Depression-era Lima, Ohio, wouldn’t seem to be a likely place for a young boy to grow up dreaming about Hawaii, but on second thought it might have been ideal. After all, what better way to forget hard times than to imagine yourself in a Pacific paradise? That must have been how it was for steel guitarist Jerry Byrd, who was a country music performer for much of his career but always preferred Hawaiian-style music, and eventually moved to the islands to became a legend.
Byrd began his career by playing guitar in bars while still in his mid-teens, and even though he sometimes played Hawaiian music, his route to early success lay in conventional country music. He was soon making his name on regional radio and within a few years had managed to land a regular spot on the Grand Ole Opry. During and after World War II Byrd continued to show up in high-profile spots, working with stars like Ernie Lee and Red Foley, and he soon began making records too — including a few of Hawaiian music.
Throughout the 1950s and later, Byrd continued to keep busy, mostly working in conventional country music with headliners like Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, and Patsy Cline. He also helped a young Dolly Parton get a start. (Which might be one reason she later appeared with him in the video below.) But he continued to lean toward Hawaiian music, and in the late 1960s he finally decided to fully commit to his muse by moving to the islands.
Byrd went on to become an established part of the Hawaiian musical world, enjoying more than three decades of popularity and acclaim while performing the music he loved. By the time he died at age 85 in 2005, he’d become part of the Hawaii’s musical legacy.