#18 - Jerry Byrd - Christmas in Hawaii

When Ho`olohe Hou was a radio program, I offered a segment entitled “Unlikely Heroes in Hawaiian Music” which featured artists who should not have attained such popular or critical acclaim in the field of traditional Hawaiian music because of their perceived natural, physical, geographic, or ethnic limitations. And the first such artist I featured was steel guitarist Jerry Byrd. 

Jerry Byrd was not a Hawaiian but a haole from Lima, Ohio. As he used to tell his own story, Byrd fell in love with the steel guitar as a child after begging his parents for the money to go a Chautauqua, the traveling shows popular in the early 20th century which featured everything from educational and religious lectures to the latest hits from Broadway or the Metropolitan Opera. (President Theodore Roosevelt referred to the Chautauqua as “the most American thing in America.”) At the particular show Byrd attended he heard a traveling music troupe from Hawai`i which was led by steel guitar. It was love at first listen for Byrd, and the rest – as I often say here – is history. Byrd did not go on merely to become a steel guitarist. He is widely acknowledged as the greatest steel guitarist of all time for his unparalleled technique – things he could do with this most difficult of instruments with only a straight steel bar that many of Nashville’s finest have not been able to do since with a bar and eight, nine, or ten pedals. He was dubbed the “Master of Touch and Tone” and inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in 1975 – among the first to receive the honor. 

But I, for one, don’t think this is Byrd’s most important contribution to the world of music. Byrd toiled somewhat in obscurity – as far as Hawaiian music is concerned – near his Midwest home until 1970 when he made the permanent move to the mecca of the music he so loved. But he relocated to Hawai`i with a specific mission in mind: To revive the Hawaiian steel guitar, which by the 1970s was a dying art with a only a handful of the last generation of the living legends still performing or recording. With grants from the State of Hawai`i, Byrd began to teach and ended up with two budding protégés and future legends themselves: Alan Akaka and Casey Olsen. In recent years Akaka has taken on teaching nearly full time – breeding yet another new generation of steel guitarists. In short, Byrd almost single-handedly revived the steel guitar in Hawai`i - despite being a haole from Ohio. 

Christmas In Hawaii is a fine example of Byrd’s virtuosity on the instrument. With the help of longtime friend and musical partner, Hiram Olsen, on the guitar and vibraphonist Francis Ho`okano (of Harold Haku`ole’s “Sometime Group” which recorded with Noelani Mahoe and the Leo Nahenahe Singers on their Hawaiian Christmas), this release by Byrd nearly 40 years ago remains the only recording of steel guitar instrumentals for the holidays in the Hawaiian style. And once you listen, you will understand that you have heard nothing like it before and that despite his Midwest roots, Byrd – as often remarked by his peers – was as Hawaiian as they came. 

Because the album has been rereleased in the digital era, you can still enjoy the entire album on Spotify, Rhapsody, and other streaming music services or by purchasing the MP3 version from iTunes, Amazon.com, and practically anywhere MP3s are sold. 

Next time: #17 on Ho`olohe Hou’s list of the 25 Greatest Christmas Albums from Hawai`i 


Direct download: 18_Christmas_-_Jerry_Byrd_-_Christmas_in_Hawaii.mp3
Category:70s and 80s -- posted at: 5:12am EDT