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Ron Elliott Interview

Ron Elliott

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

JJ: Welcome, Ron! What got you interested in steel guitar?

RE: I was about eleven years old and living in Salisbury, Maryland. A boy brought a wooden Hawaiian guitar to school. I had always been interested in one. I had seen people use a pocket knife for a bar and later learned they made bars for that. I told my mom I’d like to take music lessons. So I went to the Peninsula School of Music in Maryland. I was listening to the early recordings of Jerry Byrd and Roy Wiggins with Eddy Arnold. I guess it was the same thing that most of the steel players my age were listening to. That was all there was to listen to. I studied about two years of music and decided that was going to mess up my playing. My music teachers’ name oddly enough was Emmons, no relation! One of my teachers used an E tuning. He run across that, and I thought that was one of the best things I had ever heard. I had the old Dobro tuning. I asked him if he would put that tuning on my guitar. Of course, that was the guitar that belonged to the music school. He put it on mine, and I took it home and put that tuning on my guitar. I took their guitar back to them and never went back. With the E tuning, I felt I could do everything I was hearing, that I was hearing Roy Wiggins do. I couldn’t do that thing that Jerry Byrd was doing because it was a strange sound to me; it was a strange tuning.

After I got to doing that, my dad when out and bought me a Harmony Electric Hawaiian guitar and a Silvertone amp from Sears. Had a big 10-inch speaker and everything. It had tone and volume. I don’t need the tone; I just need the volume. That’s the way I am today.

Once I started playing the electric guitar, I started getting little jobs with square dance bands. By now, I’m sixteen years old. A friend of mine had a Gibson Console double neck. I was able to put that C6 tuning on there that Jerry Byrd used. Then I was able to listen and play all the Jerry Byrd things. For being sixteen years old, I was playing Jerry Byrd note for note. I could never make a living with that steel. That wasn’t my bag; I really liked the country stuff.

I got a job working with Hawkshaw Hawkins when I was sixteen years old. I worked with him through a summer making $12.50 a day and $5.00 to eat on.

JJ: What year was that?

RE: That was 1953. I went into the service after that. The Korean War was about to end, and I had to have some of that. I joined, and when I got out, I still had my Fender triple neck. I played that. A boy by the name of Ronnie Eyler from Pennsylvania, a great player, and I got door hinges and coathangers and his dad milled out some pieces that would pull four strings. He mounted that on my Fender triple neck, and I was pushing pedals. After that I had to have something better, so then I got a Fender 1000. I played that all the way to Nashville.

JJ: When did you come to Nashville?

RE: 1964. It was my first trip to Nashville. I went right into Starday Studios with Pete Drake and Jimmy Day there and did a session with Jimmy Case. We traveled all the world working military bases. I was playing my Fender. We moved to Nashville in 1966 and went to work with Stonewall. I got a ShoBud.

Then I went to work with Jack Greene. Everything on the stage was green. I couldn’t paint my blue Emmons, so I had to get me some green guitars, and I probably had 4 green Emmons guitars. I worked with Jack for almost eight years. We had a great band. The Jolly Giants were a super, super band. Bobby Whitton, Don Lacy, Noel Stanley, Jimmy Dry, Jack, Jeannie Seely and me. We had a wonderful troop. We all played so well together and never got tired of each other. We’d go out on a 45 day trip and come back and go back to somebody’s house and party. It’s great to have good people to work with and be around.

After leaving Stonewall and Jack, I was off for awhile. I would job out with different people. I worked with Melba Montgomry, Cal Smith, Justin Tubb, Claude Gray. I worked with Claude the week between Stonewall and Jack Greene. He begged me to come to work with him, but I told him I was committed. That’s the way I am. If I promise somebody I’m going to do something, I’m going to bust to get it done. I told Claude, "I appreciated this so much, and I thank you for asking." When I got back in town, he asked me if I would go out to Bradley’s Barn and do some sessions with him.

