The Hawaiian guitar of Jerry Byrd

First Posted: 5/27/2014

LIMA — After seven decades, Jerry Byrd could still remember exactly where and when he fell in love.

Byrd, who was born in Lima March 9, 1920, had accepted a friend’s invitation to attend a tent show featuring a touring troupe of Hawaiian musicians.

“I was 13, and it was 1933, during the darkest days of the Depression,” Byrd recalled in his 2003 memoir “It Was a Trip; On Wings of Music.”

“There were six or eight of them, and the stage drop was a scene with palm trees along an ocean shoreline and a volcano erupting. All that exotic stuff, like in the movies — you couldn’t have captured my attention any more if you had hit me in the head with a hammer.

“But it was the sound of the steel guitar that captivated me most.”

Byrd would remain captivated by that sound from that day until his death April 11, 2005, in Hawaii, the homeland of the steel guitar.

“Byrd was widely respected and acknowledged as one of the pioneers of steel guitar, in both country and Hawaiian music genres,” the Honolulu Advertiser wrote April 12, 2005, the day after Byrd’s death. “He performed with some of the greatest country headliners of his generation, including Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Ernest Tubb, Red Foley, Marty Robbins, Hank Snow, Burl Ives and Chet Atkins. When he was head of a publishing firm, he was the first to sign Dolly Parton, who — years later — hired Byrd to play steel guitar for her set-in-Hawaii TV series.”

In July 1968, Byrd told The Lima News, “I’m like a doctor — on call 24 hours a day whenever someone needs a steel, bass or rhythm guitarist for a record.”

Byrd also tutored Jimmie Vaughan of the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, among others, on the steel guitar. He was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in 1978.

But before any of that there was a 13-year-old Lima boy who was smitten by the sound of the steel guitar but had no idea how to play a guitar.

“Somebody told me about a guy named Francis Wilcox who lived down the road and rode a motorcycle,” Byrd wrote in his memoir. “I’d seen him riding up and down the highway standing up on the seat of the motorcycle with both arms extended — like wings! I hunted him down, and he said that he would teach me for 50 cents a lesson.”

Byrd recalled, however, that what Wilcox was teaching him didn’t sound anything like what he was hearing on the radio and he soon stopped those lessons. Byrd would acquire his first steel guitar from Ron Dearth, founder of Dearth Guitar Studio, paying for it by transcribing guitar pieces for Dearth for $1.50 each. That Rickenbacker Electro lap steel guitar is now in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

By the mid-1930s, Byrd was playing on radio in Lima and at local amateur shows. While still in high school he landed a spot on the Renfro Valley Barn Dance show broadcast from Dayton. When the show relocated to the real Renfro Valley near Berea, Ky., in 1939, Byrd, who had graduated from Central High School that spring, relocated with it.

In a Sept. 26, 2003, column by Mike Lackey in the Lima News, Byrd recalled standing in a long line in freezing temperatures to apply for a job at Westinghouse during the Depression. He didn’t get it. “I made up my mind right there that I was never going to work in a factory,” Byrd said. He never had to.

“In 1944 he switched to a Detroit radio station (WJR) and joined Ernest Tubb at the ‘Grand Ole Opry’ stand in Nashville in 1947…,” according to a July 19, 1950, article in the News.

In a Dec. 28, 1947, “Looking at Lima” column, the News noted, “That fellow who plays the electric guitar in the film ‘Hollywood Barn Dance’ now showing at the Sigma Theatre is a local boy who made good! The young fellow is Jerry Byrd, son of Mr. and Mrs. H.O. Byrd … who at present is a member of the ‘Grand Ole Opry’ program cast heard at 10:30 p.m. each Saturday over the National Broadcasting Company Network.”

Records by the “local boy who made good” began to appear along with those of Eddy Arnold, Bob Wills, Gene Autry and others in local music stores. A March 16, 1951, ad for Zender Music Store, 134 E. High St., touted Byrd’s “Twilight Blues” as well as “Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing” by fellow Lima native Helen O’Connell.

Byrd, who in 1950 signed on with the “Midwestern Hayride” out of Cincinnati, often appeared at area shows. “With an ‘honest-to-goodness’ Lima artist as one of the top stars, the Midwestern Hayride is expected to draw large crowds to the Lima Phillies baseball park on the fairgrounds as the Tuesday night feature of the Allen County Centennial fair,” the News reported Aug. 19, 1951. The show also featured Lee Jones “the vivacious yodeling cowgirl.”

Throughout the 1950s and early ‘60s, Byrd was a regular on a Grand Ole Opry show put on annually by Lima’s Junior Chamber of Commerce. “For the hometown boy the Lima show will mark another milestone in a career that is still zooming skyward on the wings of increasing interest in steel guitar music,” the News observed Nov. 16, 1959.

“Almost from his earliest days on the guitar and steel guitar, the musician has played Hawaiian melodies,” the article continued. “These have been his trademark on the Grand Ole Opry station WSM-Nashville and at WLW-Cincinnati, stations he worked at after leaving Detroit.”

By the 1960s, however, as Lackey noted in his column, musical styles were changing and Byrd, who had painted houses as a youngster, found himself less in demand and reduced to working in a drugstore and, again, painting houses.

In 1972, Byrd “packed up his instrument and moved to Hawaii, home of the steel guitar and of the music that had always been his first love,” Lackey wrote April 15, 2005. “The third life (He considered Lima his first and Nashville his second) was perhaps the happiest. He played at places like the Blue Dolphin nightclub and the Royal Hawaiian Surf Room, taught a few students and was content to live quietly.”

Near the end of his life in April 2005, a Honolulu entertainer named Gordon Freitas visited Byrd in the hospital. Freitas told the Honolulu Advertiser the day after Byrd’s death that Byrd told him: “I did it all. All that I wanted to do.”

In his obituary in the Nashville Tennessean on April 13, 2005, Lloyd Green, a friend and fellow Steel Guitar Hall of Famer, said, “He was the first steel player I heard who was a true artist, and most players today consider him the godfather of the modern steel guitar.

“Nashville-area steel player Smiley Roberts said simply, ‘He was just about everybody’s inspiration.’”

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