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About The Artist
Herman Gene Lemley was born in Parkersburg, West Virginia. An old magazine article mentions that he never got comfortable with the name Herman, so his parents started calling him "Jigger" which later became "Jiggs" that he was known by during his entertainment career. While primarily known for his steel guitar work, a 1952 article mentions the five foot and a half Jiggs had an excellent voice. Through his musical career, he played the steel guitar, the dobro, bass, rhythm guitar and tenor banjo.
At the age of five years, he was learning the flat-top guitar. At the age of six, he was singing and playing on radio station WPAR in Parkersburg, West Virginia. He entered a talent contest at the age of six years and came in second place.
At the age of 17 years, Jiggs began to learn the steel guitar. As Jiggs tells it, someone came over to their house one night with a steel guitar and when he heard it, he fell in love with it. He had a wife and a kid at the time, his son Mike and all of $110 in savings. He went down to the music store in town and spent it all on a steel guitar and amplifier.
He said he played that particular steel guitar for about two years. When he was 19, he hooked up with Hank Callahan (Jiggs mentions he was known as Hank the Cowhand) from Wichita Falls, Texas. They worked at radio station WMMN in Fairmont, West Virginia. Jiggs worked with him for about six months - when he met Hawkshaw Hawkins.
Sometime before or after that stint with Hank the Cowhand, Jiggs also apparently worked a bit with Booby Cook's group, the Texas Saddle Pals with Jiggs on the steel and Jackie Miller on fiddle. Ivan Tribe's book, "Mountaineer Jamboree" mentions this stint by Jiggs, but doesn't provide an exact year though mentions that Bobby's group was active throughout the decade.
In our interview with Jiggs, he said when he was 20, he left him and started to work with Hawkshaw on January 10, 1948. And went on the road with him, working a lot of high schools, auditoriums and an awful lot of Grand Ole Opry type package shows. That would be events on Sunday afternoon and evening in towns all over the country.
And how he came to work with Hawkshaw is a bit of a story in itself. Jiggs told us he was playing steel, lap steel, in his home town with the local folks. One of the venues was a place called the Coliseum. On one occasion, they booked Hawkshaw there. Jiggs said he was backstage and had put his steel guitar on the stand and got it tuned; Standard tuning and all. Hawkshaw came walking back there and said to Jiggs, "Give me an 'E'." Jiggs said "Okay." And Hawkshaw went ahead and tuned his guitar. He started playing a song and Jiggs said he just started playing along behind him. The first thing you know Hawkshaw asked Jiggs, "You want to help me out tonight? Well, you're going out there first, so you just leave your guitar and amp out there and when I go out just back me up." Jiggs said, "Sure, I'll back you up."
So they went out there and well, right there in the middle of the gig, Jiggs said Hawkshaw says, "Well, I can tell you one thing, you're going to be losing your steel guitar player. I'm taking him to Wheeling with me."
And he hadn't even asked Jiggs yet.
They came off back stage after their appearance and Hawkshaw said, "I offered you a job. And he told Hawkshaw, "I don't think I can do that."
And he said, "Why?" Jiggs told him, "I'm a married man. I got a little boy. I can't just run off and leave them behind."
Hawkshaw then said, "Let's go talk to her."
They got into Jiggs' car and drove up to his house, clear up about eight miles. Hawkshaw talked to his wife. And Jiggs told her that he'd like to do it. She said, "You go do it, if that's what you want to do."
Hawkshaw said, "Well, let me take your guitar and amp with me. And you can come up next Saturday night."
Jiggs just said, "Yeah, I'll be there next Saturday night."
Hawkshaw wanted to take his guitar and amp because was afraid Jiggs wouldn't show up. It was a bit of insurance on his part.
Jiggs told Hawkshaw, "Alright, go ahead and take the damn guitar and amp. And I'll see you next Saturday night."
Jiggs' son Mike related a recollection from Hawkshaw's ex-wife Reva about the hiring of Jiggs. When Hawkshaw got home that night, its said that Hawkshaw was so happy that he was jumping up and down on the bed with glee that he had 'finally got me a great steel player'. One can only imagine the sight of someone as tall as Hawkshaw jumping up and down on the bed. But it also shows you a bit of Hawkshaw's opinion of the steel guitar expertise of Jiggs and what he was looking for in his band at the time.
