Jeremy Roberts
Jun 19, 2017 · 29 min read
Founding Exile musician Marlon Hargis grants a comprehensive interview exploring the eclectic artistry of Country Music Hall of Fame Veterans Era inductee Jerry Reed. In this vintage circa 1971 still, the guitar wiz ecstatically smells the flowers on the Studio 41, CBS Television City, Los Angeles set of musical variety series “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour,” a Top 20 ratings winner airing from 1969–1972 that helped launch the “You Took All the Ramblin’ Out of Me” songwriter’s career. Image Credit: CBS / Getty Images

Son, it was a long time coming for Jerry Reed. The three-time Grammy winner and comically antagonistic Coach Beaulieu in Adam Sandler’s The Waterboy was finally inducted into Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame on October 22, 2017, nigh on 10 years after his untimely passing from emphysema complications.

Straddling the Great Depression and the onslaught of World War II, Reed’s trajectory began in 1937 in Atlanta. Learning rudimentary chords at age seven on a beaten up, second hand acoustic guitar purchased by his perpetually cash-strapped cotton mill working mother, Reed was a failed rockabilly singer, Specialist 4 U.S. Army veteran, Nashville songwriter [e.g. Porter Wagoner’s “Misery Loves Company”], devoted Chet Atkins apprentice, and brief Elvis Presley session guitarist before he finally landed his first Top 20 single, the tongue-in-cheek Presley homage “Tupelo Mississippi Flash,” shortly before his 31st birthday.

Altogether, 37 Billboard Top 40 country singles — 27 of those vaulted into the Top 20 — accentuated the eclectic artist’s recording resume on RCA Victor through 1983. The funky swamp rocker “Amos Moses” and lawbreaking novelty contained in “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot” heavily fueled Reed’s crossover pop appeal.

Soon it was not unusual to catch Reed trading fingerstyle licks with the Rhinestone Cowboy on television’s The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, cashing hefty royalty checks for Johnny Cash’s definitive cover of the gospel-inspired “A Things Called Love,” cavorting in animated form on Scooby-Doo, and ambitiously exploring Hollywood alongside Burt Reynolds and Sally Field as good ole redneck semi truck driver Cledus “Snowman” Snow in Smokey and the Bandit, the second highest grossing film of 1977 behind Star Wars.

Marlon Hargis has effortlessly tickled the ivories for Exile since 1973. The soulful country hitmakers accumulated 21 Top 40 singles — 11 of those were number ones — between 1978 and 1991. During a mutual sabbatical from his “Kiss You All Over” partners in rhyme, the piano maestro joined Reed’s road band while the entertainer was furiously presiding over the final edit of Gene Hackman’s Vietnam rescue drama Bat*21.

Hargis found his brief tenure as a sideman who didn’t have to face the intense pressure of making business decisions or fretting over which song to target for radio play particularly revelatory. What follows is Hargis’s first longform interview exclusively recalling his fondness for the passionate Wounded Warriors supporter whose lightning fast, claw-pickin’ guitar prowess remains largely unexcavated in the 21st century.

Singer-songwriter-bassist Sonny LeMaire, singer-rhythm guitarist Les Taylor, confident-in-blue keyboardist Marlon Hargis, drummer Steve Goetzman, and singer-songwriter-lead guitarist J.P. Pennington of Exile are captured on May 13, 2013, outside The Factory at Franklin shopping mall in Franklin, Tennessee. Image Credit: Photography by Anthony Scarlati / Webster Public Relations

The Complete Marlon Hargis / Jerry Reed Interview

How did you get the call that Jerry Reed was interested in having you on keyboards?

A really good friend of mine, a great drummer named Ric McClure, had been playing with Jerry since 1981. I had left Exile [a Tennessean article dated November 22, 1986, announced Hargis’s replacement in Exile, Lee Carroll, and pinpointed the black fedora-sporting musician’s exit to earlier that fall] and had been drifting around Nashville throughout much of 1987.

Jerry had been working on Bat*21, a Vietnam War-inspired film costarring Gene Hackman and Danny Glover which explored the real life rescue of U.S. signals intelligence expert “Gene” Hambleton, who was shot down behind enemy lines during the 1972 Easter Offensive.

Filmed entirely on location [beginning on June 15, 1987] in the province of Sabah, Malaysia, situated on the eastern tip of Borneo, home of the world’s oldest rainforests and Mount Kinabalu, Jerry executive produced the movie through his Nashville-based Eagle Films and had a major costarring turn as Colonel George Walker.

Jerry was tied up with the movie and had kept his band on retainer. At a certain point there was some internal disagreement. He replaced a lot of members at once, but a couple of them ended up coming back.

Ric called me and said, “Do you want to do this gig?” As it turned out I wasn’t doing anything at the time. I was always a Jerry Reed fan, and I loved working with Ric. It was a no-brainer. Interestingly enough, we met inside Young ‘Un Sound Studio, owned by Jerry’s pal and frequent 1960s session guitarist compadre Chip Young, here in Nashville on a really cold day in January 1988. A bass player named John Harris from Albuquerque, New Mexico, was there to audition as well.

