Jerry Byrd, a fixture on the Hawaiian music scene since the 1970s, died April 11 of complications from Parkinson’s disease in Honolulu. He was 85.
The country music steel guitarist who came to Hawaii from Nashville altered Nashville steel guitar playing to Hawaiian steel. Respected and acknowledged as one of the pioneers of steel guitar in country and Hawaiian music, Byrd performed with artists including Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Ernest Tubb, Red Foley, Marty Robbins, Hank Snow, Burl Ives and Chet Atkins.
Byrd was the first to sign on Dolly Parton when he ran his publishing firm. Byrd helped revitalize the steel guitar after moving to Hawaii through his work here with local artists, including Irmgard Aluli, Emma Veary and Don Ho. He performed on the “Hawaii Calls” radio show and in Waikiki nightclubs where, as Byrd wrote in his autobiography, the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia was in the audience one night and asked Byrd for steel guitar lessons.
Byrd, who was born in Lima, Ohio, was the first inductee into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame. His Rickenbacker lap steel, common among pioneer country musicians, is in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Byrd got hooked on Hawaiian music in 1933 at age 13 when he encountered a touring Hawaiian troupe during the Depression. “There were six or eight of them, and the stage drop was a scene with palm trees along an ocean shoreline, and a volcano erupting,” he wrote in his autobiography. “All that exotic stuff, like in the movies. And the music — you couldn’t have captured my attention any more if you hit me in the head with a hammer. But it was the sound of the steel guitar that captivated me the most.”
Byrd was a country radio personality between 1935 and 1937 on WLW in Cincinnati and also WJR in Detroit from 1942 to 1944. In Hawaii, Byrd performed at the Royal Hawaiian and Halekulani.
Survivors include his wife, Kaleo Wood, two daughters, and a brother.