Then I went with Jack. I was lucky enough to do Jack and Jeannie’s sessions, their duo, and the Jack Greene and Jeanne Seely Live Show at the Grand Ole Opry. We worked the last Saturday Opry show at the Ryman and the first opry show at the new Opry House. That was in March of 1974. After that, I took some time off and went to work for ShoBud. I taught some, did the purchasing, inventory control while ShoBud was building for Fender, Baldwin and Gretsch. I went back to work on the road with Charlie Louvin.

JJ: You were on the Opry for a long time?

RE: Everybody I worked with was an Opry member. I worked the Opry almost twenty-five years, totally. I worked for Charlie for eight years. During that time when Charlie wasn’t on the road, I worked for Step One Records. I was with them for almost ten years. After Charlie, I went to work for Johnny Carver and worked with Johnny every weekend for almost thirteen years.

I did the first Steel Guitar Convention with Scotty. I did two or three when he first started and have done a few at the new hotel.

JJ: Ron, who were your heroes?

RE: We pretty much had to learn the pedal system on our own, didn’t have anyone to teach us up there. When we got down here, we had Buddy and Jimmy Day, all those people. We’d get together and play. Jerry Byrd, Buddy, Jimmy; I feel all the good players are all mixed up in us. You can’t sit down and play without thinking how someone else would have done it. It is a compliment when someone comes up to you at the convention or show and ask how you played a certain lick. Chances are I could have picked that up from someone else. When I was teaching down at ShoBud, I would have students come for lessons. They would have their own guitars, and they could play some licks but had not smoothed them out. I would show them a particular passage, and they would do it but would reach it another way. I would watch that and learn. You can learn from the worst player in the world. Many won’t admit that!

JJ: Ron, tell us what you’ve been up to lately?

RE: I was doing marketing with a realty company for about seven years, and they always wanted me to be around. I just worked all the time. I retired from them and am back playing now and am probably as busy now as I was when I was playing on the road. I’ve been playing shows and working every weekend that I’m in town.

I look back now at how fortunate I’ve been to work with so many great people. I did tours with Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells, Johnny Wright, Cal Smith, Justin Tubb, Melba Montgomry, Claude Gray, Johnny Bush, and Ray Price. We’ve backed Kenny Price, Bobby Lewis, Jean Shepherd, Webb Pierce, Faron Young, Don Gibson, loved Don Gibson, Hawkshaw.

You talked about a young kid being embarrassed in front of one of his heroes. This was when Hawkshaw was on the King label. We were in the back of a club one night, and I was going to be this big dude. Hawkshaw had a new 1953 Cadillac. Still had that new car smell. I was sitting in the car with him. I had a can of beer. They didn’t have those pull tabs then. They were the hard can where you had to have an opener, a church key. I started to open the beer, I must have gotten a pinhole in it, and it started shooting everywhere. The beer was on the ceiling, the windshield, his clothes, my clothes and I couldn’t find the door handle. I had never been in a new car before. I finally got it opened and threw the beer can out on the ground, and it was still spewing. I didn’t know what to say, and he didn’t say anything either. Finally he said, "You ‘bout done?" I said, "Yes, sir." He said, "Good!" I thought, "What a way to start a new relationship; spraying beer all over his new car!"

I was lucky that everyone I worked with were Opry acts. I was doing their Opry spots, their TV, their recording sessions, and I was having a ball. Nobody got rich. If you got $200 a week, you did real good. One of the first opry spots I did, I got $6.00. That was for a Friday night and on Saturday night you got $8.00. When it went to $10.00, we wouldn’t speak to anybody. We’d just go over to Tootsie’s and loosen up and spend all of it.

JJ: You and Buddy Emmons are real close?

RE: We’ve known one another for over forty years.

JJ: He was on Step One Records; wasn’t he?

RE: Yes, he was. I’ve worked with some wonderful people on Step One. Gene Watson, Buddy Emmons, Ray Pennington, Floyd Cramer, Faron Young. I brought Clinton Gregory to the top of the heap. Clinton is a wonderful artist. He went with another label; thought it was a major label at that time. They cut three sides on him and put it on the shelf.

JJ: How long have you and Leslie been together?

RE: 217! No, 42 years. We got four children and six grandchildren and two great-grand children. They’re all great as long as you can hand them back.

JJ: Ron, thank you for your time.

RE: Jan, thank you!

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