Wednesday, 20 July 2011

The late, great Jerry Reed: a tribute to the Alabama Wild Man

The story goes that when Elvis Presley was in Nashville in 1967 trying to record “Guitar Man”, his brilliant lead guitarist, James Burton, simply couldn’t nail the acoustic guitar part, so he suggested contacting the composer, Jerry Reed, who’d had a minor hit with the song the previous year, and asking him to come in and play the damn thing on the session. Which Reed duly did, resulting in one of Elvis’s best singles.

Given that Burton is one of the greatest guitarists of the modern era, his failure to reproduce Reed’s guitar part might seem odd – but, then, Jerry Reed was undoubtedly the most brilliantly inventive guitarist Country Music has ever produced. He may not have been the fastest, or the most technically accomplished, but he belongs in that pantheon of pickers – which includes Maybelle Carter, Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, Luther Perkins (Johnny Cash’s original lead guitarist) and Albert Lee (do watch this – it’s astonishing!) – who practically invented their own styles from scratch.

Reed’s a decent electric guitar player, but it’s his compositions for acoustic guitar – a fat-necked, amplified, nylon-string Baldwin (a fairly rudimentary guitar, by all accounts, which Reed himself semi-jokingly described as “worthless” but “funky”) – which place him at the top of the country heap.

Funky, rhythmically immensely propulsive, a bit jazzy – and witty, according to my former guitar teacher. I’d played this young man a series of tracks I wanted to learn, and he’d been a bit snotty about most of them. But when I played him a late-era Jerry Reed number – “Sassy” – he offered to take the CD away and transcribe the guitar part. He came back the following week, raving about Reed, and when he described his playing as “witty”, I knew exactly what he meant: hearing Reed’s best stuff is like listening to a top-class stand-up comedian delivering a quick-fire series of surprising and original zingers. Two good examples are 1977’s “Lightning Rod” and 1974’s “Honkin’” – imagine being able to pick up a guitar and play like this!

I’ve been trying to learn Jerry Reed’s most-covered instrumental number,“The Claw”, for at least fifteen years. Six years ago, I bought aninstructional DVD by an American guitarist, Buster B. Jones, devoted to Reed’s playing style. Discovering that “The Claw” was probably the easiest to play of all his compositions left me a bit shell-shocked. As Brown says on the DVD, “Jerry never does anything easy”. After trying to get anywhere at all with such deceptively simple-sounding numbers as “Jiffy Jam” and“Reedology”, I can see what he means – it all seemed to come so easily to Reed that one suspects he deliberately placed technical obstacles in his own path. And just to annoy us base-camp plodders, he even switches between playing his own massively complex numbers in standard and altered tunings. That’s ridiculous!

I’ve called Reed a country picker, but he started as a rockabilly, albeit with little success (until Gene Vincent recorded his composition, “Crazy Legs”). He then became a session player in between doing his own country-tinged stuff. His big break came when Elvis covered both “Guitar Man” and “US Male”. His first Top 20 hit was “Tupelo Mississippi Flash”, a comic song about Elvis’s early career, on which the guitar-playing is just sublime – after hearing it, you can understand why Reed had to give up steel-string acoustics: he said they ripped up his fingers.

Reed became a top-selling artist in his own right in 1972, when the swamp-funk “Amos Moses” and “When You’re Hot You’re Hot” both made the US Top Ten. Around this time, he began recording a long-running series of mainly countrypolitan collaboration albums with his Nashville record producer, Chet Atkins.

After that, he made a series of yee-haw “comedy” films with his pal, Burt Reynolds – including W.W. and the Dixie Dance-Kings and the Smoky and the Bandit trilogy – which went down well in non-coastal America, but which I wouldn’t watch even if the alternative was death by torture. (I love Jerry Reed’s musical wit – but many of his “funny” songs would be unbearable if it wasn’t for the guitar playing.)

Jerry Reed, who seems to have been a decent, cheerful sort of genius, died of emphysema in 2008 at the age of 71.

Let me leave you with three links: the first is a great tribute to Reed composed and performed by the guitarist, Eric Johnson; the second is Reed’s version of “Muleskinner Blues”, which contains a repeated descending twiddly bit after the words “Gonna do a little bit of the Mulsekinner Blues” which I would love to be able to figure out (my guitar teacher claimed he’d done so, but I remain unconvinced); and, finally, an eight minute sampler from “A 21 Guitar Salute to Jerry Reed” whose subtitle males a telling point about the Great Man’s sheer musical intelligence – “One of the Greatest ‘Guitar Thinkers’ of Our Time”.

That, he certainly was.