Nashville drummer Ric McClure conjures hot licks with kick-ass picker Jerry Reed
A world without Jerry Reed is decidedly less cheerful. Nine years after the charismatic entertainer succumbed to emphysema complications at age 71 in the Nashville suburb of Brentwood, drummer Ric McClure exclusively grants his most expansive conversation yet about the guitar-endorsing employer who became a trusted mentor and buddy.
During their 1981–1989 tenure, the future bandleader and co-road manager breathed fresh life into onstage renderings of the “East Bound and Down” troubadour’s final triad of hits cut at Muscle Shoals — acrimonious lyrics blended with the musically upbeat “She Got the Goldmine [I Got the Shaft],” the blatant novelty of “The Bird,” a sauntering hoedown cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Down on the Corner” — and actually corresponded by transatlantic phone while the Country Music Hall of Famer was ensconced in the sweltering jungles of Malaysia executive producing and costarring in the Vietnam War rescue drama Bat*21 with Gene Hackman and Danny Glover.
Influenced heavily by Reed’s earlier powerhouse drummer Larrie Londin, in the ensuing decades McClure kept the backbeat swingin’ steadily alongside other notable country talents like Trisha Yearwood, Connie Smith, Joe Diffie, and Exile. Besides perennial session work, McClure is currently touring with Lorrie Morgan, plays seasonally with Elvis Presley tribute artist John Beardsley [the Nashville King], and can be seen on CMT’s acclaimed Nashville drama as a member of recovering alcoholic Deacon Claybourne’s band. Hang tight as McClure recalls a nonstop audition unlike no other and much more for the guitar slinger who preferred to just claw for awhile. Hot a’ mighty!
The Ric McClure / Jerry Reed Interview
Who was the first artist that you played with in Nashville?
Before I moved to Nashville, I had done session work and worked clubs full-time in Lexington. Not a whole lot of sessions, but enough to know what I was doing. It was a great training ground in Eastern Kentucky. You had singer-songwriter Larry Cordle, Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, J.D. Crowe, Exile — all these great musicians in and around Lexington who were like my big brothers. I was right in the middle of all that. We all arrived in Nashville about the same time in the early ’80s. Of course, my parents, Jim and Mickie [Ball] McClure, along with my sister Melanie were also very supportive of me from an early age and eventually all met Jerry a few times.
There was a country singer by the name of Margo Smith [Author’s Note: The Tennessee Yodeler accumulated 15 Top 40 C&W Billboard singles between 1975 and 1981. “Don’t Break the Heart That Loves You” and “It Only Hurts for a Little While” both vaulted to number one in 1978].
I got the original contact for Margo from a great friend of mine named Jimmie Lee Sloas. He arranged for me to travel from Lexington to Nashville at the end of 1980 and audition for Margo. Jimmie went on to play with the Imperials and a bunch of other artists. He’s a great bass player, singer, writer, and producer from the same part of Eastern Kentucky as I am. Anyway, Margo hired me, and I worked for her about six or eight months.
How did you learn that Jerry Reed was searching for a drummer?
Jerry temporarily retired from the road between late 1979 and 1981. He disbanded his live group to concentrate on movies like Smokey and the Bandit II and television shows such as Concrete Cowboys. He did keep cutting new studio material, so maybe he was simply tired of touring.
In the summer of 1981 Jerry decided to get back on the road, so he started auditions for the Thompson Station Congregation, a cool name he gave us. He owned some property in Thompson Station, Tennessee, which is just south of Franklin in the Nashville area. We had our own band house there. We stopped using the TSC moniker in the late ’80s after Jerry sold that property.
A former girlfriend I had dated named Shaun just happened to be a part-time receptionist at Jerry’s office during the day. I hadn’t heard from her in several months. Just out of the blue she called and said, “Jerry Reed is auditioning drummers this week, and I thought of you. Would you be interested in auditioning?” “Of course” [laughs].
I’ve always loved Jerry’s music, going back to my teenage years in Eastern Kentucky when the tongue in cheek Elvis homage “Tupelo Mississippi Flash,” “Guitar Man,” “U.S. Male,” “Amos Moses,” “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot,” and “Amos Moses” were brand new.
