The Unbroken Circle: Red Hot Jerry Reed

Some folks remember Jerry Reed as a country music recording artist who had some crossover success in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Some folks remember Jerry Reed for his role as a wiry-framed, truck-driving sidekick to Burt Reynolds named Cledus Snow in 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit. Some folks may even remember Jerry Reed as a songwriter first and foremost – one who penned songs recorded by the likes of Porter Wagoner and Brenda Lee. Or they may remember him as the session musician whose complex, syncopated fingerstyle guitar play influenced singer-guitarists like Steve Wariner and Glen Campbell. Whatever or whoever folks remember him as, there’s one element that ties it all together anyway to describe what Reed, ultimately, was: an entertainer.

He proved it early on in life, too. Born in Atlanta, Georgia, and a guitar prodigy by the time he was a child, Reed was first signed to Capitol Records during the mid-’50s while still a teenager, having already paid his dues in his early teens playing shows with Faron Young and Ernest Tubb. Even so, Nashville wasn’t quite ready for his instrumental skills quite yet. After his first singles failed to catch traction at radio, Reed was encouraged to write songs for other artists. While on Capitol Records, he wrote tunes for Gene Vincent and Brenda Lee (including “That’s All You Gotta Do,” a top ten pop hit); he switched to Columbia Records not long afterward and scored minor pop hits of his own with “Goodnight Irene” and “Hully Gully Guitar.”

Country music – Nashville specifically – came calling not long afterward, however. After military service, Reed married singer-songwriter Priscilla Mitchell (who herself had a No. 1 hit on record through a duet with Roy Drusky on 1965’s “Yes, Mr. Peters”), moved to Nashville, and started playing on various studio sessions. He still wrote as well, penning Porter Wagoner’s No. 1 hit “Misery Loves Company” in 1962. But it wasn’t until his move to RCA in 1964 that he was brought together with his idol, Chet Atkins – a producer-executive who just so happened to also be one hell of a guitar player himself.

Luckily, Atkins also happened to be impressed with Reed and was adamant about making him a success in some fashion. Of course, Atkins was also a businessman, meaning that his goals and aspirations didn’t always line up well for what suited Reed best. After failing to cast Reed in a standard country mold, by 1966 Atkins was telling Reed to simply be himself on record – to let his guitar playing steeped in country, blues, rock, and jazz shine with his uniquely funky, down-home wit on record. In doing so, he also impressed another entertainer – Elvis Presley, who recorded Reed’s “Guitar Man” and “U.S. Male” (with Reed on guitar), as well as more obscure tunes of his that were more songwriter-focused.

Still, it’s a cut like the rambunctious, free-wheeling “Guitar Man” that would mostly define Reed’s career, including his first top 20 hit with 1967’s “Tupelo Mississippi Flash” and another minor hit with “Are You From Dixie.” But by 1970, Chet Atkins was so adamant to have Reed be a success that he, through RCA, placed an advertisement in Billboard Magazine, saying he would quit his job if Reed – who he also called one of the greatest undeveloped talents he had known – did not break through in the near future. Thankfully, Atkins didn’t have to quit, because those aforementioned songs merely paved the way for more to come, including the rhythmic “Amos Moses,” a fast-talking tale of a ragged Cajun boy raised wild in the Louisiana bayou. It became Reed’s first top ten hit, albeit on the pop charts, in 1970.

During this time, Reed was also a regular on Glen Campbell’s Goodtime Hour television show, and found inspiration during one performance through the most unlikeliest of events: screwing up one of his lines. During the performance, Reed forgot the line to one of his songs, and ad-libbed “When you’re hot, you’re hot” in its place, which the audience loved. So he wrote an entire song around the concept, which, in his Roger Miller-esque songwriting fashion, ends with him letting loose on a city judge over a court appearance (“If you wasn’t wearing that black robe, I’d take you out back of this courthouse and I’d try a little bit of Your Honor on! You understand that, you hillbilly?,” it goes, and no, I won’t provide further context for that). Between the wildly outrageous story, the female backing vocalists, and the sizzling guitar work, “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot” was quinntessional Reed, and became his first country No. 1 hit and another top ten pop hit.

Unlike other hits of the era, Reed’s records were devoid of polish and full of breathing space, as Atkins knew that’s where Reed would shine best. He attained the sort of artistic freedom that allowed him to have commercial success on his own terms, including getting to record a passion project like the instrumental album Me and Jerry (the “Me” in that being Atkins). Of course, worlds collided for Reed in more ways than one during this time. His best talents always came through in his guitar playing, but he was also beginning to earn a reputation for recording silly novelty-esque songs, and further exposure from the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour didn’t really help to correct the narrative. It did, however, offer Reed a chance to flex his acting abilities.

Due to his growing success, Reed was offered roles in several feature films, the first of which being W.W. And the Dixie Dance Kings in 1974, which starred Burt Reynolds and was followed by other films including the two actors, including, among others, Gator and Smokey and the Bandit parts I, II, and III. Every associated film played well to Reed’s unpredictably wild (and fun) side, and the first Bandit film even gave way to another Reed standard – the truck-driver’s anthem of “East Bound and Down.” The title track to Gator even offered a reprise of “Amos Moses,” this time around swampy and dangerous (fitting, given that Reed’s 1976 album, Both Barrels, features him with a mean squint in his eye and a shotgun on his knee).

But as his film career prospered, Reed’s recording career didn’t flounder so much as become slightly more inconsistent over time. His only other No. 1 hit of the ‘70s was “Lord, Mr. Ford,” but in 1982 he roared back around with what many consider to be his strongest studio album, The Man With the Golden Thumb, which featured the hilarious divorce-themed “She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft),” where the hook just says it all. His follow-up album, The Bird, also performed well, sporting another top ten hit through its title track. But his last trip to the top 40 came alongside Waylon Jennings for “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” in 1983, and by 1984 he was off RCA.

And by the time the ‘90s came around … well, this is where the story somewhat comes to a halt. Reed kept a low profile after 1990 and didn’t record as much anymore. When he did, it was often to record a passion project, like another collaboration with Chet Atkins on Sneakin’ Around, or 1999’s Pickin’ known mostly for … well, Reed’s guitar picking. His film career had also slowed, although he’d make occasional appearances here and there, like on Adam Sandler’s 1998 comic film The Water Boy.

By the time the 2000s came around, though, Reed was back in the spotlight, albeit in a different way. Guitarist Eric Johnson recorded a track called “Tribute to Jerry Reed” for his 2005 Bloom album, and Darrell Toney & Friends (an outfit comprised mainly of Nashville session players) released the tribute album Jerry Reed … Revisited in 2006, just one year after Reed was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. It came just in time, too, before Reed died in 2008, of complications resulting from emphysema.

And so, circling back to that opening question, I think the best way to remember Reed is, again, simply as an entertainer – one who could create his own complex style of guitar playing and create a composition like “The Claw” that many players still seek to master, but all in all a wild-eyed, charismatic performer who likely just always wanted his audience to have fun with the music being played. And whether that’s laughing along to “Goldmine” or “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot,” dancing along to “East Bound and Down,” or even appreciating what a fantastic storyteller he was at the end of the day, able to sketch weirdly fascinating and idiosyncratic characters you nevertheless could cling to, it’s all quintessential Jerry Reed. And it’s worth remembering today.

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