Nashville Cats: Salute to Weldon Myrick

August 15, 2009
Weldon Myrick remembers hearing a steel guitar on the radio as a young boy and how beautiful and exciting it sounded. “To me it was like a free-floating bird,” he said. “I just fell in love with it.

His early infatuation led Myrick to start playing his brother’s lap steel and eventually to become a world-recognized master of the pedal steel guitar, carving out his own style by making that free-floating bird fly faster and in trickier patterns than others.

One of country music’s most admired and influential steel guitarists, Myrick 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, Myrick traced his wide-ranging career in an eighty-minute program before a rapt audience in the museum’s Ford Theater.

A native of Jayton, Texas, a rural town in the northwestern part of the state that he described as “right in the middle of nowhere,” Myrick taught himself to play his brother’s lap steel well enough to earn a job on a radio station in nearby Stanford, Texas, at age thirteen. While still in high school, he traveled to Lubbock to visit Ben Hall, a friend who worked there as a deejay, and to perform on yet another station. While in Lubbock, Myrick met several local musicians, including Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings, and Sonny Curtis.

“I got to go to Buddy’s house for a big jam session, and I found out he was a big steel guitar guy,” Myrick said. “He said, ‘I want you to try and play like Jerry Byrd.’”

His radio job led to Myrick being asked to join a band of local musicians gathered to back a Grand Ole Opry tour coming through the area. At that gig, he met Ferlin Husky, Minnie Pearl, Jim Reeves, and other stars for the first time. “I didn’t do anything until Ferlin came out,” Myrick recalled. “I had just been sitting there. So I thought, ‘Boy, I hope he gives me something.’ And he did! He gave me a whole solo, and I have loved him dearly ever since.”

Husky was among several notable guests in the Ford Theater audience for the program, including Country Music Hall of Fame member Bill Anderson, singer Connie Smith, and singer Jett Williams and her husband Keith Adkinson. Several previous Nashville Cats honorees also were present; guitarist Harold Bradley (also a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame), producer-guitarist Jerry Kennedy, producer-guitarist Wayne Moss, and pianist Pig Robbins.

In 1953, Myrick made his first trip to Nashville to record with a Texas singer, Hope Griffith, in a band that included Waylon Jennings on guitar. After he graduated from high school, Myrick moved to Big Spring, Texas, once again at the invitation of his friend Hall, who had become host for a local TV show there. Myrick got a job on the show, but also joined Hall and his wife Dena, a bassist, cutting demos in a studio Hall owned. Several of the songs earned the interest of Cliffie Stone, and Myrick returned to Nashville in 1958, this time recording for Capitol Records as a member of the Ben Hall Trio.

Back in Big Spring, Myrick took a job as a cameraman at the TV station, eventually leaving to become a city policeman. In 1963, Myrick decided to give music a full-time push. He and his wife Kitty and two children moved to Nashville, arriving in town with $65. Through work with Acuff-Rose Publications and the comedian Lonnie “Pap” Wilson, Myrick gained entry  backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, where he discovered that Bill Anderson sought a new steel guitarist for his band. 

Before the audition, Myrick decided to spruce up his pedal steel with a new paint job. Only the paint hadn’t dried by the time Myrick had to load up and leave. At the audition, as he pulled his guitar from its case, it was covered in the hair of the fur of the case’s lining. “Bill said, ‘What’s that?’I told him it was supposed to be a steel guitar. He said, “It looks kinda woolly.”

Still, Anderson liked what he heard and invited the young Texan to play on a demo session he had scheduled. After the recording, Anderson hired Myrick to join his band, and he stayed for three years.

Myrick met the next important artist in his career, Connie Smith, shortly after she had been discovered by Anderson. At Anderson’s insistence, Myrick played on Smith’s early recordings, cutting the classic tracks “Once a Day,” a #1 hit for eight weeks in 1964, and “I’ll Come Running,” a 1967 Top Ten hit that includes a much-revered opening steel-guitar run by Myrick. Smith confirmed from the audience that she uses that song’s opening when she auditions steel guitarists.

While playing on the road with Anderson and Smith, Myrick’s phone began to ring more often at home, he said. He eventually decided to devote his time to recording sessions rather than working the touring circuit. He also became a member of the Grand Ole Opry staff band, a post he kept for thirty-two years.

As part of the program’s many video and audio clips, Lloyd highlighted Myrick’s steel guitar parts by playing portions of Johnny Bush’s “Whiskey River,” Moe Bandy’s “Bandy the Rodeo Clown,” Johnny Paycheck’s “I’m the Only Hell (Mama Ever Raised),” Steve Young’s “Seven Bridges Road,” Delbert McClinton’s “Victim of Life’s Circumstances,” Reba McEntire’s “Little Rock,” George Strait’s “Right or Wrong,” and Alan Jackson’s “Chattahoochee.”

Other country stars who used Myrick on their sessions include David Allan Coe, Donna Fargo, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Charley Pride, Ricky Skaggs, Gary Stewart, Tanya Tucker, and Trisha Yearwood, among many others. From outside of commercial country music, Myrick recorded with Elvis Presley, Linda Ronstadt, and Jerry Jeff Walker. Myrick also played in the acclaimed Area Code 615, a band of top Nashville studio pickers. He also recorded his own solo albums, some all-instrumental and some featuring his vocals.

Myrick drew loud laughter when telling of some of the pranks pulled during his years at the Grand Ole Opry, from turning on an Echoplex on an unknowing steel guitarist to using a harmonizer on a singer, in each case distorting the notes that came out of the speaker. Myrick retired from the Opry in February 1998.

Myrick ended his program with a performance playing a beautiful, slowed-down version of Floyd Tillman’s classic Texas ballad, “I Love You So Much, It Hurts,” illustrating why he is such a revered and inventive musician.

—Michael McCall