By Michael Buffalo Smith
Jerry Reed is a true star. From his string of hit singles during the ’60’s and ’70’s to his groundbreaking role as The Snowman in the Smokey & The Bandit movies, Jerry Reed has maintained his ever present smile, and cool Southern style. We caught up with Jerry in his Tennessee home for a little Q&A.
Where were you born and raised?
Well, I was born in Atlanta, Georgia and raised thereabouts. (Laughs) I lived in Fairburn, Palmetto, Atlanta, but I was born at Grady Memorial General Hospital, March 20, 1937. How do you like that?
That was only 20 years before I was born.
(Laughs) I don’t like to hear that.
Just be happy and proud you are kicking as high as you are!
Believe me I am Michael, I am not even supposed to be here son. I am very grateful to God everyday that my eyes flutter open and I can jump out of that bed! (Laughs)
Tell me a little bit about your first introduction to music and what got you on this path…
Well, in the 1940’s, the first music I remember is church music and listening to the Grand Ol’ Opry in Palmetto. Even at 5 years old I believe that the good Lord had his hand in my life. I used to get on a stove wood pile at 5-6 years old and I would have a piece of stove wood and kindling bark as a pick, and I was a star. Then we would listen to the Grand Ol Opry, that solemn old judge would blow that horn and here we would go, oh yeah! Then when I was a teenager in the rockin fifties, I got into the rock and roll stuff. Playing gigs all around Atlanta, sock hops and stuff like that. By then I was a picker and could romp on that guitar all I wanted to. I got my first guitar at age of 7 and never laid it down. Momma taught me G,C, and D. I was off to the races son!
What else do you need besides G,C, and D. (Laughs) You can do all sorts of songs with those.
Well, you can sing most of the country songs and I figured out E, A, and F myself. Hold on while I put my dog in my lap.
What kind of dog do you have?
Oh, she is a tiny toy poodle and she runs the house. She loves to get into everything and I am talking on the phone now and she will not have it because she needs to be on my lap and be a part of everything.
Who were some of your earliest influences in music and guitar?
Oh, Michael, it’s very simple boy, when I heard Merle Travis I almost fainted. I heard “Cannonball Rag” and I thought, no can’t nobody do that. It can’t be one man doing that. Who are you kidding? Then I needed to figure out how to do that. Then I heard Chet Atkins and really went over the top, son. I finally figured out how to do rhythm with my thumb and play the melody with my fingers. Then low and behold came Les Paul, Django Rhinehart, and then I got into jazz players like Johnny Smith. I really loved Johnny Smith and Tal Farlow. I always went back to Chet Atkins. Man, that was the greatest guitar player that ever lived as far as I am concerned and the rest of the world too, I think. He was the most copied guitar player that ever lived, I know that. Those were my inspirations, absolutely.
What was your first big break in the music industry?
Meeting Bill Lowery, who was a popular DJ that went into the publishing business in Atlanta. He got me on Capitol Records when I was a junior in high school. Can you believe that? I quit school and started doing shows, with Ernest Tubb, Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash, The Wilburn Brothers, are you kidding me, stand back I don’t need school anymore. What do I need school for because I know what I am going to do the rest of my life. I told my wife when I proposed to her that if anyone has a day job in this home, it would be you, and I asked her if she still wanted to get married. She said, yes, and that was 46 years ago.
She didn’t have to worry to much about a day job though, because you did well.
At first she did. Right after we were married, a week later, I had to report to Fort Jackson in the United States Army. She worked at Lockheed, but then Brenda Lee cut a song of mine called, “It’s All You Have Got To Do.” It went to number-5 in the nation and was the back side of I’m Sorry. Then Porter Wagoner recorded “Misery Loves Company” and we lived off that money until I got out of the army and we moved to Nashville,Tennessee in 1962. My wife is a singer and keyboard player, and was in a quartet when I met her. When we moved to Nashville, they needed soprano singers and she was a soprano and she could read music. She went to work with The Jordanaires and gave me time to politic around town and time to get my roots down She is a big part of my life.
What was the first record you recorded for yourself?
A song called “Here I Am,” and “If The Good Lord Is Willing, And The Creek Don’t Rise.” It went to number 25 in the country charts and I never showed up again, until the late 60’s and that was 1955. Until I went to record with Chet Atkins on RCA. If it hadn’t been for Chet Atkins you wouldn’t be talking to me now.
