Nashville Cats: Salute to Reggie Young

May 3, 2008
Reggie Young’s spare, soulful, sweet-toned guitar licks repeatedly filled the Ford Theater of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on May 3, 2008. Honored in the Museum’s ongoing Nashville Cats series, Young held court as his career was surveyed with both recordings and his own live selections on guitar during the ninety-minute program.


Over and over, the musical selections showed off the distinctive instrumental style that has made Young such an influential guitar icon and an in-demand studio player for the last five decades in Nashville and, before that, in Memphis.

During Bill Lloyd’s introduction of Young, the museum staff member read from Eric Clapton’s recent autobiography. “As for technique, tons of white American guitar players were better than me,” Clapton wrote. “Reggie Young, for example … was one of the best guitarists I ever heard.”

In front of a house full of music fans, family, and longtime friends, many of them famed musicians themselves, Young revealed that he’s just as relaxed and elegant as a conversationalist as he is as a guitar stylist. At age seventy-one, he remains an active studio and performing guitarist. But the Nashville Cats session focused on his famous recordings

Born in Caruthersville, Arkansas, and growing up nearby in the hub city of Osceola, Young recounted his early influences, listening to Chet Atkins on the radio and on recordings, as well as Atkins’s work on a WSM live broadcast with fellow guitarist Ray Edenton and steel guitarist Jerry Byrd. In addition, with Memphis down the road from Osceola, he heard B.B. King’s ringing blues tone, as well other Delta blues guitarists. Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips on WHBQ radio, as well as Nashville jocks John Richbourg on WLAC and Eddie Hill on WSM, provided Young with a wealth of soul and country influences.

Young laughed as he recalled a Memphis ordinance banning the honking of car horns in the city limits, and how Phillips would tell listeners, “If you’re listening to Daddy-o Dewey, honk your horn!”

Young’s first gig came in Tupelo, Mississippi, with Bob Williams & the Mid-South Playboys, for which he earned $13. His first recording came in high school, behind a country crooner named Tommy Smith. The mid-1950s recording took place at Republic Recording Studios in Nashville.

“We drove all the way here from Memphis just to hear a playback,” he said. “We didn’t have enough money to get home!” His companion sold a spare tire to get enough gas money to drive home.

In 1955, Young worked on his first hit, a boogie tune called “Rockin’ Daddy” by Eddie Bond and the Stompers. Lloyd played a sampling of the song, and later in the program showed the similarity between Young’s work on that song and on “Born to Boogie,” which he cut in 1987 with Hank Williams Jr.

By 1958, Young accepted an invitation to join the band of country star Johnny Horton, for whom he played for more than a year. Moving to Shreveport, Louisiana, where he played on the Louisiana Hayride radio show, Young made lifelong friends with such future Nashville residents as Jerry Kennedy and David Houston as well as Elvis Presley sideman D.J. Fontana.

After leaving Horton’s band, Young began recording sessions for Hi Records with a group of musicians that led to the formation of the Bill Black Combo. After the band’s 1959 hit “Smokie Part II,” the Bill Black Combo got voted the best instrumental group for three consecutive years starting in 1960. “We figured Bill was the best known of the group, because of his time with Elvis,” Young said. “That’s why we used his name for the group. But we split everything equally.”

Especially heralded in England, the Bill Black Combo was asked to open the first U.S. tour of the Beatles. “For thirty days, we traveled everywhere and became really good friends,” Young said. “Harrison and I really hit it off and would sit around and play.”

After that, Young also toured England and Europe with the Beatles with a version of the Bill Black Combo. It was during this trip that Young first met Clapton, and the two became fast friends. “One thing we had in common, we both used unwrapped third strings,” Young said, referring to a special way of lining up strings on an electric guitar. “All the blues players did that…He was one of the few players I’d run across who was into that.”

As a studio guitarist, Young worked on such classic Memphis hits as James Carr’s “Dark End of the Street” and Gene Simmons’s “Haunted House.” He also expanded beyond Memphis, traveling to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to play in sessions, where he formed friendships with fellow musicians David Briggs, Jerry Carrigan, and Norbert Putnam—all of whom later moved to Nashville. Young also started doing sessions in Nashville and New York, working with such soul artists as Solomon Burke, Don Covay, and Joe Tex.

