Illustration by Tom Martin
A twilight, back-alley deal at a strip mall in suburban Los Angeles was my first taste of Nashville.
I drove down out of central L.A. on one of those endless afternoons when the sun seems less to set than dissolve in the permanent haze of dust and car exhaust. I had nothing to guide me but an address written on the back of a drug-store receipt. Extracting myself from the five-lane flotilla of commuters, I pulled off the highway and headed toward the coast down a commercial strip in suburban Torrance. I was nervous and almost missed my turn—an alley between Silvio’s Photoworks and a run-down nutrition center. As instructed, I passed the main store, the front windows dark and secured with safety grilles for the night, and pulled into the rear lot. The back of the building was windowless, like a fortress; the parking lot of buckled asphalt was deserted. I knocked three times on the back door, sending flakes of gray paint feathering away from the steel.
Silvio himself answered and ushered me through the back hall, past the toilets, file cabinets, and stacks of empty boxes, into the main sales space.
“I was just setting up,” he said. “Take a look around.”
The space was dimly lit, but I immediately saw what I had come for—in a semi-circle stood five pedal steel guitars, two double-necks and three singles, each a waist-high oblong box on four metal legs topped with what resembled a guitar neck, except there were many more strings. They were made to be noticed, some trimmed in chrome, others with multicolor inlay, boxy bodies varnished to a high shine—vibrant aqua, red-stained curly maple. Amid the efficient displays of black and silver-bodied cameras, the guitars were as prominent as hot rods in a limousine parking lot.
“You play?” Silvio asked. I shook my head.
“Me neither,” he replied. “But don’t they look great?”
He went into the back and came out with a mid-sized amp. I wanted to touch the guitars, but didn’t dare, contenting myself with meandering around the store and pretending to look at cameras. I was waiting for John.
He arrived a few minutes later, nodded hello, and wasted no time in getting to the business at hand—testing out the instruments in the room. He pulled out his playing bar and shook his National picks out of a black plastic film case and fit them on the thumb and first two fingers of his right hand. Silvio hooked up the amp and John sat down and pulled up to the first guitar—a black Emmons double-neck with bright atom-like symbols on the fret board. With the bar in his left hand, he tuned, played a lick, tuned again, played another lick.
“Nice, but that’s too much guitar,” he said, switching to a cherry-red Sho-Bud.
This one he passed over with the comment, “Hear that cabinet drop? That will cause you trouble.”
Next in line was the most diminutive of the bunch, a black Excel single-neck E9, with chrome trim and a series of offset triangles in primary colors down the fret board that gave the instrument an op-art flair.
“Where did you get this one, Silvio?” John asked, not expecting an answer. He caught my eye. “Excel is the Fuzzy guitar company. Mitsuo Fujii—the Japanese cowboy.”
He sat down at the guitar.
“This is it,” John said, playing a few country licks. He crouched down and looked underneath the body, depressing the pedals and inspecting the mechanics that raise and lower particular strings.
“Perfect first guitar,” he said, adding, “Want to try?”
I hesitated. He handed me his picks.
I got behind the steel and took his place, sliding my knees under the guitar and between the two sets of hanging knee levers, placing my right foot on the angle of the volume pedal, and letting my left hover above two of the three pedals that were attached with stainless steel rods to the body of the instrument. My lower body was now completely limited in its movement—I felt like I was being fitted for a musical brace.
John handed me his heavy steel bar.
Taking a deep breath I placed it above a fret, strummed the thumb pick over the ten strings, and depressed and released the pedals under my left foot. Out of the muddy dissonance of all those strings sounding at once there emerged a satisfying I-IV-I chord change.
“It’s a good one—it fits you,” John said, “And you’ll be able to carry it. It’s light.”
Silvio brought out the Excel’s velvet-lined flight case. While he and I discussed a price, John flipped the guitar over, strings down, and began to take it apart with precision, like a soldier dismantling a rifle. Every one of his motions—the tuning, the playing, the packing—seemed to have the unconscious authority of a secret society handshake.