Then came Saturday night, which Jiggs can still remember to this day.
"And I walked out on that stage and I had never before been in front of 3,000 people in my life. I walked out there and man, my knees were blistered from knocking so much. I'm scared to death. And Hawkshaw began to sing a song, about Panama or something, Pan American Express. He started singing that song and I'm just about like to freeze. I'm going in there and backing him up. He turned it over to me and I started to take a break and it just tore the house down. Man, did that relax me. From then on man, I'm okay."
He told us about his relationship with Hawkshaw. Hawkshaw had two sisters but he didn't have any brothers. Jiggs was four years younger than he was, being 20 at that time while Hawkshaw was 24. They hit it off pretty good. Jiggs thought it was partly because he was looked at like his kid brother. They never had any problems. They always got along great. They never had any arguments of any kind.
Mary Jean Shurtz wrote in a 1948 "National Hillbilly News" column of Hawkshaw forming his band back in 1948, including Jiggs. She also mention the other members of Hawkshaw's troupe at that time, Budge and Fudge and Smokey (perhaps Smokey Pleacher) who was the comedian who also sang, then, too.
For a time, Jiggs and Hawkshaw were a part of the WFIL Hayloft Hoedown. They were only on that show six months, June through November. Two men and their wives run that show he told us. They brought in headliners each Saturday night. He got to meet such stars as Eddy Arnold and the Sons of the Pioneers. Then Jiggs and Hawkshaw went back to the WWVA Jamboree.
There was a group that was very popular then. They did a lot of work there and up in Canada. Doc Williams and the Border Riders. He was on that show. His wife, Chickie. His brother Cy, played the fiddle. He had a blind accordion player. Marion Martin. And they were on the show. And there was also a guy by the name of Big Slim.
In speaking of Big Slim, the Lone Cowboy, Jiggs begins to relate how he became one of the pallbearers at his funeral in 1966. When Jiggs' son, Boots, was home from the Air Force during the Viet Nam war, he said, "Dad, let's run down to Wheeling." Jiggs said okay; and they went down to Wheeling.
Jiggs then ran into Gene Johnson, who used to be Hawkshaw's manager. "Did you know Slim died?" And Jiggs replied, no he didn't. He said, "Yeah, the funeral's this afternoon. Could you be a pall bearer?" Jiggs told him he would.
He mentions Don Kidwell, who finally quit the business and became a pilot for Pan Am. He was up in San Francisco. He was two years younger than Jiggs and he had some pictures of him flying a 747 - flying somewhere between Saudi Arabia and someplace else. He sent me some pictures. He became a pilot when he got out of the music business.
When he started playing the steel, he was using a double-neck, a Rickenbacker - the same one he was using when he joined up with Hawkshaw Hawkins. But it had its moments for Jiggs. He said it was made out of metal. But he couldn't keep it in tune. They would travel when it was below zero and he would have to take it into a warm studio but he could not get it in tune and he could not keep it in tune.
Jiggs told us he met up with another steel player one night on a show they were playing - Noel Boggs, of Spade Cooley's band. The show was at the Capitol Theatre in Wheeling, WV when they were with the WWVA Jamboree He was backstage and got to talking with Noel, who was using two different steel guitars at the time.
Jiggs related to Noel the trouble he was having. Jiggs said, "I told him I has having the darnedest problems. I can't get it in tune. I can't keep it in tune. Unless its been setting in the building all day temperature wise." He told me you go to your music store and tell him to get a hold of Fender out in Fullerton, California and you get yourself a double-necked Fender double-8 and your problems will be over.
So Jiggs went and bought one - the one that's in the picture. A blonde ash Fender and he said he played that thing for years. Jiggs told us, "Man, you could haul that thing around and they weren't no problem keeping that in tune."
During the next five years, he pursued his musical career with Hawkshaw Hawkins. About early 1952, Jiggs left Hawkshaw's group and joined Toby Stroud's Blue Mountain Boys and WWVA. Later, Jiggs worked with George Morgan for a couple of years. And later with a bluegrass group - Don Reno and Red Smiley who had a fiddle player by the name of Toby Stroud. The four of them traveled quite a bit then, mostly in the south. Following that period, he served as a staff musician for one year at radio station WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia, where they would book him out with various acts on the show.
