Richard Weize Archives
At 30 tracks, “Byrd’s Expedition” is the second-longest (after a five-disc Bill Monroe box) of 20 or so releases to date from the boutique startup launched last year by Richard Weize, founder of Germany’s highly regarded country/rock ’n’ roll reissue label Bear Family.
Spotlighting the early recordings of perhaps the greatest lap steel player, the compilation draws on Jerry Byrd’s instrumentals for Mercury from 1949 through 1954, focusing mostly on country songs but also including recordings in the Hawaiian genre, which the guitarist later almost exclusively worked in. Byrd’s ax of choice during this period was a Rickenbacker Electro seven-string lap steel (except for a six-string model used on the first few numbers), made of a plasticlike material called Bakelite.
“Expedition” is curated by award-winning music historian/collector Dave Samuelson of Battle Ground, Ind., who also provided (with some assistance from Swedish collector Lars Lundgren) original discs that were used when master tapes and/or copies of masters could not be located or were unsuitable.
Christian Zwarg of True Sound Transfers, a shellac expert, remastered the archive material provided by Universal as well the 78s, 45s and LPs provided by collectors, most of which he also transferred.
These are Byrd’s first recordings as a soloist and virtually all are credited to Jerry Byrd and the String Dusters, with about half recorded in Cincinnati (1949-51) and half in Nashville (1952-54, often featuring Chet Atkins on lead guitar).
Many originated as singles that became part of compilations such as 1952’s “Guitar Magic” and 1958’s “Steel Guitar Favorites”; others were recorded expressly for 10-inch LPs such as 1950’s “Nani Hawaii” and 1953’s “Byrd’s Expedition” (whose title song was written for Byrd by Jethro Burns).
Good New Music caught up with Zwarg and asked him about the source material:
“The majority of the material was provided to me in digital format, some tracks from Universal archives, others from collectors,” he said by email.
“… Some of the earlier (master tapes), however, turned out to be analog dubs from disc masters, probably made in the 1960s when these tracks were first issued on LP. I did not use all of those, because modern digital dubs from these discs in a few cases gave better sonics — many of the old tape dubs had been “improved” with an extra layer of reverb, and we avoided these. Other, slightly later recordings were indeed master tapes in the usual sense of the word, and yet other titles were only available as vintage 78- and/or 33⅓-rpm discs.
“… I did not use any digital noise reduction, just declicking/decrackling for the disc sources and careful EQ adjustment, to faithfully preserve the original sonic ambience of the tracks. You invariably lose some detail with any kind of single-end denoising. To not denoise, unless absolutely inevitable to achieve listenable quality on very poor sources, is standard practice both at my studio and for the RWA label.”
Producer Dave Samuelson offered some insight into the genesis of the project:
“I’ve been part of Bear Family’s stable of writers for nearly 30 years,” he told GNM in an email. “I pestered Richard Weize about compiling a comprehensive Jerry Byrd box for years, especially while the steel guitarist was alive and could provide valuable insight into the sessions and musicians.”
Asked which songs had to be transferred from discs, Samuelson answered:
“… When this project began, Richard Weize sent me a list of what Byrd Mercurys he had. … (He) did not have a copy of ‘Byrd’s Expedition’ — my own copy of that (1952) 10-inch LP was in VG- shape, hardly a decent source for a digital restoration. Released not long before 10-inch LPs were phased out of the marketplace, it’s not an easy album to find. It took me five years to find one. Fortunately, Weize obtained a copy in better shape from a Swedish collector. Weize’s source copies of ‘St. Louis Blues’ and ‘Steel Guitar Rag’ were drenched in echo that Mercury later added; I supplied 78s and 45s for both titles. The LP reissue of ‘Twilight Blues’ had mistracking problems about a minute into the tune, either a flaw on the master tape or due to a faulty lacquer. I supplied a 45-rpm pressing that yielded a better transfer.”
Speaking of the old 10-inch LP format, other songs on this compilation made their way onto two other 10-inch records: “Nani Hawaii” (1950, Jerry Byrd with Danny Kuaana and His Islanders) and “Guitar Magic” (1952). But “Byrd’s Expedition” was the only one recorded specifically for that format.
“Only the three 10-inch LPs were issued while Byrd was contracted to Mercury,” Samuelson shared. “However, Byrd later implied that the sessions for ‘Byrd’s Expedition’ were conceived as an album, and they probably were. However, the finished release included at least one master from an earlier session and some tracks were set aside for singles. All four of Byrd’s 12-inch Mercury LPs were compilations; I highly doubt Byrd had any input on content.”