[Author’s Note: Young sold the studio later in 1988 to Al Jolson, Jr., son of the entertainer who toplined The Jazz Singer, the inaugural sound motion picture unleashed in 1927. Jolson renamed the studio Masterlink. In risk of converting to a Mexican restaurant after several years of vacancy, in 2012 country jam band star Zac Brown purchased and restored the studio to its former glory. Southern Ground Studio is available for booking at 114 17th Avenue South, situated on the foot of Music Row].

Jerry was in the same studio editing some sounds for Bat*21. He had a projector screen up and everything. Jerry actually knew that I had been in Exile. He was a fan of the band, had seen us on television, and Exile had also done a festival or two with him. So he was aware of my musical abilities.

John and I basically went in the studio, and we sat around for a bit. Ric was there too, and that was it. Jerry pulled out a guitar, and we started playing for about 10 minutes. Reed just said, “Okay, what do you wanna do first?” [laughs].

It was very loose and spontaneous, not an audition in the normal sense. We jammed on a fun, funky blues riff, most definitely not a well-known Jerry Reed hit song. When we had finished, Jerry went, “Let’s go get a beer. That’s it” [laughs]. John and I were both hired that afternoon.

Over the next couple of weeks we did have rehearsals with the band, but I don’t believe Jerry came to any rehearsals. He didn’t particularly care to do that. We worked up his whole show for the year and went from there.

We played events all over the country until I departed the band amicably a little over a year later in March 1989 — a gig in Texas somewhere was my last concert with Jerry. I know we even did a West Coast swing. We played in Branson a lot — a weekend every month. It was an interesting experience to say the least [laughs].

Singer-songwriter-bassist Sonny LeMaire, singer-rhythm guitarist Les Taylor, drummer Steve Goetzman, pianist Marlon Hargis, and singer-songwriter-lead guitarist J.P. Pennington of Exile catch up on old times with former Jerry Reed drummer Ric McClure (third from left) backstage at the Grand Ole Opry after an Exile gig on March 7, 2017. Image Credit: Exile’s official Facebook

Was it weird rehearsing a show without the artist present?

I’ve done that before but not with Exile. For some reason Jerry not showing up didn’t really bother me that much. He was the kind of artist who didn’t necessarily do the same song the same way every night. He might decide to leave out a verse, etc. It was a loose gig.

All the guys in the band were really good players. After you’re in the business so long, you can follow what’s going on onstage. Jerry might decide to change a key at the last minute or leave a verse out.

A couple of times we even worked up a song we had never done before and ran through it during sound check — just because Jerry wanted to do it. You had to stay focused on Reed and be ready to cover uncharted musical terrain at the drop of a hat. It was that kinda gig — enjoyable.

Who were the other members of Jerry’s band during your 19881989 tenure?

Ric McClure was the drummer and band leader for years. He worked for Trisha Yearwood for years going back to when she started. He also kept the backbeat for Joe Diffie. He actually plays with Lorrie Morgan now.

I didn’t know bassist John Harris other than through Reed. There were two other guys who were with Jerry for years. Kenny Penny — believe it or not that was his real name — played some sizzling guitar, fiddle, and mandolin. Bobby Lovett played lead guitar and was always bitching about stuff. Ironically, he stuck with the gig until Jerry retired from the road [laughs]. Bobby’s a good guy.

Longtime Exile keyboardist Marlon Hargis is introduced by funky “Amos Moses” rocker Jerry Reed while guitarist Kenny Penny nonchalantly observes the proceedings on July 29, 1988, at the Clark County Fair in Springfield, Ohio. Image Credit: Photography by Kim Griffin / Courtesy of Marlon Hargis

Did Jerry introduce the band individually onstage?

Yeah, he would say something like, “Let me introduce everybody. On piano is Marlon Hargis, on drums is Ric McClure…” and maybe tell the audience where we were all from. I can’t remember if he did this at every show but generally speaking. Jerry didn’t make a big issue of the fact that I came from Exile. He didn’t have us play a little riff or feature a song during our individual introductions — it all went by fast. It’s the same method we use to introduce everybody at an Exile concert.

Did you play any concerts abroad with Jerry?

We did some shows in Canada but our primary focus was the United States. We did a long tour in California, at least 10 shows.

Did you play any instruments besides keyboards with Jerry?

Most of Reed’s hits I played keyboards on because he already had Bobby and Kenny on guitar besides himself. I did play rhythm guitar with Reed on maybe half a dozen songs, not that many in a given show but just overall in a tour. Before I joined Exile in 1973, I actually played guitar in some bands instead of keyboards.

“Guitar Man” was a fun one to do — there’d be four guitarists playing in tandem. There’s an old standard called “Tennessee Stud” written by Jimmy Driftwood and popularized by Eddy Arnold and many others that I also played guitar on. Jerry recorded a studio version [“Tennessee Stud” is the lead cut on 1970’s Me and Jerry, Reed’s first of three collaborative albums with Chet Atkins. The long player netted the duo a Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance].

As a matter of fact, Jerry loaned me one of his acoustic Gibson guitars, which was pretty cool. You can say he gave it to me — but in actuality he loaned it to me — when I left the band he wanted it back [laughs]. I’m sure it was a guitar that was important to Jerry and also fairly expensive, so I understand why he didn’t want to part with it. He let me use that guitar all the time I was with him.

