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My 50-Year Infatuation with Pedal Steel Guitar and the Renegades Who Pushed Its Evolution Beyond Country Music



Back in my carefree, whiskey-drinking, pot-smoking collegiate days during the early ‘70s at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I fell under the spell of an Austin-based Texas swing group that had come to town to perform on campus in the Student Union. They wore authentic cowboy hats and cowboy boots and looked every bit as Texas as their role models, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys (even though their towering 6’ 7” frontman, Ray Benson, was actually a Jewish guitarist-singer from Philadelphia named Ray Siefert and their pedal steel ace, Lucky Oceans, was born Reuben Gosfield, also Jewish and hailing from Philly). But they loved American roots music, particularly Texas swing and boogie boogie, and their renditions of Count Basie’s “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” and Louis Jordan’s “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie,” which later appeared on their self-titled 1974 Epic Records release, really got under my skin. I distinctly remember dancing on top of a table during that first Asleep at the Wheel concert I attended while my drunken pal Leonard did a face-plant on the floor of the cafeteria in the middle of, appropriately, “Blood-Shot Eyes.” And he hit it perfectly, right on the downbeat.



By that time, I had subliminally taken in dribs and drabs of pedal steel guitar over the years: Ubiquitous Nashville session man Pete Drake, who had a hit single in 1964 with “Forever,” which showcased his “talking box” invention (that Peter Frampton and Stevie Wonder would later appropriate in the ‘70s) also played on Tammy Wynette’s 1969 hit “Stand By Your Man” and Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” from 1969’s Nashville Skyline. 



On loan from The Grateful Dead, guitarist Jerry Garcia ripped it up on steel with The New Riders of the Purple Sage (check out his nasty distortion-and-wah-wah-infused licks on “Dirty Business,” title track from the band’s 1970 debut). He also appeared on Jefferson Airplane’s “The Farm” from 1969’s Volunteers, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Teach Your Children” from 1970’s Deja Vu, It’s a Beautiful Day’s “It Comes Right Down To You” from 1970’s Marrying Maiden and the Dead’s “Candyman” from 1970’s American Beauty.



Back in the day, I also subliminally took in Lloyd Green’s excellent pedal steel playing on Tammy Wynette’s 1968 hit “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” Jaydee Maness’ pedal steel work on the Dylan tune “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” from The Byrds’ 1968 album Sweetheart of the Rodeo and Jerry Brightman’s steel playing with Buck Owens and The Buckaroos on tv’s popular Hee Haw, though I couldn’t have named them at the time.


Pete Drake popped back into my consciousness in 1970 when I discovered Harvey Mandel’s 1968 album, Christo Redentor, and heard him jamming with the great guitarist on “Nashville 1 A.M.”



That same year, Drake also appeared on George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass (onBehind the Locked Door” and “I Live for You”). Shortly after, I heard pedal steel guitarist Ben Keith on Neil Young’s 1972 Harvest (most memorably on “Heart of Gold” and “Old Man”), and Sneaky Pete Kleinow on Joni Mitchell’s 1971 Blue (“California,” “This Flight Tonight”) and Frank Zappa’s 1972 Waka/Jawaka, though Sneaky Pete was already well known for his pedal steel licks on The Flying Burrito Brother’s 1969 debut album, The Gilded Palace of Sin, and their 1970 followup, Burrito Deluxe.



In the early ‘70s, I discovered pedal steel great Freddie Roulette through Harvey Mandel’s 1972 album, The Snake (he appears on the track “Levitation”), and 1973’s Shangrenade (“Sugarloaf”). He had also played on Earl Hooker’s 1969 Arhoolie album, Two Bugs and a Roach, appearing on the tracks “You Don’t Want Me” and “You Don’t Love Me.” Mandel would also produce Roulette’s 1973 solo debut, Sweet Funky Steel.




