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.
October 16, 2021 @ 10:21 am
Well said Trigger!
October 16, 2021 @ 1:56 pm
Well done. I love my fellow steel players.
October 16, 2021 @ 7:51 pm
God Bless you Billy, I know old Hank was waiting with angels, thank you for that AMAZING music that I’ve loved my entire life, I almost believe it was the FIRST MUSIC I EVER HEARD! You guys are part of my being, SO, THANK YOU! Rest in Peace and save me a place! I probably won’t get out or this World alive, either! God Bless!
October 16, 2021 @ 9:00 pm
Beautiful tribute and remembrance Trigger .
October 16, 2021 @ 10:57 pm
What a legacy to be at or around ground zero-hey Trigger post a music link, video or audio
Saturday night Orlando Fla with Scott H Biram-
“Live music is better” bumper stickers should be issued
Wally philo szczublewski
October 17, 2021 @ 4:00 am
Rip billy I worked at your house several times and remember all the stories you told about the early days of country music showing all of you art work which was just as good as you music and never will forget you set up your steel and played a few songs these are memories only a chosen few have I am glad I was blessed to be one rip my friend
October 17, 2021 @ 5:40 am
Great obit Trigger, I posted it on the Steel Guitar forum thread for Billy.
October 17, 2021 @ 6:14 am
October 17, 2021 @ 10:53 am
Im so sad to hear we’ve lost another great performer. The steel guitar is so beautiful to hear but so is all the other instruments if played with heart and soul. I grew up on these songs and still love them today. I thought kitty wells patsy clone Loretta would live forever then patsy is killed in plane crash . HANK DIED the day after my parents were married. We gonna get to go to some great opry shows again one day and I look so forward to it . Think about it yall.
October 17, 2021 @ 1:28 pm
Oh no not another one! But then I’m not as sad as I used to be when the country artists would leave this earth. I began listening to country music that I was aware of when I was 5 years old. I know it was ingrained in my soul long before then. We lived in the Backwoods country of the Catskill Mountains in Upstate New York. All we could get on our radio was WAAT Newark New Jersey with Al Harris, WCKY Cincinnati Ohio, WWVA Wheeling West Virginia and mostly WSM the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville Tennessee. Country music is so ingrained in my soul my heart and my mind and I cried a million tears when each of the great real true country Stars left this world. I will never forget as long as I live the night Hank Williams died. I turned 12 years old 22 days after he died. I laid in the bed crying my heart out all night long.
I now live in Gatlinburg Tennessee where some friends of mine had a cabin on the road up to OBEE Ski Mountain. My favorite thing about that whole trip was when they showed me the gates with the musical notes on it that was representative of a cabin that Hank Williams once owned.
I didn’t know that I couldn’t sing or play the guitar when the teacher in my 9th grade Home Ec class ask us to bring our talent to class one day. I bought my guitar with me and sang, “Wedding Bells are Ringing in the Chapel.”
Oh boy was I embarrassed and I still am when I think about how I was so naive thinking I could sing and later learned as my mom would say, I “couldn’t carry a tune in a wastebasket.” But I wanted to share Hank Williams with the class.
When we would come to visit Gatlinburg before we moved here we used to visit Little Roy Wiggins when he played at a little cozy place in Pigeon Forge Tennessee! Oh my God I love that man! Sadly I never knew the sweet gentleman that just left us that was so famous and played for so many of the Stars. How amazing that he lived to be with us even yet in 2021.
May he only rest in peace for a little while and then gather his talents again and play for everyone on the other side because I’ll be there soon wirh my precious husband and friends waiting to hear ALL the country stars who have left us and who have helped to shape who I am today at 81.5 years old.
Maybe when I come back one of these stars will take me under their wings and teach me to sing and play a musical instrument. My husband could play the steel guitar. Someone stole my prize possession the 1976 MARTIN GUITAR COLLECTORS SERIES. #84 of 1976 made for the Bicentennial. But he didn’t get the warranty papers!!
You can print my email!!
October 17, 2021 @ 4:35 pm
Rest In Peace Billy Robinson!
October 17, 2021 @ 5:56 pm
I miss my Daddy it’s been rough. I feel so lost.
October 17, 2021 @ 8:04 pm
October 18, 2021 @ 10:04 pm
you’ll never fill the void, you’ll never stop the tears, you’ll never understand why such loss, but you will find your own way of making it thru each day as long as you NEVER FORGET!! Welcome the memories, the stories the feeling when you were with him, don’t try to close any of those out to try and just not be reminded of your loss. I did that when my dad passed and it was several months of added depression that I brought upon myself and more worry for my family. then I started embracing all of those things that came along and even tried to create more and more as days went by. now I watch the same old westerns, or documentaries and religious programs as my dad did and it helps me get thru it 1 day at a time. God bless you and your Family
October 17, 2021 @ 6:34 pm
RIP MY FRIEND RIP MY 🙏FRIEND
October 18, 2021 @ 4:12 am
Thank you so much Mr. Billy, your live on this earth has inspired many other young men to take up a chair and play their hearts out. “Your the very best of us all, we will miss you my wonderful ol friend. “Rest high on that Mountain.
October 20, 2021 @ 9:11 am
It was a true honor and privilege to have known Mr. Robinson. His cheerful disposition always lit up the room. He will be missed by all who knew him.
Billy, May you forever enjoy that great Hemidemisemiquaver in the sky.
October 22, 2021 @ 5:48 pm
It’s a great honor to have shared great conversation and time getting to know Billy. Truly a genuine man. Shelley, thank you for sharing him with me.
November 1, 2021 @ 10:46 am
I listened to the 1st part of the Alcorn interview, good stuff. I’m listening to the 2nd part now.
I also came across this interview on the CMA hall website, from 1998:
just a fyi.