“Atlanta to Texarkana and back in twenty eight hours? That ain’t never been done before.”
– Cledus Snow (The Snowman), Smokey and the Bandit
In 1977, Smokey and the Bandit exploded on to movie screens across the country. While the focus of the film was unquestionably Burt Reynold’s good-hearted rogue, the Bandit, moviegoers were equally smitten by the Bandit’s sidekick, trucker Cledus Snow, aka “The Snowman.” The Snowman’s genial down-home charm and folksy “cowboy philosopher” wisdom helped the film capture the hearts of millions. The popularity of Smokey and the Bandit helped country music achieve a level of mainstream chic that it would not again experience until 1990s. More than thirty years later, the film’s theme song, “East Bound and Down,” an upbeat anthem to hard driving and good living, remains one of the most universally recognized country songs of all time.
The man behind the genial, folksy Snowman and the film’s iconic “East Bound and Down” was singer and guitarist Jerry Reed. Reed passed away on August 31, 2008 in Nashville from complications related to emphysema. He was 71. Recognized for his role in the Smokey and the Bandit films and his other pop culture accomplishments, many people did not know Reed was a true country superstar in his own right. Even many country fans are unaware that Reed is reckoned one of the genre’s greatest guitarists of all time or that his own life story is a rags to riches tale of hard work and triumph worthy of any Music City ballad.
Jerry Reed Hubbard was born on March 29, 1937 in Atlanta, Georgia into a troubled family. The second child of millworker Robert Hubbard and his wife Cynthia, Reed’s birth may have placed additional strain on the marriage. Just four months after his birth, Reed’s parents separated. Reed and his sister spent most of the next seven years in and out of foster homes and state orphanages. The family was finally reunited in 1944, when Reed’s mother married another millworker by the name of Hubert Howard.
Music offered the Howard family a welcome distraction from its meager circumstances. Their religious background provided a young Reed with a thorough exposure to the gospel sounds of the day. With these influences, Reed displayed a serious interest in music from a young age, listening to the Grande Ole Opry on the radio every Friday night. Seeing her son’s interest, Cynthia Howard saved the money to buy her son a second-hand guitar and taught Jerry, then only nine years old, a few chords.
Reed’s passion for the guitar soon crystallized into a sincere desire to become a professional musician. One story describes a young Jerry Reed, running around his stepfather’s house, playing his guitar and proclaiming to anyone who would listen that he “was going to go to Nashville and be a star!”
By the time Reed started high-school he was already writing his own songs as well as singing publically.
Reed’s first big break came when he caught the attention of Atlanta country radio personality Bill Lowry. Lowry began managing the young musician and also gave Reed a job as a disc jockey at his WGST radio station.
Another break came in 1954, when Reed played at a tribute show for country honky-tonk superstar Faron Young. Among those attending the show was Capitol Records’ Ken Nelson. At the show, Lowry took Nelson aside and told him that Capitol could do far worse than to sign his young guitar prodigy. Nelson was reluctant to sign the seventeen year-old Reed and told the young man to come see him when he turned eighteen.
Shorty after his eighteenth birthday, Reed and Nelson entered the studio where Reed cut his first record, “If the Good Lord’s Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise.” During his time with the label, Reed tried his hand at country, rockabilly and pop. However, none of his Capitol releases succeeded in generating any commercial or critical momentum. In his typical self-effacing style, Reed often remarked that his records from his period sold like hotcakes, “about fifty cents a stack.”
However, Reed did gain one fan who would help the young man find his place in the sun. At that time, country music legend Chet Atkins ran RCA’s Nashville operation – and Atkins liked what heard in the young picker from Georgia. He brought Reed over to the RCA label and took him under his wing. In Atkins, Reed also found someone who would, for the first time, encourage him to develop his own musical style rather than trying to force him into some preexisting musical formula.
In 1967, Reed released “Guitar Man,” his first disc to find commercial success. The same year, he released another hit, “Tupelo Mississippi Flash.” The song lampooned the notion then held by some in the music industry at that time that Elvis Presley was an artist of limited regional and musical appeal.
