Jerry Reed, Toppin' Cotton

By Paul Rigg

Many people know Jerry Reed as Burt Reynolds’ side-kick in Smokey and the Bandit, but guitar players know him as one of the best finger-pickers who ever lived.   

One proof of that came in 1967 when Reed, who was fishing at the time, got a call from Felton Jarvis (then Elvis Presley's producer at RCA Victor) asking him if he could come into the studio because none of the King’s session musicians could play what he wanted. Specifically Presley was covering Reed’s Guitar Man, but was becoming increasingly frustrated.

As Reed tells it: “He feel in love with Guitar Man and came to Nashville to try and record it, but he kept telling the producer ‘I want it to sound like Reed’s record’, and he replied ‘well, then you gotta get Reed in here […] So I went there and gave him my intro and, boy, his face lit up! One of my proudest moments was sitting there watching Elvis Presley – who was the prettiest man I’ve ever seen [to the point where] I thought ‘I’ve been born wrong, there’s something wrong’ - singing my song. I almost tore the strings off that guitar!”


Reed recalls that the guitarists in the studio were ‘straight pickers’, whereas he used an entirely different technique - and sometimes invented new methods such as that used in ‘the Claw’ – and also used to ‘tune the guitar up in all weird kinds of ways.'

Years later Reed described his special feelings about that moment, in his own unique way, by exclaiming: “I was toppin' cotton, son!"

Shortly after Jerry Reed Hubbard was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on 20 March, 1937, his parents Robert and Cynthia separated. While he did visit his grandparents from time to time, when his mother got into difficulties, Reed was forced to go into foster care and orphanages, where he spent most of his early years. His drive and passion however were not blunted by what many would regard as a difficult start in life. "I am gonna be a star. I'm gonna go to
Nashville and be a star," he would say from an early age.


In one interview he recalls that when he was five years old he used to sit on a stove wood-pile and extract a piece of kindling to use as a guitar pick, and fantasise. “I put on the grandest show you’ve ever seen on the Grand Ole Opry,” he said, “and when I got through picking they were throwing babies up in the air” [laughs].

Reed was reunited with his mother in 1944 and was soon playing guitar, writing and singing music. At 18, he was spotted by producer Bill Lowery and cut his first disc: If the Good Lord's Willing and the Creek Don't Rise.

In the late 1950’s Reed began to gain some attention in country and rockabilly circles, especially when in 1958 Gene Vincent covered his song Crazy Legs. The following year he scraped the charts with Soldier's Joy, which also coincided with him enlisting in the army for two years. Later he was to commit a lot of his time to raising money for US war veterans and, as he said towards the end of his life, it was a formative period: I’ve been in hit movies, I’ve had hit records, I’ve written hit songs, I’ve got the ‘people’s award for the best supporting actor, - the Lord has blessed my life - but I’ll tell you right now, looking back, I’m prouder of the fact that I gave two years of my life to my country than any of that other stuff. I mean that, I mean that with all my heart.”


In 1961 Reed moved to Nashville and eventually had a stroke of good luck when a couple of his tunes, Hully Gully Guitar and
Goodnight Irene, found their way to the ears of Chet Atkins, who later produced Reed's 1965 release If I Don't Live Up to It.

Atkins was Reed’s hero, but he also played an essential role in Reed’s rise to success. “If it wasn’t for Chet Atkins there’d be no Jerry Reed,” he explained in one interview. “People had been trying to record me for 13 years and nothing was happening, but […] one day he said ‘come over here and let me record you because they don’t know how’, so I did and, man, the rest is history. He said ‘I bet you’ll have a hit record’ and bang! it started happening ... It all led back to Chet Atkins.”

As 1968 began, Presley asked Reed to work with him again after the success of Guitar Man, this time on a cover of
Chuck Berry's Too Much Monkey Business, some music for Presley's latest film, and Reed’s own composition, US Male. In total Presley recorded four of Reed’s songs, including the classic A Thing Called Love, which a few years later was made even more famous by Johnny Cash.


In 1970 Reed mixed country, rock, funk, and Cajun to produce the hilarious and impacting Amos Moses, which reached number 8 on the US Billboard chart. Amos was just a fun experience, it was a piece of imagination along with some truisms,” he later explained. “The second verse in there really happened to a fellow who is in the same business I am, named Freddy Hart, whose daddy used to tie a rope around his waist and throw him in the swamp and one hour later he’d jerk him in the boat and knock the alligator’s jaw out – I enjoy singing that because I know that actually happened.” As Reed put it in his song: When Amos Moses was a boy, His daddy would use him for alligator bait.”

Reed was a very modest man who described his voice as being “like a bandsaw.” However Amos Moses is one very good example of how he used his prodigious talents to strongly communicate his vision to people. “I can sing but I’m not a trained singer, I don’t stand erect and use the pipes […] I’m a story teller. You need to cross the groove and touch people – you don’t have to be a great singer, you have to be a real singer, and I’m one of them.”

Another ‘story-song’ that gave him a big hit around this time was When You're Hot, You're Hot, which relates the tale of a dice man, a police raid, and a judge who is said to be a friend, but who nevertheless sends him to jail. The public warmed to the song, and it earned him a Grammy.


In 1973, Reed had his second number one single with Lord, Mr. Ford, but at this time his interests were moving towards acting. A role in a Scooby-Doo movie led to work alongside Burt Reynolds, with 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit helping Reed achieve another hit with East Bound and Down.
In 1978 Reed recorded another version of Guitar Man (see the accompanying video) on which he plays a Baldwin 801CP electric classical guitar, with its striking cutaway.

As the 1980s dawned Reed had a couple of hits with She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft) and The Bird, and toured, but these moments were interspersed with TV shows and films such as the Survivors with Robin Williams and Walter Matthau. He briefly collaborated with country stars Waylon Jennings, Mel Tillis, and Bobby Bare in the group Old Dogs, and they released an eponymous album in 1998. In the 2000’s his music was exposed to an entirely new generation of listeners as it was employed in Grand Theft Auto video games. 


Reed had married country singer Priscilla Mitchell on 9 July, 1959, and they had two daughters who also became country singers. Despite his star status across multiple media he never was interested in the Hollywood high-life, preferring a pickup truck to a porsche. His one obvious vice was his heavy smoking habit, which sadly may have contributed towards his relatively early death from emphysema, on 1 September 2008, at the age of 71.

Aside from his film and TV career, Reed produced 35 albums, plus soundtracks and collaborations, wrote many hit songs, and developed his own signature sound. Respected by generations of musicians, Reed was an amazing talent and, by all accounts, a grounded and approachable man. “God sent me to this planet with a car-load of desire…” he once said, “and an indescribable passion for music and guitar.”