Samuelson also was able to tell GNM exactly what percentage of songs here have been previously issued on CD:
” ‘Steelin’ the Blues’ appeared on a CD anthology marking 50 years of country music on Mercury Records,” he said. “Two other tracks appeared on a Japanese CD reissue of ‘On the Shores of Waikiki,’ Mercury’s first 12-inch release of Byrd’s Hawaiian material. Twelve others appeared on a Cattle CD bootleg. If you discount the latter album, 90 percent of this material has not appeared on CD. If you include it, the answer is 50 percent.”
The collection eases into the country instrumentals, starting off first with the lone vocal number (“Steelin’ the Blues,” a rousing Byrd original featuring Rex Allen singing his own after-the-fact lyrics), then a sublime Hawaiian cut (“Maui Chimes”) before taking on a country-proper instrumental (the lively “Byrd’s Boogie”). Things really get underway with “Wabash Blues,” featuring call-and-response guitars between Byrd and an overdubbed Byrd, who answers himself with some amazing wah-wah pedal.
Moving on to 1950, “Steel Guitar Rag” is a fine update on Leon McAuliffe’s 1936 showcase with Bob Wills, itself based on a 1923 Sylvester Weaver guitar instrumental. Byrd likewise covered the 1920s jazz standard “South” by Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra, which had become a jukebox favorite in 1944, nine years after the pianist died. “South” benefited mightily from twin leads by Byrd and String Duster electric guitarist Zeke Turner, plus short-but-sweet solos by an unknown pianist and Turner.
From 1951, Byrd again dabbles in Les Paul-style overdubbing to great effect on “South Sea Moon,” a number he learned off a syndicated broadcast disc by one of his main influences, Hawaiian guitarist Dick McIntire. Also from the same session (Turner’s last with Byrd) come kicking-the-can Byrd original “Blues Boogie” and a smooth interpretation of Harry Owens and His Royal Hawaiians’ “Cocoanut Grove,” both featuring Owen Bradley on organ.
The balance of the collection, comprising the “uncredited Chet Atkins” era, includes songs where Byrd and/or Atkins employ overdubs, such as Byrd original “Gold Coast Blues” and ‘Fats’ Wallers’ “Jitterbug Waltz.” Byrd’s “This ‘n That” boasts Nashville fiddlers Tommy Jackson and Dale Potter. “Hula Blues” is a cover of a 1920 standard written by Johnny Noble (who took a Hawaiian-ragtime subgenre and developed it further into a Hawaiian-jazz sound). And the twangy “Georgia Steel Guitar” is a Georgia Peach Pickers cover.
Samuelson’s liner notes in the accompanying 52-page booklet contain a wealth of historical information. But GNM reached out to Joe Goldmark — a San Francisco-based pedal steel guitarist and principal in retailer Amoeba Records who’s an avid record collector (see vinylbeat.com) and author of the “International Steel Guitar Discography” — for an artist testimonial.
“Jerry was a musician’s musician,” Goldmark replied by email. “He was called the ‘master of touch and tone’ because he always played the right part, and played it beautifully.
“He didn’t feel the need to transition to pedals in the late ’50s like most steel players did, because he was a master at slanting the bar to create sliding double stops, much like a fiddler would do, and what the pedals do on modern steels.
‘It’s fun to listen to Hank Williams recordings and hear the difference between the gorgeous ‘Byrd’ recordings and the stark ‘Don Helms’ recordings. They’re both perfect in their own right, but you can really hear the imagination and beauty that Jerry Byrd brought to a recording.
‘A lot of his work dried up in the 1960s in Nashville, as producers wanted a more modern sound. He was still featured on albums when a country artist recorded a Hawaiian album (Hank Snow, Marty Robbins, etc.), but he wasn’t earning a good living. So in the early 1970s, he followed his dream and retired to Hawaii where he continued to play casuals and play in hotel bands until his death in 2005.
“I can tell you from personal experience that Jerry was also a wonderful and humble guy who always had a kind word for beginners and fellow musicians. I met him and also corresponded with him, and got some long letters with good musical advice in response to some of my albums that I sent him.”
1. Steelin’ The Blues (Rex Allen, vocal)
2. Maui Chimes
3. Byrd’s Boogie
4. Wabash Blues
5. Steelin’ The Chimes
6. Steel Guitar Rag
7. Hilo March
8. Panhandle Rag
9. St Louis Blues
10. Three-String Swing
12. Twilight Blues
13. South Sea Moon
14. Blues Boogie
15. Cocoanut Grove
16. Kewalo Chimes
17. Limehouse Blues
18. Gold Coast Blues
19. This ‘n’ That
20. Kohalo March
21. Jitterbug Waltz
22. Byrd’s Expedition
23. Paradise Isle
24. Wang Wang Blues
25. Hula Blues
26. Georgia Steel Guitar
27. Honolulu March
28. Turner’s Turnpike
29. Hawaiian Sunset
30. Texas Playboy Rag
Total time: 1:16:48