Just being able to play guitar along with Reed was invigorating. That’s the last time I really played guitar very much. I still own some guitars, but I don’t play them too much anymore — they just hang out on the wall.

Best known as Exile’s primary pianist, Marlon Hargis strikes a hot lick on the Gibson acoustic guitar loaned to him by Jerry Reed at the latter’s July 29, 1988, show at the Clark County Fair in Springfield, Ohio. Image Credit: Photography by Kim Griffin / Courtesy of Marlon Hargis

Do you have any souvenirs representing your time with Jerry?

All the gear I used besides Jerry’s Gibson acoustic guitar was my own gear. The thing is, when you’re a little younger and working with someone like that, you never really think ahead to get something, have him sign it, or pose for a photo. You’re simply around him every day doing your job.

That’s true going back to the Exile days. I wish in retrospect I had gotten more artists’ autographs and other mementos. Of course back then you didn’t have smartphones to take pictures, so it was a lot harder proposition to navigate. I really don’t have anything from Jerry that I can think of.

I encourage fellow “Guitar Man” aficionados to explore his innovative, early catalogue on RCA Victor. The 1967–1973 albums are available digitally or on CD. It’s a shame really that 90 percent of Jerry’s remaining 1973–1983 tenure on the record label can only be heard via inferior quality vinyl sources sporadically uploaded to YouTube. The novelty factor was brought to the forefront in the post-Smokey and the Bandit years.

Oh absolutely. Most people probably consider a song like “Amos Moses” [1970] to be a novelty song. From a musical standpoint, that’s one of the funkier tracks, ever. He was a really funky player.

From a guitar standpoint, here’s one of the reasons why I wanted to join the band. I thought I could learn how to play a little bit like Reed. I would say, “Jerry, how did you play this riff on ‘Amos Moses’”? “I can’t tell you exactly how I played — I just did it.” He’d then sit down and demonstrate, so I never really learned too much from him about guitars [laughs]. Reed was one of those genius players who could not verbally explain his technique. He was blessed with a gift. Jerry was very intelligent, not a country redneck at all. He read tons of books.

In atypical overalls, Jerry Reed opts for a rural pastoral setting with an acoustic Gibson guitar within arm’s reach for the rear jacket of “The Man with the Golden Thumb,” the songwriter’s 27th studio album unleashed on April 13, 1982, via RCA Victor Records. Consisting of three Top 40 C&W singles — the title cut, “Patches,” and “She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft),” — the Muscle Shoals-recorded project served as Reed’s final Top Ten album and best chart showing since the quasi soundtrack “East Bound and Down” some five years earlier. Image Credit: Photography by Herb Burnette / 45Worlds.com / Sony Music Entertainment

What were your favorite Jerry Reed songs to play?

Obviously, all the hits like “Guitar Man,” “East Bound and Down,” “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot,” and “Amos Moses,” which is such a funky song. “East Bound and Down” was the song he always ended his show with, and we’d play the little riff as he left the stage.

He did a song called “Patches,” which served as blind R&B guitarist Clarence Carter’s biggest hit [№4 Pop, 1970], that I liked [Reed notched a №30 C&W reading of the tune, which was tracked during his debut July 16, 1981, session at the iconic FAME Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Studio owner-producer Rick Hall not so coincidentally oversaw both versions of “Patches”]. Oddly enough, I’m not that well acquainted with Reed’s catalog. I’ve never listened to a lot of his albums. I always wondered why he did “Patches.” Now I know [laughs].

How about “She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft)” or “The Bird,” also cut at Muscle Shoals with Rick Hall?

Frankly, I didn’t really care for either one of those [neither does this writer particularly]. In a way it categorized Jerry as someone who did novelty songs. A lot of people didn’t realize how great a guitarist he was because they thought of him more as a novelty singer.

It may have affected his credibility with the average fan — and of course his fun-loving role in Smokey and the Bandit was a significant factor. He was a comedic, redneck-leaning guy and that’s who people came to see at a Jerry Reed concert. They didn’t come to see a great guitar player — they came to see a movie star.

Did you request any songs to be added to Jerry’s setlist?

I did make occasional suggestions. Jerry would listen, but he did what he wanted to do. I would suggest, “Hey, why don’t we start the show with a different song? Or maybe do this song here?” A couple of times he would try stuff like that, but he was relatively self-centered. There’s nothing wrong with that. Reed was the star, the act, and knew what worked and what didn’t. He was not the type of guy to vary his setlist too much, so I let it go.

Keyboard guru Marlon Hargis and Jerry Reed let the good times roll in concert on July 29, 1988, at the Clark County Fair in Springfield, Ohio. According to passionate Exile fan Kim Griffin, “The story behind this photo has to do with a skit in the show based on Jerry’s novelty song ‘The Bird.’ One of the other guys in the band had a bird puppet that he’d place on one hand. The bit was that Jerry was angry that the bird was there. Jerry is saying things to Marlon like, ‘Didn’t I tell you NOT to let that bird on the bus!’, pretty much trying to find out who was responsible for the bird being there. It was a staged bit and funny to watch. Marlon is denying responsibility for how the bird got there. Silly, but cute!” Image Credit: Photography by Kim Griffin / Courtesy of Marlon Hargis

Were there any negative aspects to being onstage with Jerry?

