Two of the most influential folks in showbiz these days, Southern division anyway, are Chet Atkins and Burt Reynolds, and it was Jerry Reed’s luck to be the protégé” of both. Or was Reed’s talent responsible? The Good Ol’ Boy network doesn’t make stars, as the saying goes, only the public does.
Guitar virtuoso Atkins’ encouragement eventually led Jerry to a meeting with Elvis Presley, but Reed, on his own, wrote more songs for the King than any other artist (U.S. Male, A Thing Called Love and Talk About the Good Times, among them.) Similarly, Reynolds cast him in his first big acting role as the moonshining heavy in Gator. Now Jerry’s got the show world by the tail all by his lonesome. At 42, he is starring in the cop-caper movie Hot Stuff with Dom DeLuise and Suzanne Pleshette, while the title theme he wrote for it climbs the C&W charts. This week he’s scheduled to perform at the Country Music Awards on CBS, then next week he’s top-billed in the network’s made-for-TVer The Concrete Cowboys.
Admittedly, his rise might have been slower without Atkins. “Chet was the only one who really understood me,” says Jerry of his first mentor. “He said, ‘Quit trying to make records the way everybody expects. Get in there and play that guitar and sing those silly songs you make up.’ ” The result was 1967’s Guitar Man, his first hit. Elvis heard it on his car radio and invited him down to Graceland. “I’d been fishing for three days without shaving,” Jerry recalls. “I walked in and looked at that dude, and I’m telling you, that was the prettiest man I’d ever seen. We cut up and had a good ol’ time.”
As for Reynolds, Reed arrived on the set a bit awed. “I could have come in there cross-eyed, I was so scared,” Jerry laughs. “Burt took great pains with me, but I’ve often wondered what his~ nights were like, thinking what the hell Reed was going to do wrong the next day.” Apparently, not too much. Calling him “a wonderful, natural actor,” Burt cast Jerry as his trucker sidekick in the 1977 blockbuster Smokey and the Bandit. “Jerry is so hyper he can thread a sewing machine while standing still,” cracks Burt, who’ll tap Reed again for Smokey’s sequel.
“I talk about taking a rest,” says Reed of his ceaseless work. “But I thrive on it. I stop a week and I’m going crazy. I see a bus of musicians going down the road and wonder why I’m not with them.” Fortunately, Priscilla, his wife of 20 years, is accepting. “I’ve never known it any other way,” she says. “I get lonesome, but I was raised knowing a woman should be taking care of the house.” She used to sing with the Jordanaires, and for a while, as Reed is the first to admit, she was the family star. “Had it not been for Pris,” he says, “we might of starved to death.” But Pris quit forever after one frightening day in 1964 when she misplaced young daughter Seidina, whom she had taken to a recording session. That was fine with Jerry, who was by then beginning to make it. “I said she could stay home and fix them beans and cornbread,” recalls Reed. “I’ve been bringing home the rent money ever since.”
He came by his hardscrabble turn of phrase (and song lyrics) by birth. The son of cottonmill workers (who split when Jerry was 2), he realized there was no future in that life. “I always knew I was gonna pick,” he says. “I’d jump on the stove woodpile, use a stick for a guitar. Then I’d put on the damnedest show you’ve ever seen.” At 7, his mom bought him a second-hand $7 guitar, and by 10 he had won a local talent contest (“First place, but they wouldn’t let me have the prize—it was a case of beer”). He quit high school junior year to tour with the likes of Ernest Tubbs, Marty Robbins and Johnny Cash, and settled in Nashville after a two-year Army hitch. Since then, Jerry’s 400 tunes have included hits for Cash, Tom Jones, Porter Wagoner, the Captain and Tennille and Engelbert Humperdinck. Reed has two Grammys of his own (for 1970’s Me and Chet and 1972’s When You’re Hot, You’re Hot) and two CMA awards as instrumentalist of the year. From 1969 to 1972 he was a regular on Glen Campbell’s TV show, but his own summer replacement series, the When You’re Hot Hour, fizzled, Jerry says, because the producers tried to dude up his kicker image with “silly” citified clothes.
For all his acting success, any Californication of Reed was out of the question. He shudders at the notion of the family (which now also includes daughter Charlotte, 9) leaving his 47-acre spread outside Nashville. “My two kids growing up in Los Angeles?” he scowls. “No thank you. You can’t get turnip greens out there, so I ain’t leavin’.” He prefers the pastoral pleasures of bass fishing, golf and prowling Vanderbilt University football practice with pal coach George MacIntyre.
Though surrounded by elaborate fence and alarm systems, his barnboard home is simple and comfortable—”you can spill beer in my house and it’s okay.” Daughter Seidina (called “Pookie”) is 19 now, has toured with Dad and plans to cut her first album. Reed has no thought of letting Pookie become the family’s only picker. “Retire?” he asks rhetorically. “You might as well say die. My work is my joy.”