Chet was the man wasn’t he. He helped so many people.
And on top of that he kept his recording career going. He must have never slept.
He was amazing. You had so many hits and stuff, like “When You Are Hot You Are Hot,” I just can’t even remember all of them. What was your biggest chart hit that you ever had?
I guess “Amos Moses,” “When You Are Hot You’re Hot,” they crossed over on the charts and “Eastbound and Down,” in Smokey and The Bandit. That was the biggest selling album I ever had, because I had RCA and MCA selling it at the same time. I was on an RCA contract. MCA had it on the soundtrack and it sold enough to get a gold album.
Do you have any favorite songs that you have written or is it like asking you to pick your favorite child.
You just hit the nail on the head. If I had only three songs that I could sing the rest of my life it would be “Amos Moses,” “A Thing Called Love,” and “Eastbound and Down.”
(Laughs). I knew you would say “A Thing Called Love.” That song must have come from deep down inside.
Yeah, that’s the most recorded song I ever wrote.
Oh, man, Johnny Cash did a good version of that, didn’t he?
Oh yeah, he recorded it and I recorded it. Elvis recorded it.
What I remember the first time I heard it was on a little AM radio and it was Jerry Reed doing it. I went out and bought it and I still have it. One thing that I just love you for is too, is your natural ability to act on the screen. How did you get into acting?
Well, I was on the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, Michael, and I was talking to this agent one day and I told him that if he ever gets an opportunity I would like to read for a movie. I told him I could get in there and play cowboys and indians. (Laughs) So I got a call one day when I was in Nashville and said they were doing a movie called WW and the Dixie Dance Kings starring Burt Reynolds. So I went over there to the Holiday Inn casting and read for the part and got the part of the bandleader, Wayne. That’s where I met Burt and and we just hit it off. He is an old Georgia boy and was raised in Florida. He loves Nashville and country music. Then he called me after the movie was over and he wanted me to be the heavy in Gator. Be the Southern godfather that walked around with a sawed off shotgun. (Laughs) I can do that if you give me a sawed off shotgun, because I am only 155 lbs. soaking wet. With a shotgun I can be 155 lbs. of creeping hell. One thing led to another and I wound up doing 12-14 movies of the week for TV, and pilots and sitcoms… and then the last one I did was Water Boy with Adam Sandler.
I was working as a projectionist at a drive in movie theatre when Smokey and The Bandit came out, it was a very fun movie. What was Burt like as a guy?
When you worked with him he had his own hand-picked crew. It was not like working at all. Smokey and The Bandit was just a lark. All we did was run up and down those Georgia roads wrecking cars and having the time of our life. You have a sense but you don’t know how the public will react. But how are you going to miss with Jackie Gleason? You didn’t miss, and even today, after 26 years since the movie was made it is still being played. With Burt it was always a laid back, good time. We just tried to get the movie in on time and on schedule and on budget.
Was Jackie fun to work with?
Oh yeah, I would be on the set every time he was working so I could watch him. Got to play golf with him and his clubs were gold and had The Great One written on them. What you saw was what you got with him.
I guess Fred (the dog) was my favorite part of the movie (Laughs).
Oh yeah, I wish I could have been more like Fred. They put those hot lights on the hood of the tractor trailer and they would put Fred up there with his front paws on the dash and then he would turn around and put his butt up there. (laughs)
Are you still doing acting?
No, I have decided to do my first love, music, for the rest of my life. You can have music and it will stand alone by itself, but you can’t have a movie without it. There is a message in there son. Music is the most powerful thing on this earth, and it’s hard to be angry when you are listening to music.
Your songs have been recorded by so many people. To be able to say that you have had music recorded by both Elvis and Johnny Cash is very cool, but do you have any records that were some of your favorites. Not your cuts but others doing your songs?
There are two things I am proud of and I think that you understand that Oscars, CMA awards, all of that is an industry voting procedure. When I won the People’s Choice Award for Smokey and The Bandit, I am most proud of that because the fans voted it.
I am more proud of the 70 guitar compositions that I have written and Chet and I have recorded over the decades. I am as proud of that as any hit record I ever had because to write a guitar composition that Chet Atkins and some of these other guitarists will record, people do not understand what that entails. I have spent over 60 years bent over a guitar and to know that I wrote 70 compositions that masters have recorded, that makes me feel so good and full, and proud and thankful to the good Lord. I am as proud of that as anything that I have done because there will never be another Chet Atkins.