We got to talking about an article that appeared in an old Cowboy Songs magazine. That article was the result of his fan club president, Gloria Meckling of Wellsburg, WV. She arranged to have it published. Jiggs didn't even know she was gonna do it. She brought the magazine backstage and told him, "I've got something to show you." She wrote that article and got it published. Jiggs still recalls her fondly, still remembering her address to this day, a wonderful gal who treated him good.
Jiggs talks of where he made most money when he was with Hawkshaw Hawkins. Most of the acts out of Nashville, when you went to work for them, you went on salary. And that was all you had. Salary and they paid your motel bills and that was it. But Hawkshaw let Jiggs keep his "picture rights." Jiggs would walk out on the stage at night and well, $50 was a heck of a lot of money back then and he'd stand there and sell a bunch of pictures. And that money went into his pockets.
Jiggs remembers a time when he was down in Charleston doing a gig with Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins. He was back stage talking to Copas' steel guitar player.
He said, "How's Hawkshaw to work for?" And Jiggs said, "I like him, we always got along good."
He asked, He pay pretty good?" I said, "Well, I do all right. I got my picture rights."
He said, "You got what?"
Jiggs said, "I got my picture rights."
"You sell your own pictures?"
"You're damn right I sell my own pictures. Ain't no one going to sell my pictures and make money on it and me not get any of it. Ain't no way I'm going down to the Opry if they're gonna sell my picture and make money and not pay me anything.
We talked a bit of Roy Acuff - who in his autobiography told of letting his band sell their recordings and photos (and in fact in our collection is a Smoky Mountain Boys picture folio) and was happy for them. Jiggs told us some stars would allow that, but most wouldn't. Sometimes that arrangement resulted in some pleasant joshing by the other musicians. He told us of one encounter with the steel player for Cowboy Copas who jokingly told him - hey, you go back to Nashville with Copas and I'll go with Hawkshaw. But Jiggs wasn't teasing when he said, "Oh no, I'll keep the job I got."
When we brought up Cowboy Copas, it brought back another bit of a tidbit that he said he would run across now and then with the acts back then. Its about the artists and when they tell you where they're from. Cowboy Copas always said he was the Oklahoma Cowboy. But, on the contrary, he was from Ohio, though he told everybody he came from Oklahoma. His dad was a judge in Columbus. But Copas thought it would 'sell better' if he told folks he was from Oklahoma.
Jiggs related a bit about the other steel guitar players - Joaquin Murphey who was on the west coast - a "hell of a good steel man." Noel Boggs came up again - he asked if we knew of Nelson King who was a disc jockey over radio station WCKY in Cincinnati back then. He said that when his show came on the air each night, he'd start the show with the old Leon McAuliffe (another legendary steel guitar player) tune, "Steel Guitar Rag." But the recording Nelson played was the one by Noel Boggs. Jiggs had high praise for another steel player who was on the Hee Haw band for a time - Curly Chalker.
In 1954, he moved to New York and for three years, played in various night clubs. The life on the road had gotten to him. And he wanted to spend more time with his family. When he went to New York, he hooked up with Al Dufrane and the Bunkhouse Buckaroos. They were being heard over WICY every Tuesday evening in 1954 at 8:30pm. From there, he continued in the music business, doing club work in Canada as well as upper New York state. He relates that life on the road had gotten to be a hassle, having a wife and kids at home. One Canadian tour was arranged by Oscar Davis who later became a press agent for Elvis Presley.
But after one tour, his wife told him he'd been gone a while and they weren't having much of a marriage. So, he took the job up in New York at that time and stayed with it for three years. The band would play in such places as Cornwall, Ontario, Lake Placid, New York, Merrimack Lake and other venues in the area.
Early in 1960, Jiggs left the music as a business for a while, looking for a more steady job and income that kept him at home. He began working for a cemetery, which eventually, he bought in 1966. He was with that for about ten years, selling it about 1976.
