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Jerry Brightman Interview

Jerry Brightman

The following interview by Jan Jones appeared in the "Steel Guitar Rag" in 2005.

SGR: Jerry, welcome to the Steel Guitar Rag.

Jerry: Thank you, Jan! I’m looking forward to doing this.

SGR: What got you interested in the steel guitar?

Jerry: That’s a question I’m often asked. The best I can remember, my parents wanted me to play an instrument when I was six years old. They really wanted me to play it for an educational, enrichment, character thing. They wanted me to play piano. I knew at six years old, this was sissy stuff. I mean that will get you beatup at school. So, I said I wanted to play guitar. At that time, Elvis was big, and they just couldn’t see their son jumping around in a leather suit. When they said, "Guitar," I said, "No-no, this kind," and I made my hand like the bar movement. So the only thing we can figure out that influenced me was Buddy Merrill and Alvino Rey. Alvino was on a show called the King Family, and, of course, Buddy Merrill was with Lawrence Welk.

My dad worked with a guy who had a little lap steel in his attic that had 6 strings. He gave it to my dad, and that’s when I started playing steel guitar. I started noodling around with it, and they found a guy who could give me lessons. He came out one night and said, "I can’t help your boy." They said, "Is he not interested?" He said, " No! It’s a good story. Here’s what he’s doing. We go over the next lesson the last ten minutes of the lesson, and I go over what I want him to learn for the next week. What I caught him doing is memorizing it. And he’s memorizing it in that ten minutes. He’s got a gift, and I think you need to get him some help." We struggled and went around and around, and there just wasn’t anybody. So I ended up with another guy, and I took lessons there for probably six months, and I was about 8 years old by then. I got a pedal steel, which was a Fender 400. I started playing by ear. My mom and dad would buy any record they could get their hands on. We didn’t know a lot of records to buy at that time. I’ll never forget. A friend of my dad’s said, "You need to get him some Ernest Tubb records." And my dad said, "Ernest Tubb! What kind of talent is that?" He said, "I’m telling you; it’s his band!" My dad brought that record home, and we put it on that old stereo, and I heard Buddy do those kickoffs. I died and went to heaven. That was real steel guitar like I never heard it before. That just energized me to really get with it then and start practicing. That’s my story of how I started playing steel guitar.

SGR: When did you first start playing out?

Jerry: The first time I ever played in a bar, I was ten years old. There was a guy who had a Multikord. My dad was my best promoter. He never allowed me to be shy, and he embarrassed me sometimes. Without him, I would have never gotten the opportunity to get to where I got to. He talked to the band and said, "My boy plays steel guitar." They said, "He does! How old is he?" My dad said, "He’s ten years old!" So the steel guitar player started talking to me and asked me if I knew any country songs. I didn’t know if it was country or not but told him I could play Steel Guitar Rag in E. So I got up there just as proud as punch and played Steel Guitar Rag with my first hillbilly band. That’s how I got hooked. People come up and clap for you. That was pretty neat for a ten year old.

A couple years had rolled by, and I had gotten a Sho-Bud. I actually started playing in clubs when I was twelve, playing on Friday and Saturday nights. My parents had a rule. No weeknights and no playing Sunday because of school. I just kept practicing and being around things that I could learn from. The interesting thing that happened to me was, there was a place called Ponderosa Park. Anybody that had traveled with a country band and had played it remembered it. It was in Salem, Ohio. I was thirteen and had played over there with a band. The next thing I know, I was getting asked by all these bands if I would play with them. So I ended up playing there almost every Sunday. It was a great learning ground for me. That’s where I met all out heroes of today, John Hughey, Russ Hicks, Bob Hempker, Jimmy Crawford, all these guys that toured. They saw me as a small boy, and I’m sure I was a pest, but I would ask any question I could think of to ask. I would sit there and watch them play and learn everything I could learn.

I played there until I was sixteen years old. I got a call from a guy named Ned Davis who played with ????(Jerry...I could not make out his name). Ned played in the staff band at the Wheeling Jamboree. In 1967, we went to the Jamboree as fans. There were two players that had a great deal of influence on me at that time. One was Smiley Roberts who played in the staff band, and the other was Jimmy Murphy. I thought I had my share of all the steel guitar I could stand. The headliner that night was Connie Smith. Dicky Overby was playing with her. I’ll Come Running had just come out. She turned around and Dicky spit notes out like machine gun bullets. That was the fastest I had ever heard anyone play steel guitar in all my life. I have to give those guys credit for having an influence over me as far as the live exposure of actually seeing and physically seeing steel guitar played.

Lloyd Green was recording and releasing so many albums at that time. I was buying those and trying to learn everything that I could.

I was sixteen years old, and they asked me if I would play in the staff band at the Wheeling Jamboree. At that time, it was in its heyday. They claim it was second only to the Grand Ole Opry. So I went, and they started playing. Being there with people like Lynn Anderson and some of these other acts that didn’t have their own band, we’d be the band. They had people like Dick Curless, who were members of the Jamboree. So they had some pretty good talent there.

I graduated from high school and went to one semester of college. I told my folks, "Look, I’m not getting anything out of this. I’m getting passing grades, but my heart is not in it." Of course, they knew where I was heading.

So I had moved to Wheeling. Every Saturday night they had a major country act. Buck Owens had come in, and that’s where I got my break. I had had some other offers for others act, but I don’t know what it was. There was something in me that said, "I don’t want to travel on a bus. This don’t seem like any way to do it." When the Owen’s gig came up, that’s when I knew I had hit the homerun, and that was the gig that any steel player would die to have.

