Steel Guitar Pioneer Jerry Byrd Dead at 85

Ohio-Born Innovator Spent Final Years in His Beloved Hawaii

Trailblazing steel guitarist Jerry Byrd died Monday (April 11) at Kaiser Moanalua Hospital in Honolulu of complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was 85.

During a career that started in his teens, Byrd helped shape the sounds of such country music tastemakers as Red Foley, Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb and Marty Robbins. Fascinated from youth by the islands’ music, Byrd moved to Hawaii in the 1970s and continued to record and perform there until near the time of his death.

Gerald Lester Byrd was born March 9, 1920, in Lima, Ohio. He was only 13, he wrote in his 2003 autobiography, It Was a Trip on Wings of Music, when he saw a performance by a troupe of touring Hawaiian musicians.

“There were six or eight of them,” he recalled, “and the stage drop was a scene with palm trees along an ocean shoreline and a volcano erupting. … But it was the sound of the steel guitar that captivated me the most.”

Byrd began performing professionally in 1935 on a Lima radio station. From there, he migrated to larger stations in Louisville, Ky., and Cincinnati. In 1941, he joined the cast of the Renfro Valley Barn Dance in Cincinnati. He appeared with Tubb on the Grand Ole Opry from 1945 through 1947 and formed his own band, the Jay-Bird Trio, in 1946. From 1948 to 1951, he was a regular on the Midwestern Hayride in Cincinnati.

Apart from his live performing, Byrd also became an in-demand studio musician during this period. He played in Foley’s band throughout the late ’40s and signed his first solo recording contract — with Mercury Records — in 1948. Byrd never made the charts as a solo act, but he did get billing on singles with two other artists who did: Rex Allen on “Afraid” (1949) and Red Kirk on “Lose Your Blues” (1950).

Among the singles that spread Byrd’s fame, particularly among other performers, were “Steelin’ the Blues,” “Limehouse Blues,” “Beyond the Reef,” “Hilo March,” “Paradise Isle” and “My Isle of Golden Dreams.” After his stint with Mercury, Byrd recorded for Decca, RCA and Monument. In his later years, he released work on the independent Hawaiian label, Mountain Apple.

In Nashville during the mid-to-late 1950s, Bryd played on WSIX-TV’s Home Folks show and WLAC-TV’s Country Junction. In 1964, he joined Bobby Lord’s band to work on Lord’s syndicated TV series.

After Byrd moved to Hawaii, he became active in the state’s thriving music scene, working in radio, clubs and recording studios. He recorded with many of Hawaii’s most prominent stars, including Don Ho. In his autobiography, Byrd noted that Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead once approached him at a club date and inquired about taking steel guitar lessons. He also wrote that brothers Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan once came to the music store in Kaimuki where he taught and asked to meet him.

“He was a lot of fun but not big in promoting his albums,” Leah Bernstein of Mountain Apple Records told the Honolulu Advertiser. She said he declined doing radio interviews or other promotional chores, saying, “‘Oh, no, I just make the music.” His last release for that label, which came out in March, was a reissue of his classic The Master of Touch and Tone.

Byrd was in the first class of inductees into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame, an honor bestowed on him, Leon McAuliffe and Alvino Rey in 1978. He is survived by his wife, Kaleo Wood, daughters Lani Jo and Luana Jane and a brother, Jack.