They were unlike anything I’d ever heard out of Nashville, totally different than any other country music that was being played. I practiced to those singles and their accompanying LP’s with and without headphones. I had no idea I would wind up working with the man himself many years later.
Shaun thought enough of me even after having not dated for at least a year. Otherwise I would have never heard about the job until it was already filled. She was my initial contact and the reason I landed the audition.
Shaun was a pretty brunette from Ireland possessing a strong Irish accent. I don’t recall her last name. I briefly saw her when I came by Jerry’s office, and that was it. I don’t know whatever happened to Shaun, but I’ll always appreciate her kindness.
Over a three day period Jerry auditioned somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 drummers at his office down on Music Row — 18th Avenue South. I didn’t have much preparation time, only two days at the most. All I could do was listen to my Reed record collection at my little apartment on Harding Place on the south side of Nashville.
I came in on the last day and was the first guy there at 9 a.m. in the morning. Interestingly enough, it was just me and Jerry in the rehearsal space. He was sitting in a chair in front of the four-piece drum kit that actually had been a gift to him from Larrie Londin, who played with Reed on many RCA Victor studio sessions in Nashville [starting in December 1969 on the Cookin’ album] and joined his road band in the early ‘70s.
Jerry just started jamming. He said, “Play along with me here, son.” So we played for a minute or two — a blues, funky, rock, swamp, greasy groove that only Reed could do. After we jammed a little bit, the first song we tried was “Amos Moses.” I get a little chill whenever I tell the story as I knew that song inside and out.
We played “Guitar Man” next. Along about that time bass player Dave Roe wandered into the studio and joined us. The third tune was likely a cover of Ray Charles’ iconic rendering of “Georgia on My Mind” [Jerry Reed Explores Guitar Country, 1969]. Jerry wanted to hear how I played a softer ballad.
Jerry was going through a George Benson smooth R&B phase, so we tried a soulful Benson groove-type number. Jerry didn’t play country music, not in the strictest sense [laughs]. He had his own distinctive style. It was a hybrid of R&B, blues, gospel, country, bluegrass, rockabilly, rock — kinda like Elvis. Both those guys were pioneers in their appreciation for diverse musical styles. There’s so many things that intertwine between Jerry and Elvis.
We did the gospel rave-up “Talk About the Good Times,” which we rarely performed live, and possibly “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot.” After I had finished, Jerry said, “Son, why don’t you hang around? I’ve got another drummer coming in here soon that I wanna hear.” Unbeknownst to me he had six or seven other drummers coming in that day [laughs].
In the downtime after each successive guy finished his audition and was sent home with a farewell saying that he’d call them back if he needed them, Jerry and I would start jamming. This went on all day until around 5 p.m. The more I played, the stronger our musical bond grew and the more confident I became. Jerry actually told me, “Son, your kick, foot, and bass drum playing remind me a lot of Larrie Londin.” Larrie was a big influence on my drumming.
I wound up being both the first and last guy that Jerry played with during the auditions. Chet Atkins, Ray Stevens, and Bobby Bare all showed up in Jerry’s office at the end of the auditions and jammed with me and the full band. That was pretty cool. They all knew that Jerry was putting his ’80s band together.
Jerry told me, “Son, go on home, and I’ll let you know something tonight or tomorrow.” My phone rang that night about 8 o’clock. As only Reed could say, “Son, what size jeans do you wear? I’m gonna hire you” [laughs]. I’ll always remember that. Back then I wore a 32” size pair of jeans, but I don’t wear a 32” anymore. I can promise you that [laughs]. I’ve gained a few pounds. I turned 60 this past April.
Nabbing the Reed gig was the defining moment of my career in Nashville, and I was only 24 years old. I’ve been really, really blessed ever since. Incidentally, I replaced Paul Cook, a fantastic drummer in Reed’s late ’70s band. He’s on Reed’s Half Singin’ and Half Pickin’ album , among others.
Reed eventually hired an additional guitarist named Kerry Marx and some other musicians after I joined. Percussionist Mike Wyatt and I were the youngest members. Mike was roughly the same age as myself. I was proud to be a part of Jerry’s band through April 1989 and still am. The eighties was a wonderful decade for me.
Have you ever had another audition resembling what you just told me?
