The fifth studio album made by Jerry Reed with RCA Records, Jerry Reed Explores Guitar Country was released in 1969.
However, Explores Guitar Country is much more than a follow-up to his debut album The Unbelievable Guitar and Voice of Jerry Reed, which explored his unique guitar work, approach to songwriting and instrumental implementation in composition. It is even more than the albums in between, which all delved into a different facet of Reed’s considerable musicality.
It takes what Unbelievable Guitar and Voice did and “turns it up to 11”, so to speak. It feels like he has found his niche here, and as if his long-time collaborator, friend, mentor and producer Chet Atkins knew better how to guide him after making 4 previous albums together.
Explores Guitar Country moves away from the Countrypolitan influence which he was a little diluted by in his first forays for RCA. This collection of songs is more of a ramble through energetic, unique renditions of traditional songs, such as Are You From Dixie (‘Cause I’m From Dixie Too) and Barbara Allen. Alongside these are Reed’s own instrumental compositions, very much country-flavoured; so sophisticated and fierce yet beautiful.
He also manages to pay tribute to some of his influences growing up, such as his full-pelt interpretation of Bill Monroe’s Blue Moon of Kentucky, which is somehow fiery, twangy, richly melodic, cheeky and sentimental all at once. But such is any cover by Reed in actuality. Many a time you may listen to an obscure album cut, a version of a song made famous by another artist: Reed will go places with his styling, his vocal delivery, the arrangement and his own guitar work, that you would never have thought could work. Yet it makes you question, in more cases than not, whether in fact Reed is the originator, since his tracing of the song is often so apt and satisfying, as in the case of his 1971 cover of Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town, which feels all the more powerful with his burning bass line and driving guitar than any ballad-styled telling could possibly be.
Jerry Reed Explores Guitar Country includes 10 tracks which are a mixture of cover versions and traditional songs, with 2 original instrumental compositions in Swarmin’ and Bluegrass with Guts, the title of the latter partly summing up the theme of the album as a whole.
This is almost a concept album, with the idea being a journey through country music, as heard through a guitar and its player. That is very competently done here, with flavours of jazz, blues, bluegrass and country music all coming together in a way very few can accomplish as well as Jerry Reed did, especially during his peak years at RCA.
On a personal note, I reside in the UK, and I remember importing a used US pressing of this album roughly a decade ago. It arrived via Surface Mail, as I couldn’t justify spending any more on Air Mail for Reed-related purchases. It was well worth the extra wait time, in my opinion. One of the tracks I was most surprised by was Barbara Allen. There was something so thrilling in hearing a rendition of a traditional British folk song by my favourite artist. Mr. Reed’s whole essence was so American that it gave me an extra sense of connection to him somehow.
His recording of Barbara Allen begins light and lilting, gradually building in understated yet somehow thrilling intensity towards the heartbreaking yet victorious climax of the two lovers ending together for eternity after all.
- Georgia on my Mind
- Sittin’ On Top of the World
- Are You From Dixie (‘Cause I’m From Dixie Too)
- St James Infirmary
- Bluegrass (With Guts)
- Blue Moon of Kentucky
- Wayfaring Stranger
- In the Pines
- John Hardy
- Barbara Allen
- A Worried Man
It is once again extremely difficult to sum up here, since this album is so complex, despite its seemingly simple premise. I realise that my exploration of Reed’s titular Exploration is somewhat choppy and perhaps a little confused. It is hard to analyse something that so many who have delved into his extensive catalogue may agree is one of those rare phenomena. Reed’s fusion of musical styles, his affable charm and good-natured wit, his sometimes funny, sometimes chaotic, sometimes heartrending songwriting, his larger-than-life persona and the pure, unfettered musicality that simply glowed out from his eyes to his finger-ends, all point to one idea:
Jerry Reed was a once-in-a-lifetime talent whose creativity seemed almost divine and certainly destined, such was the purity with which it can touch his audience, whether with laughter or tears. That surging glow which shines out from his musical performances and imprints its brightness within the listener can be found here, within the real and earthy songs included here.
The title of this album is both accurate and inadequate all at once, indeed Jerry Reed Explores Guitar Country.