Legendary guitarist Billy Byrd died in Nashville of natural causes on August 7, 2001. Perhaps best known for his work with Ernest Tubb's Texas Troubadours, Byrd added a jazz feel to Tubb's shows and records. Billy Byrd was 81 years old.
A Nashville native, Mr. Byrd was adept at playing simple, highly commercial, melodic country leads for Tubb, but he was also well-respected for his jazzy flights of virtuosity. He emulated the jazz sounds of players such as Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt, and he tutored Nashville session greats including Hank Garland and Harold Bradley. ''Without him coming along and showing us that jazz stuff, we never would have been able to do what we did,'' said Bradley, who considered Byrd his best friend. ''When I was 14, Billy was dating a girl down the street from me, and he'd come over with two guitars and show me jazz licks. ''At one time he was the best pop jazz player in town, and he had a great influence on me and Hank (Garland) and a lot of people, both as a friend and as a guitar player.''
Mr. Byrd played with Nashville pop bands as a teen-ager and recorded with Herald Goodman's Grand Ole Opry group in 1938. After taking time off to serve in World War II, he played with Western swing and country acts. By 1949, he was making regular Opry appearances with Little Jimmy Dickens and George Morgan. He played guitar on Dickens' first Columbia recording session, which yielded hits Take An Old Cold Tater and Wait and A-Sleeping At The Foot of the Bed. Mr. Byrd also appeared on recordings by Jimmy C. Newman, Johnny Horton, Webb Pierce, Leon Russell and others.
Ernest Tubb hired him as a member of his Texas Troubadours backing band in mid-1949. ''Billy came from a pop and jazz background, and there were some people who were leery of the notion that he could play country with Tubb,'' said Ronnie Pugh, Tubb's biographer. ''But ... he did it and did it well. The 10 years Billy was in the band, he did practically all of the instrumental breaks.'' Tubb often introduced Mr. Byrd's solos in concert and on record by saying, ''Aw, Billy Byrd now'' or ''Take it away, Billy Byrd.''
Billy Byrd became a celebrated instrumentalist, and he and Hank Garland worked together to design the semi-hollow-body Gibson Byrdland electric guitar. Mr. Byrd left Tubb's band in 1959, rejoining twice in the 1960s and 1970s. He also recorded three solo albums with Warner Brothers. When not on the road and not playing in Nashville clubs, he could often be found driving cabs.