Nashville Cats: Salute to Chip Young

October 9, 2010
At the start of his first major-label Nashville recording session, in 1965, Chip Young faced trial by fire. Producer Billy Sherrill had sought out Young after hearing his acoustic guitar introduction on the songwriting demo of "What Color (Is a Man)," a Marge Barton song Sherrill wanted pop star Bobby Vinton to record. Young walked into the session and found several members of the A-team, the name given the top rank of Nashville studio musicians, including three other guitarists, Ray Edenton, Kelso Herston, and Grady Martin.

Sherrill opened the session by playing the song's demo, with Young's intricate, rolling guitar riff grabbing the attention of the assembled players. "Grady Martin was a big bear of a man, and he sat in a green chair with his feet propped up and a guitar across his belly," Young said. "He said to me, 'Did you play that lick?'"

Young acknowledged he had. "Let me hear you play it," Martin growled. Young played the lick where he stood. "No, over here!" Martin demanded. Young walked toward him, still playing his riff. "No, get that chair and play it over here!" 

Young slid a folding chair close to Martin. "I mean we're nose to nose, and I play the lick. He looks at my fingers, watching me. Then he looks up at my eyes, and he says, 'You little son of a ...,'" Young recalled with a laugh, leaving out the curse word. "'That's good!'"

One of the world's most admired thumb-picking guitarists, as well as a renowned producer and recording-studio owner, Young was honored as part of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's ongoing Nashville Cats series, which pays tribute to veteran musicians who have proven integral to the city's role as a leading music center. Interviewed by series host Bill Lloyd, Young traced his wide-ranging career in a ninety-minute program before a rapt audience in the museum's Ford Theater.

Born Jerry Stembridge in Atlanta, Young grew up with memories of the fiddle playing of his father, who died when the guitarist was nine years old. In Georgia, he evolved from a youthful devotee of his family's crystal radio set to a pal of fellow musicians Jerry Reed, Joe South, and Ray Stevens.

As Young was quick to point out, all of his Atlanta friends changed their names when starting their recording careers. Joe South was born Joseph Alfred Souter, Jerry Reed was born Jerry Reed Hubbard, and Ray Stevens was born Harold Ray Ragsdale. "So I changed my name to Chip," Young said with a chuckle.

After enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1961, Young joined a country band, the Southern Drifters, that played country songs on the military base in Seoul, Korea. While a soldier, Young often received letters from one of his old friends. "I'd get the funniest letters in the world from Jerry Reed," he said. "Then one time he told me that as soon as I got out of the service, he wanted me to move to Nashville and work with him on the road."

Arriving in Nashville in 1964, Young toured as a second guitarist with Reed, himself a renowned guitar picker. A year later, Reed started enjoying success as a songwriter and studio musician, so he pulled off the road. To help Young, he began touting him to Nashville record producers. After the Sherrill session, Young began getting studio work with producers Chet Atkins and Jerry Kennedy, among others.

As suggested by his work with Vinton, Young played guitar on pop sessions as well as with country stars; his distinctive work appears on the Vogues' 1965 Top Five pop hit "Five O'Clock World," for example. He also played bass with Charlie McCoy's band, the Escorts, at clubs in Nashville's famed Printers Alley.

As a busy Music Row studio player, Young rarely left Nashville. He played at the White House inauguration of Lyndon Johnson with Faron Young, and at a recording session in a Vacaville, California, prison with singer Glen Sherley, an inmate and singer who had been discovered by Johnny Cash. "That was about it," Young said of working the road.

Young also recorded under his own name, starting with the single "Turn It Around in Your Mind," produced and written by Jerry Reed and released on United Artists Records in 1967.

But mostly he concentrated on backing other singers, including Bobby Bare, Skeeter Davis, Vern Gosdin, Kris Kristofferson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gordon Lightfoot, Reba McEntire, Roger Miller, Charlie Rich, Leon Russell, George Strait, Porter Wagoner, and Faron Young.

"Some of the time you didn't know who the artist was until you got there," Young said of this busy period. "But it was a lot of fun."

He was a particular favorite of Waylon Jennings. "Me and [guitarist] Wayne Moss played on just about everything he ever did," Young said. In May 1966, when Elvis Presley returned to the studio for his first non-movie recording sessions in two years, he cut twenty songs in Nashville with Young on guitar. Young would continue to record with the King of Rock & Roll into the 1970s.

