(when compiling my annual Mix-Tape, I added a favorite Kimmie Rhodes track (“I Just Drove By To See If Things Have Changed”), which featured the amazing steel guitar work of the great Jimmy Day…in my nostalgia, I thought I’d share this piece I wrote about him a few years ago…)
(Originally appeared in the May 13, 1999 issue of The Chautauquan (San Marcos, TX))
I honestly can’t remember the first time I was ever on stage. But he always could. I was six weeks old when Jimmy Day held me in his lap and lulled me to sleep, playing “Greensleeves” on his double-neck ShoBud steel guitar on the Cheatham Street Warehouse stage. Eight short years later, I found my spot on the stage and started my first career, singing and playing fiddle on flatbed trailers and dancehall platforms across the Southwest.
Every time our paths would cross, I would find him backstage, with his arms outstretched, welcoming me to his world of footlights and last calls. I cherished every opportunity to play with Jimmy. And he would always remind me that he had showed me the ropes.
Jimmy Day had become a legendary steel guitar player even before I was born, and I will forever look to him as a hero and bigger-than-life legend.
After all, he played with everybody from Hank Williams to Willie Nelson. If someone needed the best steel player in the business, Jimmy was at the top of their list of people to call. Those definitive steel intros you hear on classics like, “Crazy,” and “Crazy Arms,” “Danny Boy,” and “Night Life,” are Jimmy Day’s signatures.
And oh, the stories he could tell. He talked about the long hauls, bad PAs, and standing ovations – and how he convinced Ray Price to hire his down-and-out friend Willie Nelson to play bass in the Cherokee Cowboys – and then convinced Willie that surely he could fake it well enough to get through the tour. And besides, as Jimmy said to Willie, “Playing bass can’t be all that hard – it only has four strings.”
Jimmy played on a million stages – from Pecos, Texas to London, England. He played a million songs for honky-tonk queens and once, he even played a solo ovation for the Queen of England — it was “Greensleeves.” The song he played for me.
When I asked him to play for my Roots and Wings concert in the San Marcos High School auditorium two years ago, he fit my show into the middle of a Midwestern state fair tour he was playing with Ray Price. He told me he wouldn’t miss it. After all, he reminded, it was he who first showed me the ropes of the stage. And he certainly filled the stage with music that night.
I was in Nashville, studying for an English exam, when my dad called to tell me that Jimmy Day had passed away. That night at the Grand Ole Opry, they honored him with a moment of silence. It seemed so terribly unreal to me.
And I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe that honky tonk angel band just needed another good steel player. It’d be just like Jimmy to drop everything in the middle of this tour to go play the gig.
Last week, I produced Belmont University’s Best of the Best Showcase, held at the Ryman Auditorium. It was the first time I had ever been in that legendary building. I came through the back door for sound check. I slowly and timidly stepped onto the stage. For a moment, time stood still. I caught my breath as a shiver went up my spine, and with utter amazement, I walked to the center and looked out into the sea of empty pews. I couldn’t believe that I was standing on the very boards where so many of my heroes and idols had stood. Then, all at once, “Crazy Arms” broke through the silence and echoed through the auditorium, filling the Ryman with Jimmy’s trademark steel guitar fills and riffs. As I looked up into the sunlight through the colored stained glass windows of that famous building, I had to smile, knowing that Jimmy Day, in his own special way, was still showing me the ropes.
Thanks, Jimmy. It was a great show.