My infatuation with pedal steel guitar was later fed by the release of Dickey Betts’ 1974 solo debut album, Highway Call, which featured former Conway Twitty steel player John Hughey on the entire album, and wailing with abandon on the 14-minute instrumental jam with Betts and fiddler extraordinaire Vassar Clements on “Handpicked.”



The ‘80s brought some entirely different applications of that signature country instrument, notably on Brian Eno’s 1983 ambient album, Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, which featured Daniel Landis playing the pedal steel guitar on “Weightless” and “Silvery Morning.”



But it was West African artist King Sunny Adé who introduced the pedal steel to Nigerian pop music with his 1982 release Juju Music and 1983 followup, Synchro System, both prominently featuring Lagos native Demola Adepoju on pedal steel. Ade became an international sensation on the strength of those two Mango/Island Records releases, which combined James Brown-type interlocking funk patterns by a battery of guitar players, talking drummers, singers and dancers. The New York Times called Juju Music “the year’s freshest dance-music album” and also credited it with having launched the World Beat movement in the United States. Writer Robert Palmer called Synchro System “another paradigm for cross-cultural fusion.” And while those grooves were deep and irresistible (I still recall jaded critics dancing uncontrollably in the aisles at the New York City debut of King Sunny Adé and His African Beats at The Savoy on Feb. 6, 1983, and again a few weeks later at Roseland Ballroom).





In the mid ‘80s, I caught Sonny Rhodes, the turbaned lap steel blues player from Texas, at NYC’s Chicago B.L.U.E.S. on Eighth Avenue near 14th Street. Aside from his headgear, which rivaled Hammond B-3 organist Dr. Lonnie Smith’s, he played with an earthy edge and a stinging solo style on originals like “Cigarette Blues” and “You Can Look for Me,” which later turns up on his 1991 Ichiban Records release, Disciple of the Blues. Even funkier and wilder was Houston pedal steel player Hop Wilson, whose gritty, over-the-top wailing on originals like “Chicken Stuff,” “I’m a Stranger” and “Rockin’ in the Coconuts” is documented on 1988’s posthumous Houston Ghetto Blues (originally released in 1988 on the Japanese P-Vine label and subsquently reissued in 1993 on the Stateside Bullseye Blues label, a subsidiary of Round Records).


On a trip down to Austin, Texas in 1990 to interview old friends of Stevie Ray Vaughan following his death in a helicopter crash following a concert at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy, Wisconsin (where I had seen multiple concerts while coming of age in Milwaukee), I happened to stop in at the Continental Club and caught a set by Junior Brown. He wore a ten gallon hat, a shiny shark skin jacket and had a deep voice eerily reminiscent


of Dave Dudley, whose 1963 hit single “Six Days on a Road,” which I remember from my youth, was the definitive celebration of the American truck driver. Brown played an odd-looking double-necked instrument that he dubbed “the guit-steel,” which combined the standard six-string guitar with a lap steel guitar. And while he was knee-deep into honky tonk styled country on tongue-in-cheek originals like “My Baby Don’t Dance to Nothing But Ernest Tubb,” “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead,” “Sugarfoot Rag” and “My Hillbilly Hula Gal,” he also waved his freak flag high by covering Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxey Lady” and quoting from Jimi’s “Manic Depression” on a rendition of “Sugarfoot Rag.” It was my introduction to alt-country, and yet another new application of the steel.