The only negative side to working with Reed is that he was a great, great entertainer, but he talked a lot in his show. He would tell a lot of stories about recording “Guitar Man” and “U.S. Male” with Elvis Presley [1967] and making Smokey and the Bandit with Burt Reynolds [1977].

Quite honestly, after you’ve heard those stories for a few months, it got a little old sometimes [laughs]. Sometimes he might talk for 30 or 40 minutes during a 90-minute concert. Even though it was still great musically, sometimes I would have preferred to play more.

On the other hand, the crowd always loved Jerry’s stories. If the crowd was enjoying it, then that’s what mattered. I wasn’t the main artist — I was a musician — so I respected Jerry’s choice even if I didn’t necessarily agree with it. I wanna stress that it was a very positive experience overall.

Likely “clawing” a patented guitar riff on the banks of the Cumberland River as falls breaks into winter, a warmly dressed Jerry Reed is seen posing for the cover of sixth studio album “Cookin’”. Released in January 1970, the experimental “Cookin’” was the gifted raconteur’s first record to briefly dent the pop album chart at No. 194. Serving up a foot-tappin’ brew of acoustic blues, balladry, rock, and even pop psychedelia, “Cookin’” was preceded by “Turn It Around in Your Mind,” a driving, bitter-soaked A-side which failed to chart. Image Credit: Photography by Jimmy Moore / FanArt.tv / Sony Music Entertainment

Were Jerry’s stories rehearsed?

Yeah. He wouldn’t say it necessarily word-for-word, but you knew what was going to happen. Jerry talked about when Elvis heard “Guitar Man” on the radio and decided to cover it. Unable to figure out Jerry’s complicated licks, Elvis asked producer Felton Jarvis to track him down and bring him to the studio. Turns out, Jerry was fishing on the Cumberland River. That’s how they first met. After you’ve heard it for 30 or 40 times, it became a little stale [laughs].

Another thing that was cool about working with Reed was every once in awhile we’d be hanging out in the hotel room or on the bus, and he’d just pull out an acoustic gut string guitar and start pickin’.

There were nights when Jerry, Ric, and myself would go to a bar and sit. Jerry would tell great stories about all the people he had worked with in the recording studio and onstage. Bear in mind Jerry could be a very moody guy. Sometimes he was not particularly in a good mood to just shoot the breeze. Other times he was in a great mood and very entertaining to be around.

Priscilla “Prissy” Mitchell accompanies her husband of 49 years, Jerry Reed, on the joyous night of the latter’s induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame held at the Renaissance Nashville Hotel on October 16, 2005. Image Credit: Photography possibly by Kay Williams

When I saw Jerry about six months before he retired from the road in July 2004, his wife Priscilla “Prissy” Mitchell handled keyboards. Prissy was an artist and prolific Music Row background vocalist in her own right whose duet with Roy Drusky on “Yes Mr. Peters” shot to number one on the Billboard country chart in 1965 when Jerry was still primarily considered to be a songwriter — Johnny Cash covered “If the Good Lord’s Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise” with Sun Records impresario Sam Phillips in 1957, “That’s All You Gotta Do” gave Brenda Lee a Top Ten pop hit in 1960, while Porter “Mr. Grand Ole Opry” Wagoner’s engaging rendition of “Misery Loves Company” climbed to numero uno in 1962. She also provided backing vocals on two Elvis Presley deep cuts — the abysmal movie soundtrack tune “Confidence” and the stately, Hawaii-inspired “Beyond the Reef.” Dying six years after her husband in 2014, I wonder whether you knew about Prissy’s artistic inclinations.

At the time I had no idea that Prissy was a performer. She would sometimes travel with Jerry. As time went on she would come out more and more with him. Actually he had a bus, and the band had a separate bus. A lot of the time he would travel by himself, which I always thought was odd after he had left home. Who wants to be on a bus by yourself?

I’m sure I met his two daughters — Seidina and Lottie — at some point. I don’t recall being present for any family type situation with Jerry.

Were you privy to witnessing Jerry compose any new material?

I don’t think Reed was trying to write anything. Before the 1988 4th of July he did compose a patriotic song that we rehearsed a couple of times while sitting on his bus and played live later that summer. It was not really a pop song [Reed served two years in the U.S. Army from 1959–1961].

If he was in the right mood, he was like a lot of great players. He simply liked to sit and play without any specific purpose in mind. However, most of the time I didn’t really see him that much outside of the performance because he’d get up on his own bus. It’s not that we were avoiding each other, we just didn’t necessarily run across each other that much while we were traveling.

Distributed on October 21, 1988, presenting the official theatrical poster for “Bat*21,” starring Gene Hackman, Danny Glover, and Jerry Reed. Images of the Guitar Man on the set of the Vietnam-based rescue drama are difficult to locate. Please comment below if you know otherwise. Image Credit: Femmes Fatales and Fantasies Art Museum and Gallery

Did you have an opportunity to record in the studio with Jerry?

Reed never recorded anything in the studio when I was working with him. Quite honestly his focus was on finishing and editing Bat*21. His mind was not primarily on music. I’m not saying that he went through the motions doing shows, but he was really more concerned with Bat*21 because he actually executive produced it.