No, that Reed audition was unlike any other. He was so creative and a brilliant thinker — musically he was something else. Typically you go in, play three or four songs, and the artist’s management calls you later if you secure the spot. Most of the time that worked out perfectly for me.
A notable audition that I failed was for Reba McEntire in 1988. Some of the band I auditioned with may have been on the plane that tragically went down a few years later. Thankfully, it was not meant for me to work with Reba [Author’s Note: Crashing into the side of Otay Mountain near San Diego, California, seven band members, tour manager Jim Hammon, and both pilots lost their lives on March 16, 1991, while aboard a twin-engine executive jetliner en route to another gig in Fort Wayne, Indiana. McEntire, former husband-manager Narvel Blackstock, and makeup stylist Sandi Spika fortuitously spent the night in San Diego].
Some of the artists I’ve worked with have just been on the strength of a recommendation, or they heard me play previously with other artists. When you say you spent nine years with Jerry Reed, that’s really all you have to say because he was such a musician’s musician. He was brilliant, and I sure miss him.
Was there a sit-down summit when you told Margo Smith that you were jumping ship to Reed’s band?
I called Margo’s then-band leader Bill Cook, a good friend of mine whom I’m working with now on a lot of live stuff, and gave her a month’s notice that I was leaving the band. He totally understood, but then Margo called and said I was making a bad mistake [laughs].
It was a very odd, awkward conversation because she was upset at me and did not think my explanation for leaving made any sense. Looking back, I find it interesting. You’ve got Margo Smith or Jerry Reed. Let’s see. Let me think about this for a second. I’m sorry [laughs]. Reed was still at his peak in the early ’80s. Obviously it’s all water under the bridge and doesn’t matter now.
I was only in Margo’s band for six or eight months, but it was a good gig. I give her a bunch of credit. She got me established in Nashville. Margo understandably got upset because I left. Reed was a better opportunity — a huge opportunity. His influence was tremendous on my musical development.
I’d barely heard of Margo Smith — she had a handful of country hits in the late ’70s. It was a no-brainer when Shaun called and asked if I would like to audition for Reed. I said, “Absolutely.” I’m glad everything worked out.
Did you have other responsibilities besides drumming with Reed?
Yes. I went from being Jerry’s drummer to being his bandleader, co-road manager, and confidant. I helped collect the money from gigs for a year or two in the late ’80s with Reed’s bus driver, Jerry Henderson. My friend Mike West was helping road manage and advance the dates at that time. I helped Jerry make decisions about the band, set up rehearsals, auditions — the whole gamut over a nine year period. You might say I did not have many dull moments with Reed [laughs].
How much touring did you do with Reed?
Jerry worked anywhere from 120 to 150 dates annually. I don’t recall ever feeling like we were working too much. Of course he would tackle Hollywood regularly, and we would take a couple of months off. It was always slow in the wintertime, but spring, summer, and fall kept us busy.
A typical tour schedule was mainly weekends or three and four-day runs. We might leave on a Wednesday night and come home on a Monday morning. There were a few runs in the summertime where we would be gone for weeks at a time. On one tour we went out to the West Coast — Montana, Washington, California — and spent a month on the road.
I spent a couple of weeks overseas on a USO tour with Jerry, although my first time traveling abroad was with Margo. We left the day after Christmas 1981 and spent New Year’s Eve in Ansbach, Germany. It was in the middle of winter, and there was snow everywhere. We still had a bunch of fun all over that great country in cities like Frankfurt, Wiesbaden, and Stuttgart.
Man, did the troops go nuts when he walked onstage. It was like Elvis. In the early to mid-’80s Jerry still looked great and had charisma and definitely presence. You could see that in his movies and television appearances.
Years later I would go to Europe and Australia with Trisha Yearwood. I played in Scandinavia, Holland, and Norway with Connie Smith more recently. There’s some YouTube footage circulating of several shows from Reed’s Germany tour. There’s also some audio of us at Gilley’s in Pasadena, Texas, and Billy Bob’s Texas.
Jerry played the Sorghum Festival in September of 1982 in my hometown of West Liberty, a small town about an hour east of Lexington. The city leaders asked me to approach Jerry and see if he would consider doing the festival.