Fans weren’t the only ones taking notice. An impressed (and perhaps touched) Presley decided to record his own version of “Guitar Man.” This turned out to be a double blessing for Reed. Presley, increasingly frustrated by the inability of his session guitarists to recreate Reed’s unique guitar sound, eventually called Reed to come into the studio to play guitar on the Elvis version of his own song. The King would ultimately record no less that four of Reed’s songs.
Elvis was not the only musical heavy-hitter to appreciate Reed’s songwriting and guitar picking abilities. He was much in demand among Music City stars of the day for his catchy songs, his exceptional guitar skills, or both. Among the artists making use of Reed’s talents were Johnny Cash, Brenda Lee, Bobby Bare, and Waylon Jennings.
Reed’s fortunes suddenly began to rise in the 1970s, as the accomplished session musician suddenly became much in demand as a front man and solo artist. Reed scored his first Top 10 hit in 1970 with “Amos Moses,” a catchy blend of country, Cajun, and funk styles. The same year an instrumental duet with mentor and friend Chet Akins “Me and Jerry” earned the pair a Grammy Award for best instrumental country performance.
In 1971, Reed released the oddly prophetic “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot.” The song’s clever, catchy lyrics and the guitar-driven feel-good instrumentation netted him his first number-one hit and a second Grammy for best country male artist.
Reed’s final Top 20 hit, “She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft),” came in 1983. In 1998, Reed joined fellow country legends Bobby Bare, Waylon Jennings, and Mel Tills in forming a group with the tongue-in-cheek name The Old Dogs. Their one album, also titled “Old Dogs” featured clever and irreverent songs that garnered the group a CMA award nomination but not any real staying power. The 25 year gap between the peak of Reed’s commercial musical success and his death is belied by his profound influence on country music as a guitarist and songwriter as well as by his continued status as a pop icon.
Jerry Reed, Guitar Wizard:
Throughout his life, Reed cited a number of musical influences on his guitar playing and overall music style. These include guitarist Merle Travis, banjoist Earl Scruggs, songwriter Ernest Tubb, mentor Chet Atkins (of course), and even the rhythmic sensibilities of Ray Charles. However, the truth is that Reed’s guitar playing was relatively unique and largely self-developed. Reed’s “claw style” of guitar picking freed almost the entire hand for picking strings, allowing the possibility of far more ambitious and complex guitar work than had generally been possible with previous guitar styles popular in country music.
Despite the advice of his early guitar instructors and running against the grain of country music trends of the day, Reed also used a thumb pick throughout the career to help ensure he could deliver the necessary bite and power from those notes.
Equally important as the range and flexibility of his guitar style is what he actually did with it. Reed’s guitar work is an energetic blend of syncopated, banjo-style runs and brilliant chord selections delivered with an easy-going casualness that often masked the enormous technical ability involved. The innovations Reed introduced to country guitar in his peak years continue to inspire and influence guitarists to this day.
Jerry Reed: Pop Icon
Beyond question, Reed is best recognized and celebrated for his role of genial trucker Cledus Snow, appearing in all three movies of the Smokey and the Bandit franchise. However, his easy-going personality and down-home good looks were ready made for acting. Few country music stars of the 60s, 70s, or 80s were so ubiquitous in movies or on television. Although he was perhaps limited in his acting range and struggled against typecasting throughout his acting career, there is no doubt that Reed achieved some significant on-screen successes.
There is no doubt that Reed’s personal friendship with actor Burt Reynolds was a tremendous boon to his acting career. In addition to the Bandit films, Reed appears in Reynold’s 1976 cult classic Gator as well as the less memorable Stroker Ace and W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings. Reed also appeared in episodes of two Reynolds related TV shows, the “Plates” episode of the detective/adventured themed B.L. Stryker and the “Educating Calvin” episode of the sitcom Evening Shade.