SGR: There were some guys that came before you like JD Maness, Tom Brumley and Ralph Mooney for a brief period, wasn’t he?

Jerry: As far as I’ve been able to tell, Ralph never actually traveled with Buck. He just recorded with Buck in the early days. Then in 1966, Tom came along, and they cut Together Again. That was the launching of Tom’s credentials and career as a steel guitar player. Tom left in 1969, and JD came on for about a year. Buck went two or three years without having a steel guitar player because he kind of went that way, I hesitate to call it bluegrass route. He released the album Ruby. He hired a guy named Ronnie Jackson that played banjo. Buck was always on the front edge of trying different things. Then in 1972, I went with him. Buck had decided to go back and try the music that had launched his career. Boy, you talk about being at the right place at the right time. I got to record Palm Of Your Hand, Ain’t It Amazing Gracie, the Live at the White House album and got a chance to record a lot of hits with him.

SGR: That had to be a great time in your life.

Jerry: I was eighteen years old and thought I knew everything about the world; thought I could play and after a couple of months I realized this is a whole different game. I struggled with it for a while. The first time we taped Hee Haw(1972), all these big stars walking around, saying hi and paying attention to you, it honestly spooked me. People like Charlie McCoy, Leon Rhodes, Curly Chalker, and all those guys in the staff band. It just really caught me.

SGR: How long did you do Hee Haw?

Jerry: I did it from 72 to the end of 76. After I left the band, Buck disbanded for a while, and he called and asked if I would come down and tape 13 shows of Hee Haw with him. So I went down and did another series when I was not a member of the band.

I quit playing in 1976. I knew if I wanted to have a family, this road and music life was not conducive to that. I became a producer in Illinois and ended up being on the board of directors for an auditorium that had just been built. They wanted to do all kinds of shows, but their main forte was country music. I booked the acts. A gentleman by the name of Glenn Reeves, who was the general manager of the Wheeling Jamboree at the time, ran the Jamboree when I was in the staff band. Glenn said he had something he wanted to talk with me about and asked me to fly down. I flew down, and he told me of his plans for Jamboree In The Hills. In 1977, we got 20 of the biggest acts in country music to do a 2-day country music festival. Glenn handled the business end, and they hired me to stage it, running it, setting up times, who’s coming in and all that. Glenn left in 1979, and I became the general manager and stayed till 1982.

After 1982, I lost all contact with the music business. Twenty-three years later after I worked corporate life where I was an outside field engineer. I sold ball bearings for a living. I woke up one day and said, "I don’t want to do this anymore." Why? I don’t know. That might not have been the most correct thing to do, but I had a pretty good retirement, and I decided I wanted to start playing steel guitar again. On New Years Day 2001, I talked with my wife about starting to play again, and she gave me all the encouragement I needed, and that’s when I started playing steel guitar shows.

SGR: Jerry, what are you doing now?

Jerry: I average doing 2 to 3 sessions a week and play with a band here in Akron. I love what I’m doing. I’m making a living playing steel guitar. Am I playing with national acts?  No! I don’t want to play with a national act. I have no desire to do that. I’ve been called and some of it is pretty big money. I don’t want to travel away from home. I’m a homebody. I love doing steel shows. I get to go out for a couple days and see friends and have fun playing music.

The next platform is I’ve started manufacturing steel guitars. Now, a lot of people are saying "Why." This whole thing continues. Continues to promote this instrument. I don’t care what brand of instrument you play. That really doesn’t matter to me. From a business sense, I want you to play mine, but from a promotional standpoint, I don’t care. Just play it. Ask questions. Get out here and get some young guys involved in this again. This was the reason for the seminar that Russ and I did at the last Superjam. It was a volunteer thing. We didn’t get paid to do it. We did it because Derek Duplessie, Brett Day and some of these other guys that might have questions that they might not be comfortable asking.

SGR: Tell us about the equipment you have used through the years.

Jerry: I started off with the 6-string steel that my dad’s friend had. I eventually got a Fender 6-string Deluxe. Bought it brand new for 150 bucks. Still have it. The first pedal steel I owned was a Fender 400. I probably used that for two or three years. The big boys were playing Sho-Bud, so I got me one of them. In 1973, I made the transition to play Emmons guitars. I played those throughout my career with Buck. After I started back, I had an Emmons for a while. I played a Derby for a year, and the obvious reason I no longer play Derby, and I love Charlie Stepp to death, is I’m building my own guitar. I have endorsements with Peavey, Walker Seats, Jagwire Strings and BJS Bars. I don’t change equipment a lot. I know a lot of guys like to try different things, and I’m not opposed to that either but pretty sensitive about what I put my name on.

SGR: What about effects?

Jerry: I’ve tried all kinds of effects. I had the rack mount stuff where you had everything in one box, and you could just unplug it and go. I’m using
Boss pedals, typically called stomp boxes. I have a distortion and a DD-3 Delay. I use an old Boss compressor. Sometimes I like to hear that string pop. I’m pretty much meat and potatoes when it comes to effects. I come right of my volume pedal to my amp. I’m not a real effects freak. I use them with the regional band I play with up here. They do a full gamut of country, rock. All kinds of stuff.

SGR: Jerry, thank you for doing this and for what you do for the club.

Jerry: I thank you for the opportunity to do this.

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