Steel Guitar Hall of Famer John Sibert, whose tone and musicality were central
to the appeal of top-charting country hits for Carl Smith, Kitty Wells and Little
Jimmy Dickens, died Saturday at age 80, after years of declining health.
Mr. Sibert joined Smith’s band, The Tunesmiths, in October 1951, when he was 17, and quickly
became an identifying element of Smith’s sound. In 1998, Smith told The Tennessean that Mr.
Sibert “set the style for the music on my records for years and years.”
Mr. Sibert’s solos were tasteful endeavors that drove home each song’s melody, and his goal
as an instrumentalist was to support rather than distract from the song.
Born in Indianapolis, Mr. Sibert was raised in Nashville. He sat in the front row
of Ryman Auditorium for a “Grand Ole Opry” show as a 12-year-old, and the experience sparked a
love for country music. He was particularly drawn to Roy Wiggins, who played steel for Roy Acuff.
At 14, Mr. Sibert learned to play the steel — a fretless instrument that is notoriously difficult
to master — and formed a band. Soon, he was playing on local radio and in the band of Big
“Big Jeff’s band was a learning ground for musicians,” Mr. Sibert told former Tennessean
reporter Jay Orr. “He’d take young musicians he thought could cut it someday, and you’d play
with him and you’d get the best experience in the world, because he would sing everybody’s songs.”
Bess’ band provided effective music schooling, and when Smith heard Mr. Sibert’s steel on a
radio broadcast, he asked the teenager to audition for his band. At the time, Smith was
among country music’s hottest young stars, with a Billboard No. 1 hit in the rollicking
“Let Old Mother Nature Have Her Way.”
Mr. Sibert would spend years playing that one, in addition to the smashes he recorded
with Smith, including “Are You Teasing Me” (recorded at Mr. Sibert’s first session
with Smith), “Hey Joe!,” “Loose Talk” and “There She Goes.” He also played
sessions for others, contributing to Wells’ “Heartbreak U.S.A.,”
Dickens’ “Out Behind the Barn,” the Everly Brothers’ first studio recordings and efforts
from Johnnie & Jack, Lefty Frizzell and more. He exited The Tunesmiths
in 1959 to join Wells’ band, but returned in 1961 as Smith’s bandleader.
Mr. Sibert tired of the road, and in 1969 he quit Smith’s band and took a job as a security
guard. He played some local shows but quit music entirely in the mid-1970s. He
put his guitars away, with no apparent regret, and when he joined the
Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in 1998, he said he put his award in a pile rather
than on a wall. Mr. Sibert joined The Tennessean as a security guard in 1977 and worked there
into the new century.
Normally hesitant to recount his glory days in country music, Mr. Sibert opened up in
2000 to a prodigiously talented 17-year-old named Chris Scruggs, who would often visit
The Tennessean’s offices, asking for stories and pointers. Scruggs, who is now among the
prime figures in Nashville roots music, credits Mr. Sibert with teaching him the steel.
“When I hear Chris play, it’s like John is right there,” says Mr. Sibert’s longtime
friend Shirley Hardison, who worked with him in security at The Tennessean. “The sound is
so much alike.”
In 2009, Scruggs reflected on Mr. Sibert’s impact, saying, “I steal all of Johnny’s licks,
but then, he isn’t using them anymore.”
Mr. Sibert departed The Tennessean around 2003, and his health steadily declined in
his final decade.
He is remembered as a master of the steel in the era before most of the instrument’s
players used knee levers and foot pedals to manipulate the sound (the “pedal steel” era
began in 1953, but Mr. Sibert only occasionally used pedals). He is remembered
as a key component in some of country’s greatest hits of the 1950s and ’60s. And
he is remembered for his role in mentoring Scruggs, who carries Mr. Sibert’s lessons
to new listeners every day.
A visitation will be held Monday from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m. at Woodlawn-Roesch-Patton Funeral
Home and Memorial Park, 660 Thompson Lane in Nashville, with a graveside service at 1 p.m.
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