How many albums have you done with Chet?
For those of us who admired his playing but didn’t know him, could you tell us a little bit about him?
Man, where do you start? The thing about him that amazes me the most is how he maintained his enthusiasm for the guitar amongst all the duties and artists that he was responsible for. To play a guitar finger style is an everyday business. The guitar must be a part of your body. Here he comes and records all these people and recorded Elvis and Don Gibson, and all these great artists. He is responsible for bringing Boots Randolph and Floyd Cramer to Nashville. People don’t know, well they do know, the people around town know and the world should know. Nashville would not be what it is if it wasn’t for people like Chet Atkins, him and Owen Bradley, those early pioneers that love the business, and understood how to make records and who have paid their dues out on the road in front of live audiences and brought that knowledge into the town and set up Music City, USA. That’s what they did. He is a great humorist and people don’t know how funny he was. One of his lines that I still use today is “I am just a little bit below average.” He is a consummate professional. My Lord I played rhythm with him in front of large audiences and I was sitting here wondering how he could do this. I would be a nervous wreck. Then go back to Nashville and get back into running RCA Victor Nashville Division. I don’t know how he did it. If it hadn’t been for Chet you wouldn’t be talking to me.
One thing that you did that I loved was The Old Dogs. I absolutely love to play that record. I want you to tell me a bit about those guys and Shel Silverstein, who I absolutely adored.
Oh, I went into the studio one day to write this football song. Okay, so I sung it to him and before the session was over I went in there to the piano and he had already written down 8-9 titles, and started writing on 2-3 of them. One was the idea of this hog that would leave the pig pen and go down to the farmhouse every Sunday and put his front paws up in the window and watch the NFL. Then he would run away and said he wanted to be the football that they use in the Superbowl. What an artist, good Lord, and more fun. He is real showbiz and I am showbizzy. I loved to break him up. I am the odd man in the group that has done a bunch of pictures, TV and stuff and he wrote plays and things like that. I would jump into character and be off the wall and he was not expecting it and you can hear him cackling. When he passed away, he was just a year younger than me. He was 67, good Lord.
I loved his cartoons, and I always wanted to be a cartoonist after seeing his stuff. His children’s books and cartoons for Playboy – there is nobody else like him on this planet. What was it like working for Waylon and them guys?
Oh, well I recorded for Waylon back in the 60’s with Bobby Bare. I am the one that played the intro on “Four Strong Winds.” In that studio with me, Waylon, Bobby Bare, Mel Tillis, and Shel Silverstein you had over 200 years of experience. I have been in it since 16 and I am 68 now. The same is true with Bare, Tillis, Waylon, and Shel. We didn’t care anything about rip and snorting around that studio. Then we lost Waylon. Oh, my Lord.
I have an interview with his son Shooter next week?
Yeah, talent runs in the genes.
How did you decide to do a live record at this time?
Believe it or not, it’s a surprise. Okay, I originally intended to record “Father Time and Gravity” as a single. I asked Chet to come on the road to record it for me because I needed to do it to a live audience. So he came out and recorded the whole show and when we listened to it we made an album out of it because the band was cooking and the audience was ripping and snorting and I had the time of my life. The reason we called it Jerry Reed Live Still is because a couple of years ago it had come over the AP wires that I had died. One of my buddies called me and I answered the phone and he said well you are still alive and I said well I was this morning when I woke up. Well, I heard this morning that you were dead.I am not studying leaving here yet.
Are you going to be doing some more touring behind this album?
I am not going to do as many as I used to. It wears me out to get on the road. When they make me an offer that I can’t understand. (Laughs) I need some time to go fishing, mess with my dog and grandkids.I am starting my own record label and I want to produce records. That is what I want to do Michael, and focus my attention.
Tell us what you have on the front burner right now?
I have a great record distributor. They won Distributor of the Year and they are distributing world wide. I am working on a movie part negotiation, and focusing mostly on studio. When I do get out it won’t be like the old days when I lived on the road. My bandleader is a South Carolina guy named Bobbie Lovett. He has been with me for 22 years. He is guitar playing and banjo playing fool. If there is anything I want done he does it. If he quit the band I would quit the road. I have told him that. (Laughs)