Born Gerald Lester Byrd, 9 March 1920, Lima, Ohio
Died 11 April 2005, Honolulu, Hawaii

Jerry Byrd ranks as one the most influential and respected pioneers of the steel guitar, in both the country and Hawaiian music genres. He performed with some of the greatest country headliners of his generation, including Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Red Foley, Hank Snow, Marty Robbins, Patsy Cline, Burl Ives and Chet Atkins. Byrd's interest in the Hawaiian steel guitar became evident at the age of twelve, after seeing a traveling tent show in his hometown, where he chanced to hear the steel guitar being played. Attracted to this beautiful music, Jerry made an early personal commitment to master this instrument and to make it his career.

He acquired his first steel guitar in 1934. By the time he finished high school he had started playing steel guitar on local radio programs. His first big break came in 1939 when he started working Saturday nights with the Renfro Valley Barn Dance, then one of the most popular country music shows in the country, broadcast over both the CBS and NBC radio networks. This led to a full-time job with the barn dance, which moved to Renfro Valley, Kentucky, late in 1939. There Byrd backed stars such as Red Foley and Ernie Lee, blending Hawaiian sounds into a variety of country material. By this time he had begun to experiment with left-hand techniques and alternate tunings, such as his trademark C6 tuning.

A bout with pneumonia temporarily sidelined him, but Byrd returned to the Renfro Valley stage briefly during World War II before moving to Detroit's WJR with Ernie Lee (with whom he made his first recordings, eight duets for RCA's Bluebird label, in 1940). After the war Byrd went to Nashville to play onstage and in the studio with Ernest Tubb and then Red Foley, both Grand Ole Opry stars. Byrd's popularity as a studio musician increased steadily through his years at WLW's Midwestern Hayride in Cincinnati (1948-51), where he did sessions at the King Records Studio and the nearby Herzog Studio. Big country hits from this period on which his steel playing can be heard include Hank Williams's "Lovesick Blues", Rex Allen's "Afraid", Ernest Tubb's "Have You Ever Been Lonely" and Red Kirk's "Lose Your Blues". Jerry signed with Mercury Records in 1949 (where he would stay until 1955) and scored a # 19 pop hit in 1950 with "Harbor Lights", credited to Jerry Byrd & His Steel Guitar & Jerry Murad's Harmonicats. He also recorded his first album in 1951, "Nani Hawaii", a four record set of 78 rpm discs. Many well-received LP's would follow in the 1950s and 60s, on Decca, RCA and especially Fred Foster's Monument label, with which he signed in 1959. Also he could be seen on numerous Nashville-originated TV programs.

In 1960 Jerry was seriously injured in a car accident, after which he needed several months to regain his strength. In 1963 he joined the Bobby Lord Show, a daily television show. The next year Jerry made his first visit to Hawaii and was deeply impressed by the island's beauty and people.

In 1966, as the head of Combine Music Publishing, Byrd was the first to sign Dolly Parton. Despite the rise of the pedal steel guitar in the mid-1950s, Byrd stuck by his original nonpedal style, and his session work dwindled. In 1972, Byrd left country music for good, moving to Hawaii to focus exclusively on the state's native music. Even after retiring in the 1980s, he continued to teach young Hawaiian players their own native instrument.

Byrd was the first inductee into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in 1978. He died of complications from Parkinson's disease in a Honolulu hospital, earlier this year.

More detailed information:

Autobiography : Jerry Byrd, It was a trip : on wings of music. Centerstream Publications, 2003. 144 pages.

Recommended listening : Jerry's Mercury, Decca and RCA LP's represent his best work (especially "Steel Guitar Favorites", 1957), but are long out of print. Several CD's are available, but they feature almost exclusively Hawaiian music. If you are into those sounds : Hana Ola Records has recently released "Jerry Byrd, Master of the Steel Guitar, Vol. 1", which will undoubtedly soon be followed by a Volume 2.

See also:


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