Consider the man’s achievements:
As a songwriter, he’s composed more than 300 songs, including hits recorded by Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.
As a musician, he developed his own immediately identifiable guitar style, a feat accomplished only by Maybelle Carter, Merle Travis, Chet Atkins and a handful of other country players.
As a vocalist, he scored numerous hits, including “Amos Moses,” “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot” and “East Bound and Down.”
As an actor, he’s starred in more than a dozen films, including Smokey and the Bandit (with Burt Reynolds, Jackie Gleason and Sally Field) and The Waterboy (with Adam Sandler).
But if you ask Jerry Reed to name his primary occupation, he’ll reply, “Entertainer. I think that covers me pretty well.”
The normally reclusive Reed was the center of attention Tuesday (April 19) at BMI’s office in Nashville during a party celebrating the release of his new album, Jerry Reed Live, Still!, on his own label, RIIK Records.
A few weeks before at BMI, CMT.com sat down with Reed to talk about his career and the album, which includes two new songs and newly recorded live versions of eight of his most familiar songs. It kicks off with “Guitar Man,” including a brief spoken recollection of his 1967 session with Elvis Presley. Earlier that year, Reed’s own version of the song had peaked at No. 53 on the country singles chart. He says he wasn’t nervous about recreating his signature guitar line on Presley’s session.
“I’d have been nervous if I had to do something I didn’t know how to do,” Reed says. “Elvis had heard my album cut, and he wanted it to sound like that. His producer was an old friend of mine from Atlanta, Felton Jarvis, who said, ‘Well, you’re gonna have to get Reed in here to play on it then. He’s a fingerpicker, and these guys don’t have any idea what he’s doing because he does all this weird stuff anyway. He tunes them strings weird.’ So I got in there and I turned that E-string down and that B-string up and hit that intro. I wasn’t worried about playing that.”
Ecstatic that Presley had recorded one of his songs, Reed was reluctant when steel guitarist Pete Drake encouraged him to immediately pitch another song to Presley.
“Pete and I knew each other in Atlanta, when I was working at a cotton mill and he was driving a Merita bread truck,” Reed says. “He said, ‘Have you got anything else?’ I said, ‘No, man. Listen, this is enough for me, believe me.’ Then Elvis said, ‘Yeah, have you got any other songs?’ I said, ‘Well … uh … yeah.'”
When Reed mentioned the title, “U.S. Male,” Presley said, “Let me hear it.”
“So I cut down on ‘U.S. Male,’ and he said, ‘Let’s cut that thing,'” Reed recalls. “It was that easy. Absolutely that easy. It’s funny how things like that happen.”
The off-the-wall guitar style that attracted Presley began in the ’50s when Reed and another future star, Ray Stevens, were playing in a band in Atlanta.
“We’d work sock hops, bar mitzvahs and things like that,” Reed says. “Every show, Ray would do Ray Charles’ ‘Hallelujah, I Love Her So.’ I loved the piano intro on that. It had the counterpoint — the bass line going up and had the melody on top. I said, ‘Man, I want to do that.’ And that’s what got me started was all that counterpoint stuff that I did.” He adds, “I’m Southern, so I’m funky. I grew up in the Deep South, and I loved R&B and rock ‘n’ roll and country and gospel. And in Atlanta, when you played dances, you had to play it all. It just evolved into the way I played my guitar.”
After Chet Atkins recorded some of his instrumental compositions, Reed moved to Nashville and concentrated on being a session musician throughout much of the ’60s.
“I thought that was going to be my career because my records, well, they sold kind of like hotcakes — 50 cents a stack,” Reed jokes. “But Chet changed all that. We wouldn’t be talking here today if it wasn’t for Chet Atkins — period. I’d been on Capitol and on Columbia with nothing happening. Chet said, ‘Well, you need to come over here and let me record you, because they don’t know how to record you.'”
After his chart debut with “Guitar Man” and a series of subsequent singles that landed in the Top 20, Reed finally achieved stardom in 1970 with “Amos Moses” and a regular slot on Glen Campbell’s CBS-TV show.
“That’s when the cherry bomb went off,” Reed says. Asked how the explosion affected his music, he replies, “When I quit doing sessions, I focused more on being a personality than a picker. Frankly, I’d never thought that much about my pickin’.” He laughs, adding, “I didn’t know my pickin’ was anything but pickin’ until everybody told me how weird my pickin’ was.”
Campbell’s TV show was taped in Los Angeles, a factor that helped provide his entrée into the movies. The initial role as the bandleader in W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings, was just the first of several films he’d make with Reynolds. A larger role came when Reynolds invited him to be a part of Gator.
“He said, ‘I want you to be the heavy in it,'” Reed says. “I said, ‘Look at me: I weigh 155 pounds soaking wet. How am I gonna be a heavy in a movie?’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about that. I’m gonna give you a sawed-off shotgun, and you’re gonna carry it right up here in your coat pocket.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s different. You just turned me into 155 pounds of creeping hell, son.'”
Smokey and the Bandit remain a staple of cable television.
“We didn’t have a clue about what we were doing at the time,” he says. “We were just having a blast wrecking cars and running up and down the road. I think they ruined six Trans Ams doing stunts with them.”
In recent years, Reed has kept a low profile in Nashville, where he’s lived since the ’60s. Asked why, he replies, “Because that’s the way I like it. People get tired of you real easy. If they don’t see you, they don’t know what’s going on. I’m very reclusive. I’m not a social butterfly. I’m kind of a homebody. If I weren’t doing interviews, I’d probably be out bass fishing, or I’d be with some of my redneck friends hitting the golf ball. Or I’d be at home chasing my tiny toy poodle around the house.”
Reed’s new album came from a desire to record one of his new songs, “Father Time and Gravity,” in front of a live audience. Co-producer Chet Hinesley decided to tape the entire concert with Reed’s touring band.
“We got home, listened to it, and said, ‘My Lord, we were cookin’, weren’t we? That audience was on, I was on and the band was on. Let’s just make an album out of it.’ So that’s it. That’s what you’ve got. It was a dandy night.”
“Father Time and Gravity” is a humorous commentary on the physical transformation that comes with middle age.
“It was just one of those titles that fell into a slot in my brain,” he says. “Then I started remembering all my friends and how they’ve changed over the years.” He laughs again, adding, “Of course, my body has been exempt, but I thought it would be fun to poke some fun at us. It’s time for some humor and laughter. You look around the world now … you just want to go dig a hole and crawl in it. I think it’s time for us to laugh a little bit.”
At age 68, Reed has drastically curtailed his touring schedule.
“I say I’m retiring, but that’s really not so,” he says. “I’ll go out there again. It’s a way of life. I know that. But I want to get back in the studio and make some records the way we used to make them in the heyday of this town when everybody got their licks in, everybody did it at the same time and you weren’t so concerned with all the clarity and, ‘Did you miss a note on the 32nd bar?’ I could play you a lot of my records with mistakes on them, but they felt so good, nobody ever knew it.”
Two new albums are already in the works.
“One of them is a bunch of songs I’ve written that’s really legit stuff, and one of them is so off the wall, you won’t believe it,” he says. “I’ve got a song in there that’s about 22 minutes long. You haven’t heard anything like it. I guarantee you that.”
Perhaps because he cites “entertainer” as his occupation, Reed is reluctant to single out any specific accomplishment in his career.
“Every dream I ever dreamed came true in my life,” he says. “Every one of them. I got to write hit songs. … And I got to be on phonograph records. … I’m a cotton mill boy, and I got to go to Hollywood. Can you imagine that? Why, yeah, my goodness gracious. Go figure.”