I received a couple of phone calls from drivers on Tuesday, Sept. 2, to relay the news that Jerry Reed had died at age 71.
It was the first time in my eight years at Truckers News that someone called to let me know a celebrity was dead. I didn’t get calls when Johnny Cash passed a few years ago, though his star status was arguably brighter than that of Reed. You can still certainly draw comparisons between the two. Both were Grammy award-winning singer/songwriters and actors. They each had distinctive styles that set them apart from the cookie-cutter celebrity crowd.
But Reed holds a special place in the hearts of truck drivers. His recurring role as Cledus “Snowman” Snow in the three Smokey and the Bandit movies and his hit theme song from the first movie, “East Bound and Down,” struck a cord with truckers that has endured for more than three decades.
Even before he slid behind the wheel of a truck as the Bandit’s sidekick, Reed had a following of truckers with songs like “Guitar Man” (covered by Elvis Presley), “Amos Moses” and “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot.” His mix of country, southern rock and Cajun sounds combined with his “good ol’ boy” humor to make him popular enough among the mainstream and earn him an animated role as himself in the Scooby Doo cartoon series in 1972.
Soon after, he landed small roles in two movies, W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings and Gator, both starring his friend Burt Reynolds. After the success of the first Smokey and the Bandit movie, Reed again played a trucker in the action/drama High-Ballin with Peter Fonda.
Ever versatile, Reed revitalized his music career in the early 1980s with novelty hits “She Got the Gold Mine (And I Got the Shaft)” and “The Bird.”
He continued to earn praise for his acting with movies like The Survivors, in which he played a criminal pitted against Robin Williams and Walter Matthau, and Bat 21, with Gene Hackman and Danny Glover. His last large role was with Adam Sandler in The Waterboy.
I saw Reed live only once. In 1983, he performed at the Rainsville (Ala.) Civic Center near my hometown. I went with a friend and remember Reed came out wearing a coat covered in chicken feathers. He said he couldn’t afford a fur coat but was working his way up to one.
As good as his music was – he was considered by many, including the late Chet Atkins, to be one of the greatest guitar players ever – his down-home storytelling was even better. He told the audience about the first time he met Elvis. Reed said he had been out fishing all day and was dirty and smelly when he was met at the boat dock by his agent with Elvis in tow. Reed took one look at Elvis and said, “Damn, you’re pretty.”
I found that same honesty and humor when I interviewed him a couple years ago for a story we were doing on the greatest trucker movies. I called his agent in Nashville to set up an interview. She said she would have him call me at such-and-such time the next week.
Being warned that Reed had a tendency to talk fast and ramble from one story to another if he was enjoying the conversation, I decided to record the interview. I’m glad I did. He started out talking about his morning fishing trip with his neighbor, country legend Bobby Bare, and off we went, eastbound and down memory lane.
Reed was friendly, entertaining and informative at the same time. I didn’t feel like I was doing an interview. I was in the middle of a performance, but it was not an act. I felt like I riding with the Snowman, sans the truck and CB. There was a lot of himself in Cledus Snow, Reed admitted.
While Reed wasn’t typecast to the Smokey and the Bandit role, it made him an icon to truckers who wanted to be what he portrayed – a fun-loving rebel with the heart and soul of an ordinary guy.
That wasn’t acting. That was Jerry Reed.