In 1940, when I was 10 years old, I talked my mother into buying guitars for my brother, Floyd, and me. The initial results were not promising: We took one lesson and quit.
Yet just eight years later, I was playing with some of country music’s most famous artists—people like Hank Williams, Roy Acuff and Red Foley—at the Grand Ole Opry, inside the hallowed Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee, America’s country music capital. Who says dreams don’t come true?
My love of the steel guitar was inspired by the musicians I heard on the radio, greats like Jerry Byrd and Little Roy Wiggins. It also helped that we lived in Nashville.
Since our guitar lesson didn’t work out so well, Floyd and I learned to play by listening to 78 rpm records featuring masters like Byrd and Wiggins. I’d lift up the needle and practice the steel guitar sections over and over until they came naturally. Between Floyd, who played standard guitar, and me, we practically wore out the records.
My brother and I often played together. Our first public performance was at the Paramount Theatre, which hosted a Saturday radio show where youngsters could perform. I still remember the song we played and sang: When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold. We were a little scared of the big stage, the large audience and the bright lights, but we got through it. And the experience made us want to do more.
From there, our music careers advanced slowly but surely. From the start, we were lucky to associate with some very talented musicians.
I met bass player Bobby Moore during my days at Nashville’s East Junior High School, and for a time we’d practice together several afternoons a week. Bobby went on to become one of the biggest bass players in Nashville history, playing on more than 17,000 recording sessions. Jerry Rivers, our fiddle player, wound up playing with Hank Williams and the Drifting Cowboys.
In time, my mother started booking shows for the four of us. To haul our equipment, she built a wooden cargo carrier, held in place atop her 1937 Hudson Terraplane by four suction cups taken from bathroom plungers!
Our first big break came when bandleader Big Jeff Bess heard us on a radio station in Murfreesboro. When his band quit, Big Jeff hired us to replace them, and suddenly we were the Radio Playboys, with a regular gig on WLAC in Nashville.
In 1948, along came my biggest break of all: Red Foley, the star of the Grand Ole Opry radio show, needed a band. I auditioned on steel guitar and, to my amazement, got the job! When Red said he hired me because I sounded so much like Byrd, I was elated. Here I was at 18, playing with my favorite country singer and taking the place of the guy I considered the greatest steel guitar player in the world.
Soon I was backing up a who’s who of superstars, including Tennessee Ernie Ford, Kay Starr, Margaret Whiting and Hank Williams.
At first it was a little frightening, me being just 18 years old. I didn’t know how to read music, so rehearsals were intimidating. But soon I found out that most of the people I was playing with didn’t read music, either.
Because I was so young, people liked pulling tricks on me. The worst thing they did was untune my guitar while it was in a dressing room. I wouldn’t know it until I started playing.
The great Hank Williams was a real nice guy. When we went to Germany in 1949, becoming the first Opry group to play in Europe, we got Air Force orders explaining why we were going there. One was written in Russian. Hank looked at it and told me, “Billy, you know those Russians will never win a war because they can’t spell.”
Red Foley was really nice, too—a very emotional man. He wrote the sentimental favorite Old Shep, and every time he sang it, he’d have tears in his eyes. I also liked Minnie Pearl, who was very down to earth.
My Opry days ended when I got drafted in 1952. When I got out of the Army, I’d lost my place in the Nashville pecking order. At that point, I realized that I could either study music and learn to read it well, or I could get into another field and learn everything about it.
I’d always liked art, so I attended art school on the GI Bill. That led to a graphic arts career of more than 30 years. But I kept playing at dance clubs and country clubs, and I still play every day. I also play periodically at steel guitar venues around the country. When you’re 81 years old, you get to do what you enjoy.
I was incredibly blessed to play guitar at the Grand Ole Opry for those four years in the 1940s, doing what I’d dreamed of.
And Floyd? He wrote, published and sang the 1959 Top 20 hit Makin’ Love, played with the likes of Little Jimmy Dickens and George Morgan, and still works in the music business today.
Billy Robinson • Gallatin, Tennessee
Give a listen. Billy Robinson, a member of the international Steel Guitar Hall of Fame, can be heard at billyrobinson.net.