However, Reed also built a list of credits outside his collaboration with Reynolds. Reed not only starred in but also directed the 1986 movie, What Comes Around about a country singer recovering from substance abuse who sets out to exact revenge on his greedy, cheating manager. From the beginning, Reed had to struggle against typecasting in his acting career. He had some success breaking new ground, landing substantial rolls in the comedies The Survivors and Hot Stuff as well as the Vietnam War drama Bat 21.
Reed was much in demand as guest star for TV shows, including the relatively well known Dolly and Mama’s Family as well as the lesser known Concrete Cowboys and the ill fated Nashville 99. He also made an appearance as himself in two episodes of the sitcom Alice and a host of more conventional talk show and music program appearances including The Johnny Cash Show, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, The Dean Martin Show, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Madame’s Place and Solid Gold. The country music front man even briefly tried his hand as a television front man, with 1972’s cumbersomely titled, The Jerry Reed When You’re Hot, You’re Hot Hour.
In 1972, Jerry Reed appeared as a guest star in the “Phantom of the Country Music Hall” episode of The New Scooby Doo Movies. While admittedly not his most significant music or film credit, the still popular cartoon series no doubt represents the first exposure to Reed for many children of two generations. As part of his appearance, Reed also takes a disturbingly good try at the bubblegum pop so popular at the time — recording a version of “Pretty Mary Sunlite” which played during the episode.
In one of his final significant film appearances, Reed played Adam Sandler’s nemesis, the tyrannical and bullying Coach Red Beaulieu, in the 1998 comedy The Waterboy.
In 1959, Reed married Priscilla “Prissy” Mitchell. They couple remained together until Reed’s death 49 years later. With Reed’s own troubled early family life, much has been made of this tender and affectionate union that endured nearly half a century.
While his public persona was occasionally that of a raucous country wild child, this perception was largely drawn from his music rather than the man himself — the legacy of tracks like Alabama Wild Man (which briefly become Reed’s geographically inaccurate nickname), Amos Moses, and When You’re Hot You’re Hot. According those who knew Reed best, his personality was far closer to the avuncular Cledus Snow than an Alabama Wild Man.
Reed, who served a brief stint in the army in the late 50s and early 60s, became a passionate advocate of veteran’s issues later in life. Reed’s final album, The Gallant Few, was recorded in early 2008 and proceeds from the album were intended to raise money for wounded veterans.
Few modern artists have left as much as of a legacy as Jerry Reed. Beyond a handful of classic and unforgettable country songs, this innovative and ambitious guitar player changed the way country music sounded and drastically expanded the possibilities of country guitar. Simultaneously, while no one would ever consider Reed’s film and television career high art, he leaves behind a host of memorable lines and unforgettable characters. As Jerry Reed takes that final ride “East Bound and Down” we wish him well. The man and his music will be missed.
Essential Jerry Reed Discography
* The Unbelievable Guitar and Voice of Jerry Reed (1967)
* Alabama Wild Man (1968)
* Jerry Reed Explores Guitar Country (1969)
* Georgia Sunshine (1971)
* Me and Jerry (1971) – Duet album with Chet Akins.
* When You’re Hot You’re Hot (1971)
* Tupelo Mississippi Flash (1974)
* Red Hot Picker (1975)
* East Bound and Down (1977)
* Man With The Golden Thumb (1982)
* Old Dogs (1998) – As part of The Old Dogs.
Essential Jerry Reed Filmography
* The Johnny Cash Show, Episode 1.3 (1969) TV
* The Jerry Reed When You’re Hot Your Hot Hour (1972) TV
* The New Scooby Doo Movies, “Phantom of the Country Music Hall” (1972) TV
* W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings (1975)
* Gator (1976)
* Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
* High Ballin’ (1978)
* Hot Stuff (1979)
* Smokey and the Bandit II (1980)
* What Comes Around (1986)
* Bat*21 (1988)
Jerry Reed performs “Amos Moses”
Sources: CNN, Country Music Magazine (October 1979), Encyclopedia of Country Music, The Internet Movie Database, Jerrypedia, The Tennessean (obituary), Wikipeida.