Jiggs tells us he used that Fender steel guitar up until about 1975. At that time, a guy in Mansfield, Ohio was having a show with Buddy Emmons there and he went up to Buddy and talked to him. Buddy had a pedal steel guitar there and Jiggs bought it. Jiggs said he learned the pedals. And told us, "It's a whole new ball game. You got to practically learn all over again."
He just took it home and had a stereo in his bedroom when he was living in Florida. Actually it was in his 3rd bedroom, and he'd go in there at night and his wife would be watching TV and he'd be in there for three or four hours and he would do that every night and every night and he'd play along with the stereo. Its the easiest way to learn he says.
In 1976, he moved to Ft. Myers, Florida and joined the Sam Bass and the Country Sounds down in Naples. Jiggs worked with Sam Bass for more than seven years.
During the course of our conversation - which at times seemed to cover just about everything as the topics came up - we came back to the style that Jiggs used, especially on the pedal steel. He felt his style was different than most pedal steel guitar players and he told us why.
"Most steel guitar players learned on pedal. I learned the steel with a lap steel. Then I incorporated (what I used with the) lap into pedal. So I got both worlds. And I mixed it up. I got my steel guitar to playing that was a little different than a lot of them. But not all that different. But there was some things that I did that they didn't do because I tried to incorporate some of my lap steel. Some of them have never played lap steel - just started right out on pedal. Pedals come out in '52. They never even touched lap. You may incorporate what you do on lap with your pedals and it works out a little different (sound)."
After working with Sam Bass, he worked at another club with his own band in Ft. Myers. There, he worked for about eight years. Jiggs relates that it was something else - they would play to packed houses on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.
In 1984, Jiggs won the People's Choice Award as Instrumentalist of the Year for the Naples chapter of the Florida Country Music Association. In 1985, he joined the Sundown Band in Ft. Myers where he was still a member (in 1987). In 1985, he won Instumentalist of the Year Award from the Ft. Myers chapter of the Florida Country Music Association.
In 1986, he was again Instrumentalist of the Year for the Ft. Myers chapter. During that occasion, the Sundown Band was honored as Band of the Year.
During his career, Jiggs has backed stars from the Grand Ole Opry and the Wheeling Jamboree in Wheeling, West Virginia.
In talking with Jiggs, you soon learn that his memory is lightning quick and can rattle dates and people off like it had happened yesterday. And you catch the enthusiasm and enjoyment he had for those times, too. He got to work with Moon Mullican in Dayton, Ohio around 1950 when he was quite popular at the time. He remembers meeting Minnie Pearl for the first time at a package show in Youngstown, Ohio.
Later on, Jiggs relates a bit more of his encounter with Moon. At that show, he also ran into Lazy Jim Day (who was with WLW in Cincinnati back then) - who Jiggs affectionately recalls as the "...craziest guy I ever worked with; you talk about a comedian." At this particular show, Lazy Jim and Moon were backstage telling jokes all afternoon. He did a song everyday called the "Singing News."
Jiggs told us what it was like to be traveling on the road back then, between gigs. The guys in the band would be packed in the car, they'd have the local country radio stations on as they drove and when they heard the intro to a song - they knew instantly who it was. The stars of that era had distinct sounds.
In talking about other acts they worked with, he tells of a time they were working with the Louvin Brothers. Back then, they had a fiddle player by the name of Tater Tate. The two of them got to be pretty good friends during that time. Jiggs would grab Hawkshaw's guitar and they'd be back in some room playing one tune after another, having a ball. Before you know it, someone would come looking for them and tell them, hey, don't you know you're on next?
Another guy he tells us he got to be real good friends with was J.D. Sumner, who worked with Elvis for a time. He was part of the Stamps Quartet and owned the Stamps Publishing Company. He was a couple years older than me; he died a couple years ago. But they became real good friends. Jiggs told of a time he ran into him in Naples, Florida several years ago. He hadn't seen him in a long time. Jiggs was standing on the sidewalk and J.D. was getting off his bus and he was walking towards Jiggs. "Hi JD." Jiggs yelled out. He just stopped dead in his tracks Jiggs said. And he just stood there and looked at him a little bit, and he said, "Jiggs is that you?" and he said, "Yes." And then when they went into the church - they were doing gospel show - he dedicated a song to Mr. Lemley. He told Jiggs he had a Mercedes that Elvis had bought him for Christmas. And still had it. J.D. related to Jiggs that the thing that really hurts him is when people get to talking like "Elvis has been seen." He said Vernon Presley (Elvis's dad) came to J.D. and said, "J.D., will you make the funeral arrangements. I just don't think I can do it." J.D. went ahead and made the funeral arrangements for Elvis. And when this talk comes up about Elvis being seen here or there, it just burned J.D. up to no end.
