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Jerry Byrd

Jerry Byrd ranks as one of country music’s most influential steel guitar stylists.

Birth: March 29, 1920 - Death: April 11, 2005
Birthplace: Lima, Ohio

Born Gerald Lester Byrd in Lima, Ohio, on March 29, 1920, he began work as a radio and stage performer and later moved to session and television work.

By the time Jerry Byrd finished high school, he had started playing steel guitar on local radio programs, having been inspired by a Hawaiian troupe he saw in a traveling tent show. He had also begun to work Saturday nights with the Renfro Valley Barn Dance, temporarily originating from Dayton, Ohio, and airing over Cincinnati’s WLW. 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 int a variety of country material. By this time he had begun to experiment with slanted-bar 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 Lee. After the war Byrd went to Nashville to play onstage and in the studio with Ernest Tubb, and then with Foley, both Grand Ole Opry stars at the time. Byrd’s popularity as a studio musician increased steadily through his years at WLW’s Midwestern Hayride in Cincinnati (1948-51), when he also supplied steel parts for sessions at the nearby E.T. Herzog Recording Studio and the King Records studio, backing local talent and visiting country and pop stars such as Jimmy Wakely, Patti Page, and Hank Williams.

Byrd returned to Nashville to play in George Morgan’s band for three years, all the while continuing to work sessions. After signing with Mercury Records in 1949, Byrd recorded “Steelin’ the Blues” and other original hits for that label before moving on to make well-received albums for Decca, RCA, and Monument during the 1950s and 1960s. During these same years he could be seen on numerous Nashville-originated TV programs, including Country Junction, The Bobby Lord Show, and syndicated shows using Opry talent.

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 he moved to Hawaii and found acceptance in resort hotels, sometimes recording for small labels as well. Even after retiring, in the 1980s, he continued to teach young Hawaiian players their own native instrument until his death in 2005. “It’s gone full circle,” he said in 1988, “in that I’m putting it back where I got it from.” — John W. Rumble

— Adapted from the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s Encyclopedia of Country Music, published by Oxford University Press.

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