Sometime in the mid ’90s I got hip to Buddy Emmons, perhaps the most virtuosic and certainly “jazziest” pedal steel player to ever play the instrument. His 1963 solo debut, Steel Guitar Jazz (reissued by Verve in 2003) included saxophonist Jerome Richardson, former John Coltrane bassist Art Davis and drummer Charli Persip on swinging renditions of Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo,” Horace Silver’s “The Preacher,” and that jazz jam staple, “Cherokee.” Few other pedal steel players would have the temerity to tackle Pat Martino’s chops-busting “The Great Stream,” but Emmons did just that on his self-released album (Live ’77, International Steel Guitar Convention, reissued ). He also played with guitarist extraordinaire Lenny Breau on two jazz album, Minors Aloud (originally released on the Flying Fish label in 1978 and reissued by Art of Life Records in 2005) and Swinging’ on a Seven-String (released in 1984 on Act of Life Records), going toe-to-toe on jazz standards like “Compared to What,” “Killer Joe” and Charlie Parker’s “Scrapple from the Apple” (on Minors Aloud) as well as “Back Home in Indiana” and swinging renditions of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and Willie Nelson’s hit “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” (on Swingin’ on a Seven-String). An in-demand session player on the Nashville scene during the ‘70s and ‘80s, Emmons played on numerous recordings by country artists, from Ernest Tubb and George Jones to Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Randy Travis and George Strait, as well as pop artists like The Carpenters, The Everly Brothers, Seals & Crofts, Brewer & Shipley, Roger McGuinn, Arlo Guthrie, Linda Ronstadt and k.d. lang. But it was his swinging the steel that really captured my attention.



In the ‘90s, I got further acquainted with Emmons through reissues of his work with guitar great Danny Gatton in their dynamic late ‘70s band, Redneck Jazz Explosion. Those live recordings feature lots of fiery licks with Gatton and Emmons engaged in a friendly chops competition on jazz staples like Sonny Rollins’ “Sonnymoon for Two,” Freddie Hubbard’s “Joy Spring,” Horace Silver’s “Opus de Funk” and “Filthy McNasty,” Billy Strayhorn/Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train,” and Thelonious Monk’s “Well You Needn’t” cleverly melded to Jack McDuff’s “Rock Candy.”





It was a 1995 release on Razor & Tie, Stratosphere Boogie, that introduced me to the work of the great Speedy West, who had a potent musical partnership in the mid ‘50s with another speed demon, guitarist Jimmy Bryant. Together they burned their way through tunes like the swinging “Hop Skip and Jump” and the pyrotechnic workout “Old Joe Clark” along with the relaxed mid tempo swinger, “Bryant’s Bounce” on their 1954 Capitol debut, 2 Guitars Country Style. The Razor & Tie reissue includes some of those tunes, along with other chopsbusters recorded in 1956, like “Stratosphere Boogie,” “Pickin’ Peppers” and “Speedin’ West.”



Thanks to YouTube, I only recently discovered early pedal steel guitar innovators like Alvino Rey, who in the late 1930s developed a kind of talking box on his steel, predating by decades Pete Drake’s talking box hit in 1964 with “Forever” and Peter Frampton’s 1976 talking box hit with “Show Me The Way” from Frampton Comes Alive! And I also saw video footage of Leon McAuliffe, who had played with Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys and had a hit with “Steel Guitar Rag,” as well as his Playboys successors like Herb Remington (of “Remington’s Ride” fame) and Gene Crownover.




And here’s Alvino Rey playing “Sentimental Journey” on the Lawrence Welk show in 1950:



The new millennium has seen the emergence of several ‘sacred steel’ players coming out of the House of God Church and other African-American Pentecostal traditions and making inroads into secular venues. Chief among them is Robert Randolph, who has led his Family Band since 2002’s Live at the Wetlands, recorded at the long-defunct jam band haven that was located in Manhattan’s Tribeca district. In his subsequent seven albums, and on the jam band festival circuit, Randolph has exhibited remarkable virtuosity on the instrument. And his utilization of distortion and wah-wah pedals has caused fans and critics alike to dub him “the Hendrix of pedal steel.” Rolling Stone went so far as to name him to their 2018 list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time. His latest is 2019’s Brighter Days.




Pedal steel player Roosevelt Collier, formerly a member of The Lee Boys, a sacred steel ensemble based in Miami, debuted as a solo artist with his fiery 2018 album, Exit 16. He subsequently joined the world music group Bokanté, co-led by members of Snarky Puppy. Their third album, History, was released in 2023. Another player coming out of the sacred steel tradition is DaShawn Hickman. A sanctified player of the highest order (hear him testify below on “The Morning Train”), his 2023 debut album, Drums, Roots & Steel was produced by guitarist Charlie Hunter for the Little Village label.