As Lloyd asked about his work with Presley, Young interrupted the discussion to point out that Scotty Moore, Elvis's first and most famous guitarist, was in the audience, which drew a round of applause from the crowd. Moore joined Young on the 1966 Nashville sessions.

Young also confirmed a famous incident from a June 1970 recording session with Presley. At the time, Presley practiced karate faithfully. During a break in the studio, a member of gospel singing group the Imperials asked Elvis how he would get a gun away from an attacker. Presley responded by asking one of his bodyguards to get his gun and bring it over. "Boy, my eyes got big," Young said with a laugh. "I thought, 'Gun? This is not good.'"

The bodyguard, Red West, took the bullets from the pistol and held it up as if pointing toward Presley. At about that time, Young noticed that his guitars were leaning against a studio baffle to the side of West. Young stepped forward and said, "Let me..." At that moment, Presley kicked the steel pistol from West's hand. "That gun went flying out, end over end over end, into the back of a guitar," Young said. "The whole barrel just stuck in the back of it."

The instrument was a special-order, Spanish acoustic model that guitarist Harold Bradley had helped Young buy. Presley told Young to find another, and he'd buy it for him. "I thought about it for a second, and I held it up and said, 'I actually this guitar is probably worth a lot more money now than it was before,'" Young recalled. "And it was." (The guitar is now on display on the third floor of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.)

Young also told of recording "Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine" with Tom T. Hall, which starts with a spoken recitation. Only Young didn't realize the recording would open that way. So on the first take, a few bars into the song, Young heard someone speaking in his headphones, so he stopped the take. "Someone is talking!" Young blurted.

No one understood what he meant, so they started again, and at the same place in the song, he stopped again, once again complaining that someone in the studio was talking while he was playing. The producer Jerry Kennedy and other players finally figured out that it was Hall's spoken introduction that was throwing off the guitarist.

"Boy, I caught it from there on," Young said with a laugh. "I still haven't lived it down. Tom T. mentions it every time I see him."

A Murfreesboro resident, Young had a cabin on his property that he thought would make a good studio. In 1968, he transformed the small backyard structureinto Young 'Un Sound, which became an important recording center. He later moved the studio to Music Row's Seventeenth Avenue. Among those who recorded at Young 'Un Sound were Teresa Brewer, Jimmy Buffett, Larry Gatlin, Dennis Linde, Johnny Mathis, Jerry Reed, and many others.

Young also started producing albums, usually at Young 'Un Sound, recording classic works by Joe Ely, Delbert McClinton, Mickey Newbury, Billy Swan, Tony Joe White, and many others. "Delbert was such a joy," Young said. "He came in, and he had written all the songs. Every song on those albums has been cut by other artists." Among those cited were Vince Gill's version of "Victim of Life's Circumstances" and Emmylou Harris's "Two More Bottles of Wine."

Lloyd pointed out that many of those albums sound like young artists trying to introduce a new direction to country music, which Young confirmed. "There were no committees then to say you had to cut this song or that song," Young said. "We just cut songs that we thought were right for the time."

Among those attending Young's program were many former honorees of the museum's Nashville Cats series, including Ray Edenton, Jerry Kennedy, Wayne Moss, Norbert Putnam, Hargus "Pig" Robbins, and Reggie Young. Besides Scotty Moore, other musical  luminaries in the audience included country music star Bobby Bare, producer-songwriter Buddy Cannon, keyboardist David Briggs, artist manager Don Light, artist-songwriter Billy Swan, and arranger Bergen White.

Young's contemporaries laughed hardest when he talked of falling asleep during a session, due to the long hours session players worked. "Someone said, 'Hey, are we keeping you awake,'" Young laughed. "I said, 'No.'"

Near the end of the program, Young demonstrated the thumb-picking style that made him such an in-demand player, playing his bluesy, acoustic part from Dolly Parton's "Jolene." Then Lloyd played a clip from a Jerry Reed film, What Comes Around, in which Young played a producer named "Chipper," that mirrored the life-long friendship between the two guitarists. Young then played an intricate guitar part featured in a chase scene in the movie.

From there, Young discussed his recent albums Havin' Thumb Fun with My Friends, which features Young with ten of his favorite guitarists, and It's All About You. He also gave what Lloyd called "a guitar lesson," showing the differences between his thumb-picking style and those of Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, and Jerry Reed.

"Chet told me one day that out of all the thumb-picking albums that are out there, yours is the best," Young said, referring to his Havin' Thumb Fun with My Friends. "I about fell out of the golf cart."

-Michael McCall