Jerry Reed: Fighting Father Time With Music

Jerry Reed will be the first to admit that he’s no longer the hot-wired, nimble-fingered hipster he was back in the glory days of “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot” and “Smokey and the Bandit.” But he’s not shopping for rocking chairs yet, either. Reed has fun with this tug-of-war between youth and age on his new album, Jerry Reed Live! Still. It’s his first album since Pickin’ in 1999 and his first all-live album.

Reed and his band recorded Jerry Reed Live! Still last year in Parsons, Kan. The r2k Records album was co-produced by Reed and Chet Hinesley (Doug Stone, Tony Joe White) and only two songs are new – the euphoric and gospel-flavored “A Brand New Me” and whimsical self-portrait and first single, “Father Time and Gravity.” All the rest are favorites from Reed’s 43-year chart history. And all, save two, are songs he wrote himself. It’s pure Reed, wall-to-wall.

Thus, it was with a tone of satisfaction that the 68-year-old showman greeted CMA Close Up’s call on a recent sunny morning. “I’m sittin’ lookin’ out my window at the 18th fairway here,” Reed drawled as he relaxed at his home. “It’s the second day of spring. So what could be wrong with the world?”

Reed explained that he had been writing songs and working the road since Old Dogs, a 1998 romp with fellow seniors Bobby Bare, Waylon Jennings and Mel Tillis. That same year he appeared in “The Waterboy,” his latest film.

“I turned down a movie because I don’t want to mess with those things anymore,” Reed added. “There comes a time in your life when you have to make up your mind what you love to do. You can’t do everything. God has blessed your life if He lets you make music for a living. It’s that simple. If you can get up there on stage and go one on one with a crowd of people and just whoop and holler and have them throwing babies up in the air, God has blessed your life. You can’t get that from movies.”

While Reed enjoyed making movies – especially the ones with Burt Reynolds – he said he never felt properly appreciated or compensated for the work and star power he contributed. “Hollywood didn’t know I’d sold millions of records. I did it for practically nothing – just to do it. Well I ain’t gonna do that no more … I’m making a heck of a lot more money [in music] and have a lot more fun and a better life. And I can go fishing when I want to.”

He had just been fishing, he recounted, the first and only time he met Elvis Presley. That was in 1967. Presley had come to Nashville to record, and one of the songs he was working on was “Guitar Man,” which Reed had written and recorded. “I was out on the Cumberland River fishing,” he recalled, “and I got a call from Felton Jarvis (then Presley’s producer). He said, ‘Elvis is down here. We’ve been trying to cut ‘Guitar Man’ all day long. He wants it to sound like it sounded on your album.’ I finally told him, I said, ‘Well, if you want it to sound like that, you’re going have to get Reed in there to play guitar, because these guys (you’re using in the studio) are straight pickers. He picks with his fingers and he tunes that guitar up all weird kind of ways.'” So Jarvis hired Reed to play on the session.

“I hit that intro,” Reed said, “and boy, [Elvis’s] face lit up and here we went. Then after he got through that, he cut [my] ‘U.S. Male’ at the same session. I was toppin’ cotton, son.” There’s an outtake from that session that still circulates on Music Row in which you can hear the King and the Alabama Wild Man (one of Georgia-born Reed’s nicknames) joking with each other.

Reed’s personality is so high-voltage and his guitar playing so explosive that they have tended to overshadow his achievements as a songwriter. He’s won two CMA Awards for Instrumentalist of the Year, three GRAMMYs, a “People’s Choice” award and has multiple Platinum albums. Reed’s won 16 BMI awards for such songs as “Alabama Wild Man,” “Amos Moses,” “Misery Loves Company,” “When You’re Hot You’re Hot” and “East Bound and Down” (the “Smokey and the Bandit” theme, which he co-wrote with Dick Feller and which he reprised on the new album).

“Lord, when I sing ‘East Bound and Down,'” he mused, “you’d think I was singing the national anthem.” His most recorded song, however, is “A Thing Called Love,” an uncharacteristically sensitive ballad. “It never was a big hit,” he observed, “but it turned into a standard. (Johnny) Cash cut it. (Glen) Campbell cut it. Elvis cut it. I cut it.”

Reed played his first professional gig when he was 16. Except for a short term in the Army, he’s been in show business ever since. While he was still living in Georgia, Brenda Lee cut two of his songs, “Misery Loves Company” and “That’s All You Gotta Do.” After he left the Army, his publisher, the legendary Bill Lowery, got him a deal with Columbia Records. That alliance earned him two minor hits on the pop charts in 1962. But it would be five more years and another label before he made his entry onto the Country charts.

Reed was only 17 when he met Chet Atkins, the man who became his mentor and friend. Atkins admired the youngster’s guitar work and even recorded two of his songs before Reed moved to Nashville. Despite having a record deal, Reed wasn’t making money. So he began seeking studio work when he came to Music City. One of his first sessions was backing the manic Roger Miller.

“I was so nervous,” Reed remembered, “I could have threaded a sewing machine with it running. I was a big fish in a little pond down in Atlanta. I got up here, and I ain’t nothing. I’m looking at these guys and thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’ I remember one session I was so nervous that Chet took me off of it.”

As his admiration for Reed’s work grew, Atkins decided it was time to lure him to RCA Records. “He said, ‘They ain’t recording you right. You don’t need to be recording with a steel guitar and fiddle. You’re a guitar player. You come over here and let me record you.’ So I went over and told (Columbia Records Chief) Frank Jones that I wanted to let Chet record me. He got real emotional. It took him about 30 seconds to let me go. I knew from the first session on (at RCA Records) that it was happening. Baby, that was it. Chet wanted me to pick that guitar and sing. He about wore me out. He made me pick while I sung. I’d go home with a backache. But I knew we were doing something that was right in my wheelhouse.”

Indeed, Reed remained with RCA Records from 1967 to 1986, during which time he charted 57 singles, including the No. 1 hits “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot,” “Lord, Mr. Ford” and “She Got The Goldmine (I Got The Shaft).” He gained national prominence when Campbell drafted him in 1970 to play regularly on his “The Goodtime Hour with Glen Campbell” series on the CBS Television Network. Reed made his first movie, “W. W. and the Dixie Dance Kings” in 1974 and went on to appear in “Smokey and the Bandit I, II and III,” “Gator,” “Hot Stuff,” “The Survivors,” “Bat 21” and more.

Although eager to promote his new album, Reed scoffed at the idea of doing any music videos for it. “No!” he said in mock horror. “That would ruin my career when they saw what ‘Father Time and Gravity’ had done to me.”