Jiggs' career has involved him in shows with such celebrities as:
The list of people that Jiggs has worked with is pretty impressive. But, he told us of all the people that he met when he was on the road, musicians were the one he loved to be around. "Because they're good people," he says; "There's some bad ones, but they're so few and far between. And the bigger the star, the nicer they are. Because they don't have anything to prove."
Our conversation drifted to a mention of Jerry Byrd, the legendary Hawaiian steel guitar player. Jiggs said he met Jerry at the King Records studio in Cincinnati, Ohio when he and Hawkshaw Hawkins were there. He told us when Jerry came to the Grand Ole Opry, he tried to keep his tuning a secret. And he succeeded for a while. But the guys finally picked it up, Jiggs says; "It was the C6th tuning. And Jerry was so smooth. God, he was good." Everyone in Nashville wanted to use Jerry on their records, including Hank Williams.
Jiggs said played steel up until 1998. The last gig he played was New Year's 1998. He told us his eyes had gotten so bad that he couldn't see the frets. And when you set that bar down and everybody says aw, Jiggs you've been playing that steel guitar for so long you can play it with your eyes shut. He said, "No, you can't. You set that bar down and if you're not on that fret, you're sour, you're out of tune." He sold that guitar to his next oldest boy. He says he's got two boys that play the steel guitar. And they're both pretty good. But he still has his dobro - his wife told him he couldn't sell the dobro.
Jiggs told us how he got his dobro, a story in and of itself. It's got the "Dobro" name right on the neck. He first ordered it out of a factory about the mid-1980s. A guy out in Florida, who worked a friend of Jiggs out in Nashville, Buck "Uncle Josh" Graves who used to play for Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Buck and and a guy out here in Florida were selling dobros. So Jiggs went out to see him and he wanted to charge Jiggs something close to $690 dollars. Jiggs was just about ready to pass. But he couldn't. He knew he was doing this through Buck or Uncle Josh. Jiggs came home and called Josh and asked him if he was selling guitars down here. He said, "Yeah, why?" Jiggs told Josh he wanted to buy a dobro but the price was too high. Josh said, "You go back out and see Eddie." So, he went back out there and the price had dropped to $395. Jiggs told him to order it. Buck did him a favor Jiggs says, but he'd know him since about 1950.
The conversation drifted to a discussion about the various steel guitar tunings we read about in the magazines. We listened as Jiggs told us the front neck on a double-necked pedal steel is a chromatic E-9th tuning. And the back neck is a C6th tuning - that's the old Jerry Byrd tuning. Only now on the pedal steel guitar, you've got ten strings instead of six. The chromatic E-9th makes everything so easy. When you have your pedals, you drop the first pedal and it drops your G into an E-minor. You don't even had to move the bar. Then you let up on the pedal and you're back in G. Or you set the second pedal down and you're at C. And if you want D you don't have to go up 7 frets, you just go up two frets and use the pedal and there's your D. "Oh, its so much easier," Jiggs tells us, "Then, when you get yourself a pedal steel guitar and you start on it, oh, its a whole new ball game. Its like learning all over again. The more you learn, the more you'll like it."
"But I tell you, I wouldn't take a million dollars for the life I've had. I'm 74 and I don't know how much longer I got. But I told my wife, if I die tomorrow, I think I've lived as much as any one man that's lived 85 - 90 years. Because I've done the things I wanted to do.
We've been trying to ascertain which Hawkshaw Hawkins recordings that Jiggs Lemley played on. Our list here is courtesy of the efforts of Mike Lemley and Jiggs Lemley himself. Where you see a (?), Mike is thinking the steel guitar is being played by his dad based on listening to the recording and knowledge of his dad's style.
Credits & Sources