Williamsport Native Sonny Garrish Found Success as a Steel Guitarist.
By Lisa Gregory
Once Bruce “Sonny” Garrish discovered his love for the steel guitar he couldn’t stop playing it. “I would play for hours and hours,” he says. “I was just eat up with it.”
And it would define his life as Garrish would go on to have a career playing steel guitar and making a name for himself as one of the best studio musicians in Nashville. Throughout his career, Garrish has played with such artists as Kenny Chesney, B.B. King, Reba McEntire, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Dolly Parton, and George Strait, among many others. In 2014, he was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame and was more recently featured in an interview series “Nashville Cats” at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.
But before the steel guitar, Garrish started out as a singer. A reluctant one. At just 7 years old Garrish was singing with his father’s band. “My father always had a country band,” says Garrish, who grew up in Williamsport. But, “I hated it,” he adds of singing.
However, he hated the idea of a whooping even more. “I’d be crying right before I was supposed to go out and sing,” recalls Garrish. “I’d say, ‘I don’t want to do it.’ My father would say, ‘Don’t make me take my belt off.’”
So the little boy sang such songs as “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?” and “That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine” though Garrish sang it as mother instead of father much to the delight of the crowds who came out to see the band perform at local carnivals and such.
“I would be out there singing and crying,” says Garrish. “The women in the front row would think I was crying because I was moved by the song I was singing like “That Silver Haired Mother of Mine.” They’d say to each other, ‘Oh, look at him. He’s crying about his mother.’”
But Garrish’s musical fate was about to change when a traveling salesman came calling and his father purchased a steel guitar for him and decided that his son would be taking lessons. Still, Garrish missed being a regular kid. “I wanted to play ball,” he says. “But when I got to playing the steel guitar my father said, ‘No. You could break your fingers doing that. Then you couldn’t play.’”
And while he wasn’t enthusiastic about formal lessons preferring to learn the instrument on his own, he did discover that the steel guitar could offer him a refuge. “It was an escape from real life, I guess,’” he says.
His early life was hard.
“We were poor,” says Garrish. “We didn’t’ have an inside bathroom but an outhouse. There was five of us living in a one-car garage. Dad was going to build the house but it never got built. So, we lived in the garage.” Adding, “I was ashamed of where we lived. “
By his late teens Garrish, who graduated from Williamsport High School in 1961, began a standing gig at Hunter’s Lodge in Fairfax, Virginia. The venue was noted as a stop-over spot for those who wanted to come by and just “pick” says Garrish. “The musicians who played in the Washington, D.C. area knew that if they wanted to bring their guitars out to Hunter’s Lodge on a Saturday night after their jobs were finished that they could come out and play till daylight.”
Those who stopped by included Johnny Paycheck who apparently and unfortunately couldn’t keep his fingers off of Garrish’s steel guitar. “I was sitting up there on stage while we weren’t performing and he says, ‘Hey, man, let me play your steel a bit,’” recalls Garrish. “I told him no. But he talked me into it.”
Garrish provided Paycheck with new picks. But, “I made a mistake of leaving mine sitting there on my steel,” he says. “Well, when I finally got him off of there I found out he had taken my picks and molded them to his fingers. He just bent the crap out of them. I didn’t make a scene, but I thought to myself, ‘You have sat behind my steel for the last time, you bum.” Adding, “Then years later I played on one of his albums.”
Young Garrish’s talents did not go unnoticed. And in 1966 he joined Bill Anderson’s band, Po’ Boys. “I jumped up after that phone call and ran through the house,” he says of being contacted for Anderson’s band. “My mom said, ‘What has gotten into you Bruce?’ I said, ‘I’m going to Nashville, Mom!’”
He might have been headed to Nashville, but he wasn’t staying put there for long. “We traveled all over,” he says of playing with such performers as Faron Young, who was also known as the Hillbilly Heartthrob, and Kitty Wells on bills that would feature several acts instead of just one. “I liked seeing other things. I hadn’t been anywhere. And we went everywhere.”
He then began to set his sights on becoming a studio musician. And his ensuing career is a who’s who of country music royalty and then some. Including the queen herself. Garrish remembers Loretta Lynn’s kindness toward the studio musicians. “Lorretta comes in and she’s got a big brown bag of groceries,” says Garrish. “She started setting stuff out. She had a whole loaf of bread, some mustard and mayonnaise, and some cold cuts and cheese. Then she said, ‘Boys, if you get hungry here you go. Y’all just dig in.’”
Adding with a chuckle, “She was something.”
Garrish’s name might not be the name one recognizes but he and his steel guitar have been there for some impressive accomplishments nonetheless. Earl Thomas Conley, for example, had four number one hits on a single album in the early 1980s and the first to do so in any genre. “I played on those songs,” says Garrish.
For Garrish working in the studio for decades offered him, “this freedom to create a part of a song that had never been recorded,” he says. “Most of the time you’re playing something that these artists have just gotten together with a writer and finished the song the night before the session.”
He has kept good company in the recording studio, but Garrish has played at some pretty impressive venues outside of it as well as his career took off. The White House for example, playing for then-president Jimmy Carter. The performance featured two of the biggest country stars at the time, he says, Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn.
“I remember all the bomb sniffing dogs,” says Garrish.
And the man who so wanted a musical career for himself saw his son accomplish just that as a studio musician. “I took Dad to a session,” Garrish says. “He was proud. He knew that I was probably at the pinnacle of what I was setting out to do or close to it.”
Garrish would go on to have a family of his own with wife, Lois, who was also from Williamsport. The couple had two daughters and now Garrish has grandchildren. Lois passed away in 2004 from cancer. A deeply felt loss that lingers still with Garrish as he speaks about her. “The love of my life,” he says.
A man of faith, he is as proud of the gospel music performers he played with as any of the others and eagerly lists them, including The Kingsmen Quartet, the Rambos, Squire Parsons, Bill Gaither Trio, and more. He himself is a fan of gospel music. “I mostly like Southern gospel,” he says.
Now 80 years old he chooses to no longer play these days. But he is grateful for the journey he has taken and his place among Nashville’s musical elites.
“God has been so kind to bless me,” he says.