This article was written a few years ago by Winnie Winston, the fine three-finger banjoist and pedal steel artist. Winnie won first place banjo at Union Grove for four consecutive years in the mid-1960s, about the time I started attending the event. Our paths crossed or almost crossed many times during my Rambler years. He moved to New Zealand in 1994 and died of prostate cancer on June 12 of 2005. I hope readers will go to his site and real all of his lovely articles on music and other aspects of his rich and varied life. He proves, once again, that living well is the best revenge. --Bill
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Jimmy Day. His name inspires awe. Day and Emmons. The amazing duo. The guys who created all the stuff that everyone else tried to copy. The guys who made the E9th tuning what we know. The guys who split the pedals.
Long before I met Jimmy, his reputation preceded him. "How's Jimmy," someone would ask. "I hear he's finally straightening out," was the reply. It was that reply for years. Booze and pills.
I heard that Ray Price was once asked what it was like having Jimmy in the band. "Great," said Ray."We never had to get him a motel room because he never slept." Jimmy Day. The speed king. Always a step away from straightening out.
No one wanted to hire him because he was so unpredictable. He got a job for a while playing steel for Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen. He was too weird for them-- and THAT is going some.
After a bad spell in Nashville, he divorced and moved to Austin, Texas. A friend told me how he went to see Jimmy with a band there and found that Jimmy had just taken LSD, and sat, immobile, at his steel for the evening, just nursing a beer. My hero. Unable to play.
Somewhere along the line I had heard that Jimmy had begun to straighten out. He was, said another source, "smoking dope." He found it (as Jimmy later related to me) a mellowing influence that was able to round off all the edges-- both the edges he saw and felt in society and the edges he developed in reaction to them.
Right about that time, The Pedal Steel Guitar Association in New York asked me if I would be interested in doing a show with Jimmy Day. I'd open, he'd do a long set, and then I'd close. It was probably 1978 or 1979. I had just done my Philo record. "Sure," I said -- mainly because all the material I was playing was mine, and I was not playing any of the standards for which Jimmy was known. I reasoned, "He's been doing it for 30 years. Of course he's that good. No need to compete!"
So I went to do the show. And I brought along two joints. I waited until I saw Jimmy head to the men's room and I followed. I introduced myself, and with some trepidation said, "I think you might like these." He grinned. "Now THAT is Northern hospitality," he replied. "Can we smoke somewhere?" So we went out to my car, smoked a j, and then Jimmy went back in to play his set. He was wonderful. Every note. So full of soul. And the C6th stuff was sooo funky. He was breathtaking.
Then it was time for me to close. Halfway through, Jimmy had to leave to catch the plane. He came up to me as I was playing, stood directly in front of me, tweaked my cheek, and said, with a big grin, "See ya around." I didn't miss a note. What an achievement!
The next September, a friend of mine came with me to St. Louis to experience the steel guitar scene. After checking in to the hotel, I was eager to search for Joe Kline who was delivering my new Kline guitar to me. We were walking through the lobby when I spotted Jimmy. We greeted each other with a hug and I introduced him to my friend and told them I'd catch up with them later. I went one way, they went the other.
Later I met my friend. He said, "Who WAS that guy?" I said, "Jimmy Day. Why?" He said, "We went back to his room, toked a few, and then he sat down and played. He is amazing. I've never heard anything like that!" Oh my! A private concert by Jimmy Day for a person who knew nothing about steel. How wonderful. I had to explain to him who Jimmy was. A member of the greater pantheon. Of course he was good!
In 1982 I was taking a sabbatical from teaching and drove cross country. On the way back east I stopped in Austin, Texas. I looked up Herb Steiner, and we drove out to visit with Jimmy in Buda who, by this time, was happily married to a wonderful woman, Marilyn, a third grade school teacher.
We sat in Jimmy's kitchen and smoked and talked. He had a great sense of humor and regaled us with stories. As we talked there was a power outage. The dogs wanted to go out, so he opened the door for them, and we went back to smoking, talking, and nursing our sodas. About two hours later, the power came back on. Herb said, "The electricity's back." Just at that moment the dogs came to the door and I said, "The dogs are back too." Jimmy looked up with a curious expression and said, "I didn't know dogs ran on electricity!" A great moment.
The next year at St. Louis was when Jimmy announced after his set that he'd been clean for five years and hadn't taken any pills or drunk any alcohol-- not even a beer-- in that time. The audience who all knew about (or heard rumors about) the crazy Jimmy Day gave him a standing ovation. No pills or booze. But lots of unmentioned reefer!
That evening I went up to Jimmy's suite overlooking the St. Louis Arch, and with a few other folks, had a smoke, talked, and stared out the window at the majestic arch which was almost at eye level.
An evening or two with Jimmy became a yearly ritual. During one of those times he played a tape he had made with Willie Nelson-- Willie on guitar, Jimmy playing bass, and both of them singing. It was magnificent. I don't know if Willie ever got it back after the IRS confiscated a bunch of his stuff over overdue taxes.
One time Marilyn asked me what I did for a living. I said I was a teacher. "See," she said to Jimmy, "I told you so!" She had asked Jimmy what I did, and Jimmy said he didn't have any idea and thought I just played steel. She told him that I seemed like a teacher. I was! And after that, many of our evening conversations revolved around the education his young daughter was getting and the shortcomings of school systems in general (she'd been through the education systems in Tennessee, Florida, and now back in Texas) and more specifically those systems which don't allow kids to advance at their own pace. Good thoughts and great conversations.
During one of those years, Jimmy returned to play at the Pedal Steel Guitar Association shindig in New York. I invited my father and his girl friend. She took one look at Jimmy and decided he was gay. She just had never seen a well dressed Texan before! She mistook the leather pants, fancy shirt, coifed hair, and impeccable manners for homosexuality. And then I introduced her to Jimmy. He took her hand gave it a kiss, and then bent over and kissed her on both cheeks. She nearly melted. Fun to watch.
After that show a few of us went to dinner at a moderately upscale restaurant. I observed Jimmy and his demons. Some in the party had ordered wine, some ordered beer. Jimmy had a diet coke. And he watched all the others. I could almost see his deep desire to have a drink. He began to fidget. He stopped the waiter and asked for a cup of coffee. It never came. He grew more restless and stopped the waiter again. "I asked for coffee, and I want it NOW." It was said in a voice that would strike fear into anyone. The coffee came and he drank it. Ah, stimulation.
The last time I saw Jimmy he was dressed to the nines-- a full natty western suit and hat. And he played sooo well. Several times the audience broke into spontaneous applause after a moving solo. His E9th playing was so expressive, and his C6th playing was so raw and honking. He was great.
And that's how I like to remember him. The lanky Texan, moving like his joints were barely connected and as if he was walking through warm jello-- just gliding through life. The man who spoke gently and slowly, with a heart for humanity as big as the world. A gentleman, in every sense of the word.
The next year I was not at St. Louis. I heard from others that he did not seem well, and was very thin. Shortly after he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He was undergoing chemotherapy when he went into cardiac arrest. He was 65.
At the NY meeting I introduced him by quoting the banjo player Allen Shelton who, upon being asked what he thought of Bill Keith's playing, replied, "I sure wish I could play like that and then I wouldn't." Well, ask me about Jimmy and I'd say, "I sure wish I could play like that... and then I would."
He was irreplaceable. Others can try to play those notes, but no one has Jimmy's heart and soul.
I feel honored to have been a friend.
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(Links to sound files of Jimmy Day are included with this article on Winnie Winston's website.)
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June 23, 2005