Steel guitars in all their many variations have long been a fascinating part of music. Named after the steel slide used to alter the pitch of the strings while playing — not the material of the guitar itself — the distinctive sound they create has become a familiar part of everything from country music to Hawaiian melodies. It’s thought that the practice of using something other than the fingers to press down the strings originated many years ago when some inventive guitarists began playing what was called “bottleneck guitar” — using the neck of a glass beer bottle for a slide. Variations gradually appeared, among them lap slide guitars and pedal steel guitars, and the latter became the specialty of someone who eventually lent his name to a specific style of instrument.
Although he eventually earned the nickname Mr. Country Soul, Jimmy Day was one of the best-kept secrets in country music. A tremendously respected sideman for many of the biggest stars, he was much in demand and played with everyone from Webb Pierce to Willie Nelson. Along the way, Jimmy and his beloved pedal steel guitar — which he called Blue Darlin’ — created a legacy that will stand for a long time.
The Alabama-born Day always wanted a career in country music, but he wasn’t always a guitar virtuoso. While growing up in post-war Tuscaloosa he began to get frustrated by his inability to satisfy himself with his guitar play — especially his stret work. However, that changed the night he happened to catch steel guitar master Shot Jackson playing at a local spot. Jimmy Day had found his calling.
By the 1950s, Day had worked himself into the professional music scene, beginning with the Louisiana Hayride radio show and then becoming part of rising star Webb Pierce’s circle of cohorts. Studio sessions with Pierce and young pianist Floyd Cramer — who Day had known since childhood — soon followed, and resulted in the number-one hit record, “This Heart Belongs to Me.”
Day’s reputation continued to grow over the next few years, as he found himself working with Hank Williams, Jim Reeves, Elvis Presley, and many other stars. He also gradually transitioned from his familiar lap slide guitar to the newly developed pedal steel model, and used the new style instrument in his latest gig — joining up with Ray Price for many Grand Ole Opry appearances and also showing up on the latter’s timeless recording of “Crazy Arms.”
Well established by then as a pedal steel guitar master, Day got together with his inspiration Shot Jackson for a manufacturing partnership, and one of the first off the line became Day’s favorite — his beloved Blue Darlin’. Eventually Day left the guitar business to others, but for many years customers could order their new pedal steel with his custom pedal configurations.
Day continued to play with countless country music stars through the years, including Ernest Tubb, George Jones, and Leon Russell, and he also stepped into the spotlight for some purely instrumental records of his own. Some of his best included “Rippin’ Out,” “Steelin’ The Blues,” and of course, the classic “Steel Guitar Rag.” He died in 1999.