Yeah, it was at a quilting party, back in the early ‘40s. Out in the country. I was in a foster home, out in the country. And they had what they called quilting parties. They had this big old frame inside of a quilt. And the neighbors would come and the ladies would get in there and they’d build a quilt.
They had this guitar over in the corner, and I stared at it all night. I went over and tried to touch it, and they said, “Keep your hands off that!” I was five, six . . . somewhere in there.
Then, when I was seven, I’d come back home. And my step father bought me a $7 guitar. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Didn’t even have a name on it. Strings about a quarter inch off the neck . . . I didn’t care. I remember it tore my fingers up. But we were poor white folks. Didn’t cost but $7 dollars.
It wasn’t that bad. I remember, Mama taught me G, C and D. And I was off to the races. I was off to the races.
CW
Still have it?
JR
Naw. Lord no. I’m not a pack rat. I wish I had been . . . knowin’ what I know now. It’d be worth something.
I do have my first D-28 Martin, though, that I bought new in 1953.
Guitars are nothin’ to me, but somethin’ to use. Paul Yandel was in my band and, boy, you’d think his guitar was made out of gold, man. I mean, it was like one of his children. And I’m throwin’ mine against a wall, lettin’ it flop against a chair. [laughs] He was always puttin’ it up, wipin’ his strings, polishin’ it up.
CW
What makes you smile?
JR
I smile at everything. I have a great sense of humor. Boy, you can break me up quick. I really do, I love humor. Humor is what I’m all about. I love that stuff. There’s enough ugly stuff going on in the world. I’m focused on the other side. I’m the antithesis of seriousness.
CW
Do you still listen to talk radio?
JR
I’ve got to where I don’t even like to listen to that anymore. They say the same thing over and over and over. I watch the news, and they’ll get on a story, and they’ll beat it to death for a week! I’m tired of hearin’ about that!
I’m kinda sick of reporters. NEWS reporters! [he laughs] Well, you know what I’m talkin’ about. I’m readin’ Ari Fleisher’s book, talkin’ about the liberals and conservatives. And you know, Washington, DC is a zoo! And reporters up there are assassins. They can’t wait to stir things up. That’s what they’re all about. So they can get in there first.
And if you’re a liberal and a conservative does something, they come at you with, “well, why did you do it that way . . . and what about this?”
And you hear about the Abu Ghraib prison for months and months and months. And you hear about the cuttin’ one of our people’s heads off one day, and the next day and the next day . . . then it’s gone. And the world jumps on us about some stupid thing like that. Look at the people we’re puttin’ in there in the first place. Why don’t they do three months on how many head they’ve cut off?
I just practically don’t listen to anything, unless it’s somebody who moves me artistically.
CW
Who’s in that category?
JR
Chet Atkins. Wasn’t but one, they’ll never be another. He defined the guitar. And it’ll never be the same without him. Him and Merle Travis inspired me to direct my life in the way I directed in, in terms of guitar anyway.
Merle was the first one I heard . . . ”Cannonball Rag.” My face nearly fell off. I couldn’t believe it. “You mean that’s one man, doin’ all that? That ain’t one man. Is that one man? You’re kiddin’ me. Play it again. Put another nickel in that juke box.” I think “Blue Smoke” was on the other side. I can’t remember. Then I nearly died.
Then, here comes Chet Atkins. Well, I went through the roof then, it’s over. I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
CW
Did you listen to the record over and over to figure out how Merle was doing that?
JR
Yeah, stupid me, I thought he was doin’ it with a straight pick. I tried to do it with a straight pick. Till I saw one of these fellows playing with a thumb pick. I said, “You can get a pick to put on your thumb? So that’s how they do it! Get me a thumb pick!” Dumb cotton mill kid. I didn’t know nothin’.
CW
If there hadn’t been the guitar in your life, what would you have wound up doin’?
JR
How do I answer that? ‘Cause I was like a mule with blinders on, son. I never looked back. I had tunnel vision. I can’t answer that. I don’t know . . . because I don’t think I was put here to do anything else. I just really don’t know how to answer that.
There’s just nothin’ else in my life that meant what that meant. My desire and love was so intense. And when my wife and I decided to get married, I told her, “Well, if anybody has a day job in this family, it’s gonna be you, ‘cause I’m gonna play this guitar the rest of my life. Now, you want to get married?” And she said, “yes” . . . and we got married. And I played the guitar the rest of my life.
But she was a picker, too. She had her own little quartet, a piano player. She could read. She was a soprano. When we came to Nashville, she went right to work with the Jordanaires. God sent her to me. I know it.
We’re goin’ on 46 years this June. 46 years. She is my heart.
CW
Are you happy?
JR
As a dead hog in the sunshine, son! You know I was thinkin’ the other day, I was gettin’ ready to go fishin’. And I was talkin’ about how I’m semi-retired now. And people say, “Well, when you retire, you’re gonna die!” And I was lookin’ out at that golf course and I said, “People are crazy. When you wake up every day, people that have to work have just got a big old empty spot in their soul. But I wake up and I look at God’s wonderful creation, and if I never hit another lick at a snake!! [laughs] I can’t tell you how happy I am.
CW
Where do you play golf?
JR
Several places. All over middle Tennessee. McCabe, Harpeth Hills. All the country clubs. Well, let’s just say I visited the course!
I remember one day, I really got my wood game going. I hit it in the woods on No. 1 and didn’t come out of the woods till No. 17.
CW
Ever have a hole in one?
JR
Yeah, and it was a shot that I missed. And, of all things, there was nobody with me, so they couldn’t put it in the paper! I think I had a 7 iron and we was playin’ the winter greens, and I drew back and half skulled it. It got about head high. And the winter green had a dip in it, it wasn’t really a green. And it hit about 20 yards in front of the green on the right side, and the lay of the land started takin’ it over and then it got on the green and it went out of sight in that dip. And I said, “Well . . . that’s gonna be close!”
And I went up there and there was no ball on the green! And I said, “Aw, don’t tell me no.” I walked over there and there it was. And I went in the club house. Ray Eaton was the pro. It was 15, that par three . . . on Old Hickory Blvd. Harpeth Hills.
I said, “Man, I got my first hole in one!” And he said, “Who was with you?” So I look at him and said, “Who was with me? Wasn’t nobody with me.” “Well, we can’t put it in the paper.” “Why, you can put it in the paper, I knocked it in the hole! You callin’ me a liar?” [laughs] “No, you gotta have a witness.”
“Well, you’re lookin’ at him.” I said, “There wasn’t nobody on the golf course. Across the road I saw somebody’s horse standin’ in the pasture, but he had his butt turned toward me. He didn’t see it either!” [big laugh] So I didn’t get in the paper.
CW
What will you be doing in the next few months?
JR
Gonna finish these albums. That’s what I love better than anything. I love to produce music.

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