Either you wanted to be him, or you wanted to sleep with him. That was just the way it was with Burt Reynolds. Nobody ever rocked a mustache or a feather-brimmed cowboy hat harder, and no matter how hard your tried with your T-Top American-made sports car and hairy chest, you never were going to be as cool. Burt Reynolds broke the mold, and left a damn good-looking corpse even at 82.
By the bullet points on the resume, Burt Reynolds had little to do with country music. Sure there was his overdubbed singing parts with Dolly Parton on Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, or that silly song “Let’s Do Something Cheap and Superficial” he released as part of the Smoky and the Bandit II soundtrack (it actually charted briefly on Billboard). But the guy was an actor; a leading man. He wasn’t a musician. Yet Burt Reynolds arguably did just as much or more to make country music cool as any other non performer, and many performers too.
Jerry Reed was one bad mother in the 70’s with his feather sideburns and trucker hat, burning licks on the guitar that have yet to be topped, and bringing a funky Georgia flavor to country music like no other. But he wasn’t a superstar, or even a household name. He was a session musicians with a few semi hits, until they put him beside Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit.
Trust me, even your friends who profess to hate country music with all their everloving heart can’t resist the heart-pounding temptation when they hear the first crack from that rolling banjo in “East Bound and Down,” and and then those dueling Jerry Reed guitar grooves come in and lay a mean whipping on you. Yeah it’s a badass song, but it was the fact that it was embedded in a movie with Burt Reynolds that made it a timeless American anthem.
It may sound cliché as hell, but Burt Reynolds made everyone around him better, and some of those people had a big role in country music. His machismo was so thick and effusive, it hung around him in a 100-foot radius. Everyone knew that Dolly Parton could be a superstar behind the microphone, but her chemistry with Burt Reynolds on Best Little Whorehouse in Texas proved she could be a superstar on the silver screen. Dolly had an entire generation gripped, and grabbing for her albums. Maybe they came for the boobs, but they stayed for the ballads, and soon Dolly became a leading lady and a massive crossover star.
Not since Gram Parsons did a figure in American pop culture act like a bigger bridge to country music, and proved how it could be cool. It didn’t matter if you weren’t from the South. Burt Reynolds was from Lansing, Michigan. And Burt didn’t portray some Urban Cowboy-style Hollywood version of a modern man. This was the real deal. Dolly Parton, Jerry Reed and others validated Burt’s authenticity, and Burt upped their appeal in return. He didn’t just perform with these people. Burt and Jerry Reed were close friends. Burt had a big friendship with Tammy Wynette, and helped make sure Mel Tillis made it into Smokey and the Bandit II and Cannonball Run. Songs sung by Don Williams were all over Burt Reynolds movie soundtracks.
And thank god Burt Reynolds didn’t try to parlay his acting career into some kind of Nashville recording deal, and not just because he couldn’t sing. That move would have been too obvious. That wouldn’t have been Burt Reynolds. He was too cool for that. It’s exactly what a hot actor who had hobnobbed with country stars would do. That’s why Burt Reynolds didn’t do it.
Even in his older age, Burt Reynolds held on to his dignity, deciding to fade out-of-sight and forgo the facelift as opposed to try and hold onto a myth that had outlived him. His memory was more virile without him trying to ride off it past his prime. Even as the shrived shell of his former self occasionally showed up at movie premiers in his rose-colored glasses, the son-of-a-bitch was still cooler than all of us, and knew it. Because he was Burt Reynolds.
Burt Reynolds the man is gone, but from small kids to grown ass men, and to women young and old, they still pretend to be him, or be with him. For most famous humans who walk the earth, the myth precedes them. But with Burt Reynolds, the myth really was the man.