I was doubtful that Jerry would agree to such a thing since his booking fee was $25 or $30 grand a night. I remember reading the contracts. All I could tell them was, “Well, I’ll ask him.” Without much hesitation, Jerry replied, “Sure son, I’d be glad to come to your hometown. Tell ’em I’ll work out a price with ‘em.”
Guess how much he charged to play my hometown? Only $5,000. Jerry didn’t have to do that, but he did. All of my family was there. It was unbelievable. We were grand marshals in the parade that day [laughs]. He loved it. They still talk about his appearance as it was a pretty big deal.
Jerry was still rockin’ then, and the band was burnin’, too. We were kick-ass. By the time I took over helping Jerry road manage and collect the money he was down to about $10 or $15K per appearance. During my nine years with Reed I saw him at his peak musically and popularity-wise. By 1988 and 1989 I witnessed his career starting to wane — he was no longer on a record label and radio was not playing him.
What about recording sessions?
We did a bunch of recording with him, although it wasn’t necessarily destined for album or single release. My first involvement with Reed in the studio was in Hollywood. We’d go out to L.A. two to three times a year in the early ’80s via plane or our customized bus. Jerry was more Hollywood and movie-oriented then than he was Nashville, although he obviously still had the RCA Victor connections with Chet Atkins and Nashville.
The music countdown series Solid Gold, hosted by Marilyn McCoo of the 5th Dimension, was a big deal. The day before we made a Solid Gold appearance, we would pre-record the track as the producer requested that bands not perform instrumentation live.
Jerry always used the Thompson Station Congregation. He didn’t wanna use the studio tracks from the original records or L.A. session guys. We knew what he liked musically-speaking. Obviously, West Coast studio guys could have done it, but we had rehearsed and rehearsed.
Jerry would sing live on Solid Gold, and we mimed to the pre-recorded track we’d just cut. Solid Gold was the first time I worked in a studio setting with Reed. Most of our Solid Gold performances are on YouTube.
In 1981 or 1982 we did a four-track demo project at steel guitar ace Pete Drake’s studio on Music Row for Jerry’s eldest daughter Seidina Reed. Jerry, manager Frank Rogers, and some others pitched the project to try and secure Seidina a record deal. Nothing ever happened, but maybe Seidina got close. It just wound up being on a demo cassette and later a CD. I still have the cassette version. It was never commercially released.
Jerry played guitar on the session. The four songs are really, really good. Ironically and coincidentally, one of the tunes was called “He Gives Me Diamonds, You Give Me Chills,” which was originally cut by Margo and distributed as an A-side [No. 52 C&W, September 1980, also the title cut of Smith’s seventh studio album on Warner Bros.].
Decades later I finally got to work on another studio project with Seidina that did see distribution in 2015 — the 13-song Today Is Mine: A Tribute to My Father, Jerry Reed. Lorrie Morgan, who I joined officially in 2012, sings harmony on three tunes featured on that record. “Misery Loves Company,” originally a hit for Porter Wagoner when Jerry was still a struggling artist-songwriter, is a stand-out performance. I am especially proud to have been a part of Today Is Mine. Seidina, along with everyone involved, did a great job.
We did the soundtrack for the big Jerry Reed and Special Friends syndicated television special [October 1982], a celebrity-laden picnic and concert held at Hermitage Landing in Nashville. We cut all those tracks in Nashville at RCA. I was part of Austin City Limits with Jerry twice, which was always a thrill.
In the spell between Jerry being dropped by RCA Victor and his signing with Capitol, we cut an extremely rare, never mastered for CD or MP3 album called My Best to You  at Young ‘Un Sound on Music Row with producer-guitarist Chip Young. He was a great guy and longtime pal of Jerry’s.
My Best to You contains 12 re-recordings of Reed’s greatest hits and a few deep cuts added for good measure [“Long Gone,” “You Can’t Keep Me Here in Tennessee,” and “Home Sweet Home”].
We worked with Chip again at Young ‘Un Sound on Jerry’s debut LP for Capitol, the What Comes Around soundtrack . I have no idea why Thompson Station Congregation wasn’t part of Jerry’s second and ultimately final album for Capitol, Lookin’ at You , which had “When You Got a Good Woman It Shows” and a cover of Jim Stafford’s “You Can’t Get the Hell Out of Texas.”
