Hank Williams & Grand Ole Opry Steel Guitarist Billy Robinson Dies

Imagine having backed Hank Williams on his legendary Grand Ole Opry debut in 1949, or playing behind any of the other country music legends who performed on that hallowed stage during the Opry’s golden era. This was the fortune of steel guitarist Billy Robinson, who when hired to perform in the Opry house band in 1949 at the age of 18, became the youngest ever Opry staff musician. That’s how he was able to see country music come to life as a prominent American genre, and live to pass on the stories to future generations of fans and musicians for so long. Now at the age of 90, Billy Robinson has passed on.

Born on August 6, 1931, Billy Robinson was a rare Nashville native that stuck around to start his career in country music. As a young teenager, he helped form a group called the Eagle Rangers that became a proving ground for country musicians, including fiddler Jerry Rivers known for playing with Hank Williams, bassist Bob Moore, and Billy’s brother Floyd Robinson who was an accomplished guitarist himself. Floyd Robinson was one of the musicians hired to play for Hank Williams at his show in Canton, Ohio New Year’s Day 1952 that Hank never made it to.

Billy Robinson was still very young when he was selected to replace the legendary Jerry Byrd in the band playing behind Red Foley. It was Billy’s big break, and once he climbed onto the Opry stage to perform with Red, they wouldn’t let him leave. Along with Hank Williams and Red Foley, Robinson also performed with other Opry legends such as Roy Acuff and Little Jimmy Dickens. When the Opry formed a special package show to tour Europe in 1949, Billy Robinson was in the band.

As time went on, Robinson also became an in demand studio musician, playing on recordings from Carl Smith and Webb Pierce. That’s Billy Robinson you hear on George Morgan’s big hit “Candy Kisses” from 1948, as well as on Nashville’s first million-selling country single, Red Foley’s “Chattanooga Shoeshine Boy.”

But unlike many of Billy Robinson’s contemporaries and the performers he played behind at the time, he was a very young man, and so only a few short but productive years into his career, Robinson was drafted into the military, and had to leave Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry behind. He did play steel guitar in the special services, but after being honorably discharged two years later, Billy Robinson chose to go back to school instead of the Opry, and eventually entered the much more stable life of being a graphic designer and artist.

Billy Robinson still found ways to contribute to the music though. When two of his steel guitar playing buddies Shot Jackson and Buddy Emmons formed the steel guitar company Sho-Bud, it was Billy Robinson who designed the iconic logo. Later in life Billy made a line of Christmas cards that all featured Santa and the elves and such playing country music. If you’ve ever seen such images floating around on social media, they were likely imagined and illustrated by Robinson. Eventually he was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame.

After officially retiring from graphic design, Billy Robinson got back into playing steel guitar, and specifically the pedal-less style that carries a different tone more indicative of early country. A mentor to many up-and-coming players such as Chris Scruggs, and more than happy to speak at length with anyone who would listen about country music, including the Country Music Hall of Fame, and performer/Hank Williams historian Joey Allcorn, Billy Robinson is one of the guys that contributed some of the earliest oral histories of Hank Williams and the Grand Ole Opry to the public record.

It’s pretty incredible that someone who not just saw, but performed with Hank Williams on his fabled Grand Ole Opry debut was still among us in 2021. Now that Billy Robinson has passed, we cherish his contributions, and the memories he left us with even more.

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