Jerry Reed, who died Monday at 71, will probably be most commonly remembered for his comic roles in movies like Smokey and the Bandit and The Waterboy, but he was also one of the greatest guitar pickers in country music history. Before Reed became Burt Reynolds’ truck-driving sidekick, and before he became an early ’70s country hitmaker (“When You’re Hot, You’re Hot,” “Lord, Mr. Ford”), he was in demand as a session player, songwriter, and sometimes both. (When Elvis Presley recorded Reed’s “U.S. Male” and “Guitar Man” and couldn’t find a session player who could duplicate Reed’s licks, he simply hired Reed to play them.) Building on the work of virtuoso pickers Chet Atkins (with whom Reed would eventually duet in a Grammy-winning collaboration) and banjoist Earl Scruggs, Reed developed a style called “The Claw,” named for the gnarled position of his hand and the complicated, polyrhythmic use of all five of its fingers at once. (You can see it up close in the clip below.)
Once Reed began to find chart success as a solo artist, Hollywood came calling. What Reed’s songs had in common with his acting was a laid-back, wry, comic sensibility. (Classic Reed song title: “She Got the Goldmine [I Got the Shaft.]”) Whether on screen or seated with his guitar, Reed was a showman who aimed only to please, and who made it look easy.