None of the four singles from those records got any radio play, and Capitol released Jerry from his contract before 1986 was over. The Young ‘Un Sound building is still standing, but Chip sold the studio many years ago.
We were not on the Rick Hall-produced sessions in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, that provided Jerry with his comeback hits “She Got the Goldmine, I Got the Shaft,” “The Bird,” and “Down on the Corner” [held intermittently between July 1981 and January 1983, three albums — The Man with the Golden Thumb, The Bird, and Ready — tastefully concluded Reed’s stint on RCA Victor]. I understand why Rick opted not to use us. Sometimes songwriters and producers are most comfortable with their crew.
What did Thompson Station Congregation do while Reed was making films?
Jerry was a really exceptional, charismatic actor. He worked on four movies during the ’80s and a few guest spots on television shows [e.g. Mama’s Family and Dolly Parton’s short-lived variety series entitled Dolly] while I was in the band.
He was in Smokey and the Bandit Part 3 and a comedy-drama with Walter Matthau and Robin Williams called The Survivors [both 1983], which is a great movie. He also executive produced, directed, and starred in the little seen What Comes Around . All of the band was involved in What Comes Around , from recording the soundtrack to appearing in the movie. I know that we were all on salary during those first three movies.
I was his bandleader when he was costarring and executive producing Bat*21  with Gene Hackman and Danny Glover. Jerry would call me from the jungles of Malaysia [laughs]. I talked to him on three or four separate occasions where he would give me directions on what to do with the band, what he wanted us to rehearse, how the band was doing, and so forth. There would be this long delay, he would ask a question, I would reply, and then another delay of a few seconds. It was weird, man.
We tried to rehearse a couple of times a month while he was gone. Reed was overseas about three months filming Bat*21. I can’t remember if he kept us all on salary or not for Bat*21. He did me. I was on salary right until I left in April 1989. Just overall I had a really wonderful experience with him.
What convinced you to go on the record with me?
I was bandleader in 1988 when Marlon Hargis, the longtime keyboardist for Exile, and I worked together for about a year and a half on the road with Reed. Your [June 2017] expansive interview with Marlon, “Exile Keyboardist Marlon Hargis Applauds Phenomenal Six String Slinger Jerry Reed,” convinced me to do this story, along with my good friend and Christian brother Darrell Toney of Terry Blackwood & the Imperials.
Darrell was right there with us in the early ’80s. He was not in the band, but he’s just a Reed aficionado who became good friends of the band and Jerry. A very, very talented singer and acoustic guitarist. I played on the Imperials’ 2016 record, The Journey, which contains a version of Reed’s “Talk About the Good Times” which Elvis covered at Memphis’s Stax Records in 1973.
Since you joined Lorrie Morgan’s band in 2012, what else are you currently pursuing career-wise?
When I am not on tour or playing Grand Ole Opry dates with Lorrie, I work at Opryland with John Beardsley. Nicknamed the “Nashville King,” John performs a fantastic Elvis tribute show and has a great band. It’s a two-hour musical journey starting with early Elvis and ending up with the show-stopper “An American Trilogy” from the record-shattering Aloha from Hawaii 1973 satellite telecast.
John has been doing the show in Nashville since 2000. I joined him on drums and occasional harmonies in 2008. It’s a seasonal show — April through October — done on Mondays and sometimes Thursday nights.
In July I recorded Darrell Toney’s upcoming solo album — scheduled to drop in January 2018 — along with special guest and fellow guitar icon James Burton. About half original material and half covers, Darrell even resuscitated two fairly obscure Reed tunes — Love Is a Stranger to Me” [Ko-Ko Joe, 1971] and “Lightning Rod” [Mind Your Love, 1975].
I do studio and live work around Nashville. I join the WSM staff band on occasion and also appear on CMT’s Nashville drama series [formerly on ABC]. So I stay busy doing what I love to do.
I am proud to be a part of the Annual Jerry Reed Celebration concert which has occurred at 3rd & Lindsley in Nashville since 2012. He was one of the most talented men I’ve ever known in my entire life. I loved Jerry, and we all still do.
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