Jimmy Day was country music’s man of steel

Austin Music Memorial: Jimmy Day 1934-1999

Sunday, July 22, 2007

It’s a nickname you’d expect of singers, not a man who sat and plucked pedal steel guitar for a living. But longtime Buda resident Jimmy Day was “Mr. Soul,” expressing himself through an instrument he could make moan and wail and whoop and slur. He projected raw emotions onto the music of everyone he backed, from Hank Williams and Elvis Presley to George Jones, Willie Nelson and Don Walser.

Steel legend Buddy Emmons, the Magic Johnson to Day’s Larry Bird in Nashville session iconography, once said that Day was the only steel guitar player he’d ever heard who was impossible to copy because his playing captured his feelings at the moment. When Day left Nelson’s band in 1971, after clashing with drummer/road manager Paul English, Nelson retired the steel guitar position because, as Nelson’s nephew Freddy Fletcher says, “After Jimmy Day, who are you gonna get?”



Longtime Buda resident Jimmy Day, who died in 1999, captured emotions on his pedal steel guitar.




In our ongoing series of unofficial nominations for the Long Center’s Austin Music Memorial project, we’ve outlined Austin’s role in creating the gospel beat (Arizona Dranes), keeping alive the barrelhouse tradition (Robert Shaw), devising the “lost highway” song motif (Leon Payne), as well as being home to the original “TV on the radio” (Tony Von). In Jimmy Day, who passed away in 1999 after a bout with stomach cancer, Austin also has a huge connection to the “sacred steel” style of playing found in House of God services and popularized by Robert Randolph, who was influenced by Chuck Campbell of the Campbell Brothers.

A young Campbell, maybe 12 or 13 at the time, had just started playing the non-pedal steel when he attended the House of God convention in Nashville circa 1969. When his father, a bishop in the Pentecostal sect, took him to the Sho-Bud showroom to look at steel guitars, they found Day tinkering on a new double-neck pedal steel. Day had helped Emmons and Shot Jackson start the Sho-Bud business in 1957 and he’d drop in whenever he wasn’t doing sessions or out on the road with Nelson.

Bishop Campbell asked Day to demonstrate the pedal steel for his son and Day reached down with his left hand, got the whiskey bottle he’d been drinking from and used it as a steel bar while he played “Amazing Grace.”

Campbell recalls the impromptu rendition as “the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard.” The next year, Campbell was playing pedal steel guitar at the House of God convention.

Day himself had started out playing non-pedal steel at the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport in 1951, right out of high school. Born in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Jan. 9, 1934, Day moved to Louisiana with his family at age 3. At 14, he saw Shot Jackson play steel guitar with the Bailes Brothers on local TV, and that was all he wanted to do from then on.

An 18-year-old Day played on his first No. 1 single when Hayride mate Webb Pierce topped the charts with “That Heart Belongs To Me.” Later that year he toured with Hank Williams. After Hank’s death on the first day of 1953, Day gigged with Jim Reeves and Lefty Frizzell. For three months, he backed Presley, but went back to the Hayride because he’d rather play country than rock ‘n’ roll.

The year was 1954 and country music was about to change. Bud Isaacs had introduced the pedal steel guitar to Nashville on “Slowly,” a smash for Pierce, and Day set out to master the instrument, which offered a fresh array of chordal combinations and tonal effects. He called his double-neck “Blue Darlin’.”

While Day’s former employer Presley threatened to make country music obsolete, with many top Nashville acts going rockabilly to survive, his new boss, Ray Price, stayed true to his Texas roadhouse roots and created a new dance sensation with the shuffle beat of “Crazy Arms.” Day played on that 1956 smash and such other classics as Price’s “Heartaches By the Numbers” and “City Lights” and “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down” by Charlie Walker.

Day was in Price’s band for six years before he was lured away by fellow Cherokee Cowboy Willie Nelson in 1962. Nelson called his prototype outlaw country band, which included Johnny Bush on drums and David Zettner on bass, the Offenders. Day also recorded a pair of instrumental albums, cherished by the next generation of steel players, in ’62 and ’63.

“Jimmy Day used to come through Lubbock with Willie back in the ’60s,” recalls pedal steel player Lloyd Maines. “I would just stand at the side of the stage and watch every move (Day) made. Every lick was so passionate. He had a bluesy feel, even when he was doing hard-core country. His approach was like a good B-3 (organ) player.”

Besides introducing innovative tunings, Day popularized the technique of muting vibrating strings with the palm of his picking hand.

“Nobody’s ever been able to duplicate the Jimmy Day tone,” says Jurgen Koop, a steel guitar enthusiast from Germany who met his idol Day in 1977.

Around the time Koop met Day, the steel guitar legend was a notorious party animal who popped speed so he could drink all day. He was a guy, after all, who was too “out there” for Commander Cody, in whose band he lasted just a few months in 1975.

But Day swore off the booze and the pills in 1981, limiting his mind alteration intake to “Willie weed.” He moved to Buda, married a third-grade school teacher named Marilyn, and reconnected with Price, who welcomed him back into the Cherokee Cowboys from 1983 to 1985. Later, Day played every Monday at Henry’s backing Don Walser. It was always fun to watch visiting Europeans smack their foreheads when they realized that was the great Jimmy Day playing a dive on Burnet Road.

“He was a total gentleman, and he loved to hold court,” says country singer Monte Warden. “He had so many great stories, but who wouldn’t with his history?”

Day passed away in January 1999, two weeks after turning 65. He had been delighted to find out that he would be inducted into the Texas Branch of the Country Music Association Hall of Fame in February 1999, but the honor was bestowed posthumously.

“His playing was so natural,” Fletcher says, when asked what set Day apart from his contemporaries. “He was as smooth and effortless as water.”

Must See YouTube Video http://youtube.com/watch?v=iDA875zxlgU

One Response to “Jimmy Day was country music’s man of steel”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    thats my grandpa jimmy 🙂

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