Eventually, Young and fellow Memphians Tommy Cogbill and Chips Moman decided to get off the road and work in Memphis. They formed the core of a group of musicians working at Moman’s American Studios, which expanded to include others, such as Gene Chrisman, Bobby Emmons, Mike Leech, and Bobby Wood. Together they contributed to hits for Arthur Alexander, the Box Tops, Arthur Conley, King Curtis, Neil Diamond, Herbie Mann, Elvis Presley, John Prine, Joe Simon, B.J. Thomas, Dionne Warwick, and Bobby Womack, among others. In a five-year stretch, the American Studios house band recorded 122 hits, Young confirmed.

The Presley sessions in 1969 helped revive the King of Rock & Roll’s career after he’d spent most of the 1960s making movies in Hollywood. “Personally, I wasn’t that impressed when they said Elvis was going to be in,” Young said. “But then he walked in that back door. We were all standing around. We all kind of took a step back.”

Lloyd mentioned the word “charisma,” and Young agreed. “It really was,” he said. “He had that.” Songs from that session included the hits “Suspicious Minds” and “In the Ghetto.”

The group came to be known as the Memphis Boys, a nickname that Young explained didn’t start until recent years, because of how Nashville players grouped them together.  “We’ve been here thirty-five-odd years now, but they still refer to each of us as ‘those Memphis guys,’ ‘those Memphis boys,’” he said. “It’s funny now being a Nashville Cat.” As Lloyd explained, Young’s history proves he’s one of the select few studio musicians who has been a major part of the recorded history of both Tennessee cities.   

In 1972, Young moved to Nashville after a short stint in Atlanta. His early sessions took place at Quadraphonic Studios, owned by his old friends David Briggs and Norbert Putnam. At first, Young worked on rock sessions, recording with Jimmy Buffett, J.J. Cale, Dobie Gray, and Prine. His first Nashville country session was with producer Jack Clement on a Charley Pride song.

Lloyd illustrated some of Young’s most famous sessions, playing Waylon Jennings’ “Luckenbach, Texas,” Willie Nelson’s “Always on My Mind,” and Kenny Rogers’s “Lucille,” as well as three Merle Haggard songs, “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” “Pancho and Lefty,” and “That’s the Way Love Goes.”

At one point, Young said, he got so busy that he didn’t notice his own work on the radio. “I was driving to or from the studio, and I was listening to a song, and I thought, ‘Man, that’s some really bad guitar playing,’” he recalled with a laugh. “And it was me.”

Young cut back by joining with the late drummer Larry Londin and asking double scale for his session work. “That way, if you lose half your accounts, you make the same thing,” he said. In truth, he felt burned out and wanted more time at home, so it was a way to free time in his schedule. In 1979, Londin and Young were the first Nashville musicians to go double scale who weren’t session leaders. Soon afterward, many other musicians followed suit.

By the 1980s, Young became a favorite of producer Jimmy Bowen, which led to work with Glen Campbell, Loretta Lynn, Reba McEntire, George Strait, Conway Twitty, Hank Williams Jr., and others. Lloyd played another list of classics featuring Young, including McEntire’s “Little Rock,” George Strait’s “The Fireman,” Travis Tritt’s “Anymore,” and Hank Jr.’s “Born to Boogie.”

Young also went on the road with the Highwaymen—Johnny Cash, Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Nelson—going on several tours all over the world in a five-year period. “Boy was that a lot of fun,” he said. “It was first class all the way.”

Today, Young continues to do sessions and to write and record instrumentals with his wife, Jennifer. The program ended with Young playing his signature licks from several songs: the Box Tops’ “Cry Like a Baby,” Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away,” Presley’s “In the Ghetto,” Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man,” Billy Swan’s “I Can Help,” and B.J. Thomas’s “Hooked on a Feeling.”

Then Young and his wife, on cello, played a recent instrumental, “Natchez Trace,” that they wrote. They received a standing ovation at the end.

Today, Young continues to do sessions and occasionally tours with the Memphis Boys, a group of his longtime colleagues who perform mostly in Europe for fans of Presley and of Memphis music in general. “We’re probably as close as they’ll ever get to meeting Elvis because we all knew him and worked with him,” he said. “It’s quite an honor to do that.”

Those who listened to Young tell stories and play his instrument felt similarly honored on this special Saturday afternoon program.

—Michael McCall