He made a big deal in his stage patter about being one of the producers of the movie, trying to drum up interest in the movie’s impending release. Jerry always said it in a joking way, but you could tell he was proud of that fact. I don’t know if he had money involved in it or what.

When I finally saw the movie, I was pleasantly surprised. It was not a typical good old boy, Burt Reynolds type movie. It was something totally different, an inspiring war drama. I’m sure he considered it one of his best films [Distributed to select theaters on October 21, 1988, Bat*21 engendered enthusiastic reviews but was considered a box office disappointment, grossing only $4 million against a probable $15 to $20 million budget].

Reed was obviously passionate about Bat*21. There were nights when you could tell he really, really enjoyed playing. There were other nights — I wouldn’t say didn’t care — he just wasn’t into it. He was thinking about something else. I’m sure a lot of those days he was doing live shows mainly to make a living.

I consider your 1988–1989 tenure to be part of Jerry’s wilderness years. Part of RCA Victor’s impressive roster for 18 years, Jerry signed with Capitol in 1985 and cut two albums that sank commercially. Two years later Capitol dropped him, and Jerry found himself musically adrift.

That’s a very good way to put it. Jerry wasn’t considered as relevant when I was in the band. He wasn’t having any hits on the radio. He didn’t even have a record deal. We generally played to good crowds, but there were times when the shows didn’t sell out. I always felt bad. Reed was really past his artistic peak at that point. That’s why he was so involved in Bat*21. Films were the direction he wanted to go in since no record label was apparently interested in signing him.

Are there any comparisons between the fans at a Jerry Reed concert vs. an Exile one?

Reed’s crowds were older, but we played Branson and other venues that catered towards middle age and older families. Back in the ’80s Exile was a fairly young act, so we had a lot of nice young girls and young guys that saw us. Jerry tended to draw a middle class mom and pop-type audience, bearing in mind that he was more known for his movies at the time.

Singer-songwriter-bassist Sonny LeMaire, keyboardist Marlon Hargis, singer-songwriter-lead guitarist J.P. Pennington (perched on the white wooden fence), drummer Steve Goetzman, and singer-rhythm guitarist Les Taylor visit a rolling pasture for the cover of their eighth studio album, “Kentucky Hearts.” Unleashed on August 31, 1984, via Epic Records, Exile’s sole No. 1 album was produced by Buddy Killen and yielded three No. 1 C&W singles — “Give Me One More Chance,” “Crazy for Your Love,” and “She’s a Miracle.” Image Credit: HitParade.ch / Sony Music Entertainment

Do any memories exist for those handful of shows where Exile shared the same bill as Jerry?

One that stands out is a concert that Exile played at Disney World in Orlando [Country Magic at the Magic Kingdom, May 4, 1984]. On certain Friday nights the park would open to all the major high schools in the area. I’m talking thousands and thousands of high school kids.

There were five or six country acts [e.g. Tammy Wynette and Sawyer Brown] scattered throughout the park. Jerry was playing on a huge stage right in front of the castle. He was a star at that point. We were playing on another stage. Ric McClure was already a member of Jerry’s band, and I remember between shows spending time with him on Jerry’s band bus.

After I joined Jerry’s band, we found ourselves on the same festival bill with my former band Exile [the Third Annual KIX 104 Family Reunion, held at the Chesterfield Village Parkway in St. Louis, Missouri, between September 10 and 11, 1988]. I had maintained a good relationship with the Exile guys.

Jerry played right before Exile. We had time to catch only part of Exile’s show since we had to leave and go play a gig somewhere else. Exile always had a great road crew. With Reed there were only a couple of available crew guys. As musicians we had to help set up our own gear when we were getting ready to come onstage. I looked around and realized that Exile’s road crew had come out to help set my stuff up. I remember thinking that was truly nice of them to do that.

A fedora-sporting Marlon Hargis, who joined Exile’s lineup in 1973, wears a brand new Kentucky Music Hall of Fame pin moments before partaking in the induction ceremony held at the Lexington Center in Lexington, Kentucky, on April 12, 2013. Image Credit: Photography by Pablo Alcala / The Lexington Herald-Leader

It must be fascinating to also have the perspective of seeing Exile from the vantage point of an audience member.

There was a period of time in the late 1990s when original lead guitarist J.P. Pennington and singer-rhythm guitarist Les Taylor were touring with some other guys under the name Exile. They were actually playing here in Nashville at the Municipal Auditorium with Lee Greenwood, and I hadn’t seen J.P. and Les for a few years. We had all lost touch.

I called, got ahold of somebody in the Exile management office, and let them know that I wanted to attend the show. It was interesting to sit back in the audience and hear someone else playing your songs. As a musician you’re thinking, ‘Well, they’re playing that a little differently than I played it.’ You don’t get real emotional and think, ‘I wish I was onstage’ [laughs]. It was an enjoyable, eye-opening experience for me.

To be totally honest, I didn’t consider that show to really be Exile — it was just J.P., Les, and some other side guys. Exile is a combination of the five of us responsible for the lion’s share of the hits — J.P., Les, singer-bassist Sonny LeMaire, drummer Steve Goetzman, and myself. Any other lineup is not the real thing [Exile has been reunited onstage and in the studio since 2008].