One of the more amazing live shows that I’ve ever witnessed involved the Campbell Brothers, a family a sacred steel players from Florida. On Aug.8, 2014 at New York’s Damrosch Park near Lincoln Center, they performed the entire suite of John Coltrane’s music from A Love Supreme to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Trane’s masterwork. Pedal steel player Chuck Campbell was joined by his lap steel-playing brother Darick, brother Phil on electric guitar, his son Carlton on drums, and Daric Bennett on bass. Classic, gutsy gospel vocals were provided by Denise Brown, Tiffany Godette and Joyce “Cinnamon” Brown on this energetic show commissioned by Lincoln Center Out of Doors and the Duke Foundation.



On the more experimental side of things, Baltimore-based composer and improvising artist Susan Alcorn has combined traditional pedal steel technique with her own extended techniques to form a personal style influenced by free jazz, avant-garde classical music, Indian ragas, indigenous traditions and various folk musics of the world. Having collaborated with numerous cutting edge artists, including guitarists Fred Frith, Eugene Chadbourne and Mary Halvorson, accordionist and experimental composer Pauline Oliveros, and tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, Alcorn has made 14 recordings as a leader, most recently 2023’s Manifesto (with saxophonist José Lencastre and bassist Hernâni Faustino) on Clean Feed and her adventurous 2023 septet outing, the Chilean folk music influenced Canto on Relative Pitch Records. She is also a member of Mary Halvorson’s adventurous octet, having appeared on 2016’s Away With You. Also highly recommended are Alcorn’s 2021 quintet album, Pedernal, featuring violinist Mark Feldman, bassist Michael Formanek, drummer Ryan Sawyer and guitarist Halvorson, and her decidedly avant tribute to Argentine tango composer Astor Piazzolla on 2023’s Soledad.




Another ‘leftfield’ pedal steel player is New Orleans-based Dave Easley. A virtuoso who was a charter member of the Brian Blade Fellowship (he appears on the group’s 1998 self-titled debut and 2000 followup, Perceptual), Easley also played on albums by such New Orleans artists as guitarist Brian Stoltz, Dr. John-styled guitarist-singer Coco Robicheaux, pianist Tom McDermott, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux of the Golden Eagles Mardi Gras Indian tribe, along with three albums by 3 Now 4, the band he formed with bassist-composer James Singleton of the New Orleans group Astral Project. Easley is also a member of the Grateful Dead-styled instrumental jam band Kolotov Mocktails, which released Ivy Hall in 2019. On his 2023 outing, Ballads, Easley joins with the expressive electric guitarist Jeff Parker on stirring renditions of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman,” Duke Ellington’s “Fleurette Africane,” Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” among others. One 2021’s Byways of the Moon” he tackles John Coltrane’s chops busting “Giant Steps,” Thelonious Monk’s gorgeous ballad “Ruby, My Dear,” then joins Joe Zawinul’s “In a Silent Way” and Brian Wilson’s “In My Room” into a remarkably expressive solo pedal steel medley.




Lap steel player Mike Neer, who cites Speedy West and Buddy Emmons, as well as Hawaiian master lap steel players Sol Hoopii and Gabby Pahinui, as important influences, made the audacious leap of doing an all-Thelonious Monk program on his 2016 debut, Steelonious. He followed that up with 2021’s Keepin’ It Real, which includes interpretations of McCoy Tyner’s “Passion Dance,” Horace Silver’s “Peace” and “Nica’s Dream,” Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments,” Wayne Shorter’s “Witch Hunt” and Wes Montgomery’s “West Coast Blues.” His creative arrangements and formidable skills on the lap steel definitely make Neer one to watch.




