Imagine supporting Hank Williams on his iconic Grand Ole Opry debut in 1949, or playing behind one of the other country music legends who performed on this sacred stage during the Opry's golden era. This was the luck of steel guitarist Billy Robinson, who was hired for the Opry house band in 1949 at the age of 18 and became the youngest Opry staff musician. This enabled him to bring country music to life as a prominent American genre and for so long to pass the stories on to future generations of fans and musicians. Billy Robinson has now died at the age of 90.
Born on August 6, 1931, Billy Robinson was a rare Nashville native who began his career in country music. As a young teenager, he helped start a group called Eagle Rangers, which became a proving ground for country musicians, including violinist Jerry Rivers, known for starring with Hank Williams, bassist Bob Moore, and Billy's brother Floyd Robinson, who was himself an accomplished guitarist to play. Floyd Robinson was one of the musicians hired to play for Hank Williams on his show in Canton, Ohio, New Year's Day 1952, which Hank never made it to.
Billy Robinson was very young when he was selected to replace legendary Jerry Byrd in the band behind Red Foley. It was Billy's big break, and when he climbed onto the Opry stage to perform with Red, they wouldn't let him go. In addition to Hank Williams and Red Foley, Robinson also appeared with other Opry legends such as Roy Acuff and Little Jimmy Dickens. When the Opry founded a special package show for a European tour in 1949, Billy Robinson was in the band.
Over time, Robinson also became a sought-after studio musician, playing on recordings by Carl Smith and Webb Pierce. This is Billy Robinson, whom you hear on George Morgan's 1948 hit "Candy Kisses" and Nashville's first multi-million dollar country single, Red Foley's "Chattanooga Shoeshine Boy."
But unlike many of Billy Robinson’s contemporaries and the performers he was playing behind at the time, he was a very young man, and so Robinson was drafted into the military and forced to leave Nashville for just a few short but productive years in his career the Grand Ole Opry behind it. He played steel guitar in the special services, but after being honorably discharged two years later, Billy Robinson decided to go back to school instead of the Opry and eventually entered a much more stable life as a graphic designer and artist.
However, Billy Robinson still found ways to add to the music. When two of his steel guitar friends Shot Jackson and Buddy Emmons started the steel guitar company Sho-Bud, it was Billy Robinson who designed the iconic logo. Later in life, Billy made a series of Christmas cards that all featured Santa Claus and the elves and those with country music. If you've ever seen images like this on social media, they were likely invented and illustrated by Robinson. Eventually he was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame.
After officially retiring from graphic design, Billy Robinson began playing steel guitar again, and specifically the pedalless style that carries a different tone more indicative of early country. A mentor to many aspiring musicians like Chris Scruggs and is more than happy to speak at length to anyone who would hear about country music, including the Country Music Hall of Fame, and performer / Hank Williams historian Joey Allcorn, Billy Robinson one of the guys who contributed to the public record some of the earliest oral lore of Hank Williams and the Grand Ole Opry.
It's pretty incredible that someone who not only saw, but performed with, Hank Williams on his fabled Grand Ole Opry debut was still with us in 2021. Now that Billy Robinson has died, we appreciate his contributions and the memories he left us even more.