My first and only time catching Jerry in concert was on July 23, 2004, for two Georgia Mountain Fair shows held at the Anderson Music Hall in Hiawassee. The elevation hindered his breathing, particularly the afternoon show when temperatures were blazing hot. He stayed seated, talked considerably, and encouraged Bobby Lovett and Mark Thornton to handle the lion’s share of the guitar pickin’ — Jerry played guitar on five songs tops. Late that evening a handful of fans and myself gathered around his bus in an attempt to score a photo and/or autograph. Chatting with the band while waiting, I was so disappointed when Jerry emerged from the venue with little warning and apologized that he could not hang around due to his visibly trembling hands. He retired from the road that November [Jerry Reed Live, Still! documents a September 11, 2004, typical date in Parsons, Kansas and served as the entertainer’s second and ultimately final live album after 1979’s incendiary Jerry Reed Live! Featuring Hot Stuff].

Exile has played at the Anderson Music Hall, too, and it is a long day. I can understand Reed having difficulty breathing. He was suffering from emphysema, and that’s what eventually killed him. Luckily when I worked with him, he didn’t have emphysema but was probably still a smoker — I was then too. You didn’t really consider the negative aspects of smoking.

I didn’t see Jerry in his later years, but I’m sure emphysema is a truly bad condition to have to go through. In a way I’m glad I didn’t see him because I remember him the way he was at his peak more or less.

When you saw him he probably had to sit. Now when I worked with him, he didn’t. Jerry was still very active, but quite frankly he liked to sit and talk. He was an actor who loved to entertain his audience with funny anecdotes.

With a navy blue and white baseball tee shirt and curled brim cowboy hat, Jerry Reed looks comically annoyed before tracking a lead vocal inside producer Rick Hall’s legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield, Alabama, circa August 1982 during sessions for Reed’s comeback single “The Bird.” Image Credit: F.A.M.E. Studios / Pinterest

Did you sing any backing vocals onstage during Jerry’s show?

If I did some background singing it was very minimal. There weren’t a lot of heavy harmonies in Jerry’s onstage material. Bobby and Ric tended to cover those parts if they came up. I remember Jerry asking Bobby to sing lead on a couple of songs. Some people may think I was part of the backing “La la la la la la” chorus on “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot” but I wasn’t. Instead, Jerry always made a joke about the guys singing the girls’ parts.

Did Jerry become irritated with the band if somebody made a mistake?

Not really, because sometimes he’d make some mistakes or just screw around for the hell of it [laughs]. If someone were to make a mistake, Reed used to turn around and laugh. He didn’t miss anything. But it didn’t happen often. We were all really good players, so there was never a discernible mistake that the crowd caught. I don’t recall ever having a cross word with him about anything. Jerry was very easy to work with.

Did Jerry like to sign autographs?

Naw, he would never do it. To tell you the truth, I don’t think Jerry particularly liked to interact with the audience very much. I never saw him be rude to anybody. If somebody came back around the buses and wanted to talk to him, he was always cordial, but I felt like he didn’t really like to hang out. I could tell that he pretty much wanted to keep himself separate, as opposed to Exile who were always a lot more open and accessible.

When Exile started being really successful, we actually had to stop signing autographs after the shows because we literally would be there for two or three hours. A lot of the time, we’d need to be leaving to go onto the next show. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to interact with the crowd. It was logistically not possible — there were too many people.

Did Exile sign autographs when you joined the band?

When I joined Exile in 1973, nobody wanted our autograph [laughs]. We were a local, regional band playing clubs, bars, proms — any place that would have us. The first time anybody actually asked for our autograph was when “Kiss You All Over” hit in 1978. After that, it was a whole big deal.

In a brown leather jacket and yellow cap, Jerry Reed is captured off the cuff somewhere in Houston, Texas, in 1988 during Marlon Hargis’s tenure in the band. Image Credit: Photography by Chris Connor / WENN / Stupid Celebrities

Did Jerry participate in sound checks?

Jerry never came to sound checks. In the ’80s things were a little more low-tech, and you didn’t have to worry so much about sound checks. The band pretty much always did a sound check, and one of the other guitar players would usually check Jerry’s guitar and gear.

The Crazy Horse Steak House was a well-known, really nice country music showcase in Santa Ana — part of California’s Los Angeles area — where even great jazz players frequented. Exile played there a few times, and I always loved the club’s atmosphere. They had great steak there, which is always important too [laughs].

Everybody wanted to be on that stage — Waylon Jennings, Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, Merle Haggard — the list goes on and on. The Crazy Horse was a prestigious venue like the Bluebird in Nashville, except much bigger. It was the type place where a lot of big shot L.A. folks would come to see Jerry as a musician.

He actually did a sound check and was a little more serious about this one Crazy Horse gig [held on Monday, June 13, 1988]. Generally he wasn’t that interested in all the technical aspects — he wanted to come onstage and play.

That’s one of the better shows we ever played with Reed. He was really on that night because there were a lot of artists and fellow guitar players in the audience, and that was the kinda crowd that came to see him as a guitar player, not necessarily as a movie actor.

