Steel Guitar Hall of Famer Walter Haynes, who also wrote and produced hit country music songs, died Jan. 1 in Tyler, Texas. He was 80, and was known for his work with Jimmy Dickens, Del Reeves, The Everly Brothers, Jeanne Pruett and numerous others.
“When you heard Walter play on things like Jimmy Dickens’ ‘We Could,’ the tone was just so beautiful,” said broadcaster, musician and historian Eddie Stubbs. “That steel guitar sounded almost like it was breathing.”
Haynes’ legacy is not solely defined by his steel guitar prowess. He produced Pruett’s “Satin Sheets” and Cal Smith’s “Country Bumpkin,” and also produced artists including Reeves, Marty Robbins and Bill Monroe. And though he was not a prolific songwriter, he co-wrote (with Hank Mills) Del Reeves’ No. 1 1965 hit, “Girl on the Billboard.” The inspiration for that song came when he saw a Coca-Cola billboard that featured a swimsuit-wearing model. Without a pen and paper handy, he scribbled ideas for the song in his dust on his car’s dashboard.
Yet steel players and traditional country music fans speak first of Mr. Haynes’ contributions as an instrumentalist. Raised in Kingsport, Mr. Haynes moved to Nashville in 1949 as a fiddle player. Two years later, he had switched to steel and was working toward a sound that was complex and intricate for its time.
He became a major influence on Buddy Emmons, who would join Dickens’ band after Mr. Haynes left the group in 1955. Emmons would later broaden the impact of the pedal steel guitar and would become beloved in doing so. Less celebrated than Emmons, Mr. Haynes was nonetheless crucial in bridging instrumental eras. Mr. Haynes provided a link between the simple lap steel of the 1940s and the more sophisticated pedal steel styles of Emmons, Lloyd Green and others.
An addition to his time in Dickens’ Country Boys group, Mr. Haynes worked the road with Ferlin Husky and Webb Pierce. He also worked for 13 years as a staff musician on the Grand Ole Opry. In the studio, he was versatile enough to play on such disparate recordings as Dickens’ rockabilly-fused “Hey Worm! (You Wanna Wiggle),” Patsy Cline’s elegant “Walkin’ After Midnight” and rocker J.J. Cale’s 1971 Naturally album.
Mr. Haynes also worked some music-related “day jobs,” heading up Moss Rose Publishing and serving as an assistant to Owen Bradley at Decca and as a vice president at MCA Nashville. In young days, he was a dashing fellow, as well: Elvis Presley once asked him for hairstyling advice.
At the time of his death, Mr. Haynes had been teaching music lessons in Bullard, Texas, where he lived with wife Cindy.