jerry reedJerry Reed had a way with a corny joke and a complicated guitar. Both gifts were instrumental in turning Reed into a star, probably because they both came so naturally to the Georgian Guitar Man. That quick, easy touch wound up downplaying his instrumental virtuosity, making that intricate fingerpicking seem like something anybody can do -- and nothing could have been further from the truth -- while emphasizing the goofy, infectious humor that helped Reed make a smooth transition from recording star to an all-around entertainer, popping up on TV shows and movies all through the '70s. Of all those, he was of course best known as Burt Reynolds sidekick Cledus “Snowman” Snow in Smokey & The Bandit, a film that rivaled Star Wars at the box office in 1977, the kind of success that makes a superstar out of supporting players. And so it was with Jerry, who now was known to more people as an actor – or better still, a personality – than a musician, and not just any musician but one of the greatest guitarists of the 20th Century. For most musicians, losing their core identity as a player would be a disservice, but for Jerry Reed it somehow didn't matter. Sure, Jerry wasn't as good an actor as he was a picker or songwriter, but he had the same personality on camera that he did on record -- a back-slapping, chicken-picking, gregarious, stubborn redneck that was the best drinking or fishing buddy you’d ever have.

Reed's humor fueled his biggest hits: “Amos Moses,” “Lord Mr. Ford,” “When You’re Hot You’re Hot,” “She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft)” -- every one a riot, crackling with casual quips and blistering guitar work. These singles are still invigorating, as old puns never die, nor does music as exuberant and open-hearted as this. So many guitarist’s guitarists -- of which Jerry Reed is unquestionably at the top of the heap -- are musicians that can only be appreciated by other six-string slingers, but not Jerry: regular folk loved to him play too, and how could they not? His instrumentals never seemed like vehicles for virtuosity, they were bright blasts of joyous energy; you could marvel at his skill, then hum what he was playing.

Reed’s finger-picking was much imitated but utterly unique -- a lesson learned by Elvis Presley, who recorded Reed’s “Guitar Man” and had to bring the man in himself when no other player could replicate that distinctive roll. Elvis’s version of “Guitar Man” and “US Male” gave Reed a significant breakthrough -- not his first, as he had Gene Vincent cut his rockabilly classic “Crazy Legs” back in 1958 and had Brenda Lee take “That’s All You Got to Do” into the Top 10 two years later, but Elvis helped introduce that wiry, electric Jerry Reed sound to the mainstream in 1968. That sound -- backwoods yet urban, a blend of rockabilly and honky tonk -- helped fuel Presley’s '68 Comeback, while Jerry started having hits of his own with songs that sounded a lot like “Guitar Man” and “US Male.”

If Jerry followed any rule in his career, it was if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, so he kept that sound rolling, landing his first crossover hit with “When You’re Hot You’re Hot” in 1971, about a year after cutting a duet album with Chet Atkins. Throughout the ‘70s, he kept singing funny songs that just skirted the definition of novelty and he kept making records with Chet, sometimes tweaking the formulas with schmaltzy ballads but usually relying on a blend of funny new tunes, classic country covers and instrumentals that never quite seemed like throwaways because the playing was so good. While he was recording a couple of LPs a year, he started doing all those TV appearances -- showing up on Glen Campbell's variety show and Scooby Doo alike -- which led to his position as Burt Reynolds’ right-hand man in 1975's W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings, 1976's Gator and finally the star-making Smokey & the Bandit, turning in the iconic “East Bound & Down” for that '77 blockbuster. Like the Smokey series -- Jerry top-lined the third and last installment in '83 -- Reed hung around on the charts until the ‘80s, then faded away after one great last single, “She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft),” in 1982. He had no major-label albums after 1991, maybe because he had enough money from all those shows to retire, but he kept playing, kicking out independent records that stuck to his ‘70s formula -- minus the schmaltz -- and compare favorably to those '70s records. Even on these latter-day records, his jokes and picking so easily that they were easy to take for granted, but looking back on all his playing, writing and even acting, it's now easy to see that there was nobody else quite like Jerry Reed. When he was hot, he was hot -- and when he wasn't, he still was pretty damn great, too.