Keyboard sideman Marlon Hargis, multi-stringed instrumentalist Kenny Penny, and largely obscured drummer Ric McClure are seen in between songs at boss Jerry Reed’s concert at the Crazy Horse Steak House in Santa Ana, California, on June 13, 1988. Image Credit: Photography by Kim Griffin / Courtesy of Marlon Hargis

Were any of your concerts with Jerry recorded for posterity?

The Crazy Horse show was recorded professionally from the soundboard and actually videoed. We kept a copy on the bus for awhile. In recent years I’ve gotten in touch with Ric, Bobby, and others. So far no one can find a copy of it. I wish I did have a copy because it was a really, really good show that I definitely consider to be my favorite gig with Jerry.

Of course that was back in the old VHS tape days — before smartphones, YouTube, and social media — so whatever copy there is may be long worn out. If anyone has any knowledge about the video of Jerry’s Crazy Horse show, we would love to hear about it. Other than that, there probably aren’t any recordings at all from my tenure in the band.

Why did you stop touring with Jerry in March 1989?

We finished the last show of that particular tour in Texas somewhere and had to travel a good distance back to Nashville. I hadn’t planned on leaving at that point, so I didn’t realize it was going to be the last show I ever worked with him.

It was a matter of not wanting to tour all over the country and to settle down a bit. I had actually just gotten married. I met my wife Vickie when I was touring with Reed in a place called Dogpatch, Arkansas, believe it or not. Dogpatch was this really funky theme park, based on the classic comic strip Li’l Abner.

I don’t recall ever having a meeting with Reed about leaving. Either Reed called, or Ric and I had a conversation and the topic came up — e.g. “When are we gonna start out again? I don’t know that I wanna go.”

It wasn’t any big deal or argument. It was a sense of, ‘Okay, you’re leaving. All right, I’ll get someone else and we’ll just carry on.’ Jerry wasn’t upset. It was one of those mutual things where we went our separate ways. There weren’t any tears shed. I probably thought I’d be back in a couple of months and go back out.

Ric left Jerry’s band about the same time, and we started Savannah Rose, a band which played local clubs here in Nashville. Besides Ric and myself, a couple of his other band members left at the same time. Jerry kept touring fairly steadily, and then I lost track of what he did.

In May 1970, Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed sit and pick awhile inside RCA Victor Studios in Nashville while recording “Me and Jerry,” the duo’s first of three guitar collaborations. Notice the cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s final studio album, “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” sitting comfortably on the floor. The gospel-laden title cut was covered by the mentor and his apprentice and appeared as the second track on “Me and Jerry.” Image Credit: Photography possibly by Ashley Scott / Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

A couple of years after you quit Jerry’s employ, he received a shot of creative adrenaline with his first studio album in five years, Sneakin’ Around [1991], an all-instrumental reunion album with mentor Chet Atkins that won a Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance.

At that point I was working in Nashville in a club, and I wasn’t really keeping up with what was going on as far as Reed’s records.

Incidentally, Chet wasn’t around much when I was working with Jerry. Now we knew Chet, and he knew who we were which was a cool thing. We had met him at some different functions back when I was with Exile, possibly at an awards show. Ray Stevens was another good friend of Reed’s who we knew, but as far as those other artists, they weren’t really in the picture with Reed when I was with him. He was doing his own thing.

Chet was a very nice person, very pleasant, and down to earth guy. I knew three or four guys who played in Chet’s band, but I never worked with Chet in any aspect. Huge fan of his. What can you say? “Mister Guitar,” absolutely one of a kind.

Play it, son! In April 1989, about a month after founding Exile keyboardist Marlon Hargis amicably departed Jerry Reed’s band to spend more time with his new bride, the funky guitar picker performs at the Yokota Air Base in Western Tokyo, Japan. The month-long trek of U.S. Military bases served as Reed’s first tour of the Far East. Image Credit: Photography by Rob Jagodzinski / Stars and Stripes

Did you have any contact with Jerry after you left the band?

I lost touch. After he passed in 2008 I felt terrible that I hadn’t kept in better touch. On the other hand, Jerry was a little more distant than most people, and he wasn’t very emotional. He was not what I’d call a warm and fuzzy, socializing guy. He wasn’t one of those ‘Oh I love you, man’ folks. He was nice but he preferred his privacy.

If he wasn’t involved with you directly business-wise…I wasn’t someone who he would call up and say, “Let’s go out and have a drink.” I never took any offense at that because it’s the way he was. I was probably somewhat the same way then too. It was a business relationship as much as anything else. I treasure those times when we got to hang out.

Reed had a very tough upbringing in Georgia. He came from really dirt poor circumstances and had a relatively hard life until he made it [Reed didn’t experience a Top 20 country single as a solo artist until “Tupelo Mississippi Flash” in 1967, 12 grueling years after he unleashed his debut single, the self-written rockabilly “If the Lord’s Willing and the Creeks Don’t Rise”]. When you grow up like that you develop — I wouldn’t say a tough exterior — but you know how to deal with life. That was very understandable as that was simply how he was raised.

Motown-inspired drummer Steve Goetzman, singer-rhythm guitarist Les Taylor, singer-songwriter-bassist Sonny LeMaire, imposing pianist Marlon Hargis, and founding singer-songwriter-lead guitarist J.P. Pennington of Exile join together minutes after delivering a sold out concert at the Alapaha Station Celebration in Alapaha, Georgia, on November 12, 2016. The quintet still meets with dedicated fans after every show. Image Credit: Photography by Jeremy Roberts

What are Exile’s studio and touring objectives?