Perhaps the most frequently recorded pedal steel player on the scene today is Greg Leisz. A ubiquitous session player known for his work on recordings by Syd Straw, Marshall Crenshaw, Matthew Sweet, k.d. lang, Shawn Colvin, Eric Clapton, Keb’ Mo’, Bruce Springsteen, Beck, Wilco, Bonnie Raitt, Lucinda Williams, Willie Nelson, John Mayer, Joni Mitchell, Norah Jones, Bob Weir and James Taylor, among many others, Leisz has also brought his evocative, atmospheric touch to a series of albums by guitarist Bill Frisell (beginning with 1999’s Good Dog, Happy Man and continuing with 2001’s Blues Dream, 2003’s The Intercontinental, 2008’s Les Incontournables du Jazz, 2009’s Disfarmer, 2011’s All We Are Saying…, and 2014’s Guitar in the Space Age!) as well as a string of recordings by Charles Lloyd & The Marvels (2016’s I Long to See You, 2018’s Vanished Gardens, 2021’s Tone Poem).






Following in the atmospheric vein of Leisz is Rich Hinman, whose moody 2023 debut on the indie, L.A.-based Colorfield Records, Memorial, combines elements of electronica, ambient and jazz. Synth washes and long ostinatos blend with his crying pedal steel tones to create an evocative, almost cinematic mix on tunes like the hymn-like “Buddy,” the moody “Slow Drip” and the eerily cinematic “Sand Storm” (which might’ve well suited the soundtrack to Dune: Part Two).



Having toured with k.d. lang, Rosanne Cash and Paula Cole and recorded with Vulfpeck, St. Vincent, Sara Bareilles and Maren Moris, Hinman is a seasoned hand at playing the pedal steel. But his left-field, Eno-esque explorations here are galaxies beyond Leon McAuliffe and Lucky Oceans. Provocative yet strangely captivating, if not swinging…at all. I much prefer his work with his Boston-based trio drummer Dan Drohan and bassist Zachariah Hickman (see below), which is more in that calming, atmospheric Greg Leisz zone. Both Leon and Lucky would appreciate this, I think.



Others on the pedal steel horizon that I’ve recently been alerted to (by Lucky Oceans, no less) include the Houston-based steel player Will Van Horn, Denmark-based Maggie Björklund, Los Angeles-based avant garde pedal steel player and exotic instrument designer Chas Smith, and French pedal steel virtuoso Lionel Wendling, who has done radical re-imaginings of the music of Wayne Shorter (2023’s My Shorter Way), the Mahavishnu Orchestra (2021’s The Outer Mounting Flames) and Thelonious Monk (2019’s Electro Monk) while also tackling Frank Zappa’s “It Just Might Be a One-Shot Deal” and Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance” (on 2016’s   Steel World).




And what of Lucky Oceans, the guy who kicked off this 50-year infatuation of mine? Following his stint with Asleep at the Wheel, which lasted from 1969 to 1995, culminating with Back to the Future Now – Live in Las Vegas, he moved to his wife’s hometown of Fremantle, Western Australia in 1980. While gigging with his own band, Lucky also hosted a national radio show in Australia for 21 years and in 2005 released his solo album, Secret Steel. Last year he served as musical director for an Aboriginal music project from Northwest Australia that toured nationally.  “It’s basically country music by Aboriginals,” he explained, “where they are effectively melding it with their 60,000-year-old song lines tradition.



Lucky also participated in a 2004 compilation curated by lap steel ace Elliott Sharp for his ZOAR label called Secular Steel, which included lap steel and pedal steel performances by the likes of Nels Cline, Susan Alcorn, Henry Kaiser, Stephen Ulrich, B.J. Cole, Roger Kleier, Joe Goldmark, Eugene Chadbourne and others.



And what’s next for Mr. Oceans? As he said, “Having been knocked out by Coltrane’s Temple University concert in 1966 (he was 15 at the time of that monumental concert on November 11, 1966 in Philadelphia, documented on the stunning 2014 Resonance Records release, Offering: Live at Temple University), I am trying to put together a spiritual jazz ensemble.” Stayed tuned. Sparks will fly.


Pedal steel guitar ace Lucky Oceans

 



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