We were actually out until Christmas Eve 2016 touring our very first Christmas tour on the back of our debut Christmas album, Wrapped Up in Your Arms for Christmas.

We rehearsed in early February. Every year we try to think of some little changes to do in the show, whether that’s adding or omitting certain song. We’re already getting tour dates lined up.

We don’t have any specific plans for releasing new songs. The last time we concentrated on a studio project was in 2015 for the Christmas record. We’ve got a few things in the can, maybe half a dozen original songs that we’ve recorded over the last couple of years written by J.P., Sonny, and some co-writers. I’d like to drop an EP towards the end of 2017. So we’re hoping for a busy year — keeping the momentum going.

We’re already working on making 2018 a huge year for Exile. It’s a landmark occasion for the band — the 55th anniversary of Exile and the 40th anniversary of “Kiss You All Over.” Not many (if any) bands have been around for 55 years, so we hope to make the most of this amazing journey. There’ll be some major touring, and some interesting new/old music releases.

With a trusty white bucket hat perched on his knee, quick-witted singer-comedian Jerry Reed observes a rapidly flowing creek for the cover of “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot,” distributed in March 1971 via RCA Victor Records. It became Reed’s highest charting album on either Billboard chart — No. 45 Pop and No. 2 C&W, respectively. Oddly, the title cut was circulated as the sole single, becoming Reed’s second A-side in a row to crossover to the pop chart, landing snugly inside the Top Ten at No. 9 and ultimately scoring a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance. Image Credit: Photography by Ashley Scott / FanArt.tv / Sony Music Entertainment

Excepting a 1987 induction into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and 2005 placement in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, recognition was extremely scarce for Jerry in modern times until 2016 when he was honored with membership into the Musicians Hall of Fame. Momentum steadily built as in 2017 the eminent Country Music Hall of Fame followed suit with a long overdue induction. Do you think Exile will ever be elected into the elite hall?

It’s a shame that the Country Music Hall of Fame waited nearly 10 years after Jerry’s passing, but I truly applaud their decision. Mind boggling that exactly 50 years since the release of his first hit — “Tupelo Mississippi Flash” — Jerry is belatedly recognized.

Let’s face it, there are a lot of people who aren’t in there that should be. Why the hell is Dottie West not in there? She was one of the first “stars” to extend her wonderful hospitality to us. We were treated like family. We spent a lot of time at her house — great lady! [West’s towering discography consists of 46 Top 40 country singles between 1963 and 1984 including chart toppers “A Lesson in Leavin’” and “Are We Happy Baby?”].

I don’t know that Exile will ever be in the Country Music Hall of Fame. If we’re not, it doesn’t really bother me because there’s a lot of other people a lot more deserving than we are that were around a lot longer that still aren’t in. I don’t know the voting criteria. It’s not a subject that Exile really talks about that much — we don’t consider it a possibility. Life’s not fair, and the music business is not fair sometimes. That’s the way it goes.

On July 29, 1988, 51-year-old Jerry Reed solos with abandon on a Fender Telecaster electric guitar at the Clark County Fair in Springfield, Ohio. Image Credit: Photography by Kim Griffin / Courtesy of Marlon Hargis

Is there anything about Jerry that I neglected to ask that you’d like to address?

It was a very pleasurable experience. It was a great band, great players. It was a perfect gig to have after leaving Exile because it was something totally different.

There was no particular pressure. I wasn’t making business decisions about what songs to tackle in the studio or worrying about getting a record on the chart that week. I was strictly a sideman. It was nice to go in and simply play with like-minded musicians.

This will stand as your most in-depth interview exploring the Guitar Man.

Oh yes. Most people really aren’t that interested or even aware that I played with Jerry. It’s actually very gratifying to look back. This has been one of my favorite interviews. Believe me, I’ve done a lot.

Just on YouTube Jerry’s musical craftsmanship is evident with millions of brand new listeners discovering his unparalleled artistry, particularly his mastery of the guitar.

His reputation as a player is probably better now than it was in the last decade of his life. Which is good, because he definitely deserves the recognition. Reed is often overlooked as a great guitarist by the public — within the industry he’s not. People like Tommy Emmanuel and Thom Bresh idolize Reed and Chet Atkins.

I don’t think the majority of folks realized what they were seeing when I was in Jerry’s band. They were there for Jerry Reed the movie star. I was blessed to work with one of the top 10 guitar players that ever lived. It was very cool.

On July 24, 1970, right smack during the countrypolitan-embracing “Georgia Sunshine’s” ascension to Top 20 country status, a scarf-sporting, heavily sideburned Jerry Reed intently concentrates on a lightning speed acoustic guitar riff. Image Credit: Photography by Doug McKenzie / Getty Images

© Jeremy L. Roberts, 2017. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed in full without express prior permission of the author. Do not copy or paste the article text — instead share the URL or headlines with links. Thank you.

Jeremy Roberts

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Retro pop culture interviews & lovin’ something fierce sustain this University of Georgia Master of Agricultural Leadership alum. Email: jeremylr@windstream.net

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