The Excel may have been a featherweight compared to the other guitars, but I still staggered when John handed it off to me on the way to my car. My two-door hatchback squeaked in protest as I loaded the case into the trunk. Silvio followed us out into the twilight. To close the deal, I handed him a bank envelope stuffed with cash and drove back down the alley.
Up on Olympic Boulevard, the lounge of Trader Vic’s serves up golden mai tais to tourists looking for island flair. The interior of the bar is dark and made to look like the interior of a Polynesian hut—rustic-looking canoes hang from the ceiling, oblong tribal masks decorate the walls. If you put the back of your wicker chair to the windows that frame the traffic outside, it is possible to imagine that you are in the islands, or at least in Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room.
Other Los Angeles tiki bars, like the Tonga Hut in North Hollywood or the 12-stool Tiki-Ti’s on Sunset, may offer a more unique experience, but Trader Vic’s has succeeded in establishing a Polynesian worldwide standard. The interior, the cocktails, and, most of all, the music, have become synonymous with how we conceive of Hawaiian, or South Sea Island, culture. The music in particular is integral in creating the island ambience; the gentle sound of ukuleles and the sliding, singing steel guitar create a sound as unmistakably “Hawaiian” as a hula skirt or a luau.
Restaurants like Trader Vic’s experienced a surge of popularity in the 1950s and ’60s, in part due to America’s involvement in the South Pacific during the Second World War and Hawaii’s statehood in 1959, but the fascination with Hawaiian culture, and music in particular, started much earlier.
A reported 17 million people visited the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco, with the Hawaiian pavilion being one of the most popular attractions. Though there had been Hawaiian musicians at expositions on the mainland from the late nineteenth century on, the PPIE is often cited as the event that started the Hawaiian craze. Visitors may have been titillated by hula dancers in risqué grass skirts, but the real draw was Keoki E. Awai’s Royal Hawaiian Quartet. Crowds were fascinated by the “Hawaiian sound,” in particular with the whine and twang of the Hawaiian slide guitar, the kika kila. This instrument looked like an acoustic guitar, but was placed flat on the knees and played with a metal bar that slid up and down the strings. The sound that emerged was hypnotic, even alluring, and quite unlike anything that Americans had heard before.
The Hawaiian steel guitar is most commonly believed to have been created by Joseph Kekuku in the late nineteenth century. Kekuku reportedly tried a number of implements on the strings—a pocket comb, a penknife, the blunted edge of a straight razor—before settling on a four-inch steel bar that he held in his left hand. The Hawaiian guitar, or lap steel guitar, is an oblong, stringed instrument, usually placed on the knees or on a stool right in front of the player, who uses a steel bar in one hand and either fingerpicks or a plectrum in the other to activate the strings. It is not the body of the guitar (which is usually made of wood or Formica) that gives the steel guitar its name, but the bar—when moved up and down the metal strings, it gives all steel guitars their signature penetrating wail and whine.
The mania for the Hawaiian sound was arguably the first multimedia-driven music phenomenon, successfully disseminated by traveling performers, radio, recordings (some Edison cylinders are of Hawaiian groups), and mail-order catalogues that sold not only instruments but instruction manuals and gear. Interest was sustained by the efficient marketing of teaching studios like the Honolulu Conservatory of Music, run by the Oahu Publishing Company, which offered guitars and related products, multiple levels of instruction, and guitar clubs. Veteran player Lloyd Green, one of the most recorded steel players in history, got his start when an Oahu salesman stopped at his home in Mobile, Alabama.
“Door-to-door salesmen were pitching the Oahu course,” he recalled when I spoke to him recently on the phone. “My dad worked for the military during the war and we were living in this beautiful area. This guy came around and was giving lessons, and he said, ‘We don’t take students under ten,’ but I had pretty much a photographic memory, so when he heard me play he said, ‘We have to have this kid in this class.’ I studied the Oahu music until I was fourteen, though I was playing professionally by the time I was ten.”
At its peak, the Oahu Publishing Company operated 1,200 teaching studios, the last of which closed in 1985. Their success meant that the Hawaiian guitar sound would leave its mark on a variety of genres, including jazz, country, and gospel. Robert L. Stone’s recent, remarkable ethnography of the African-American religious steel tradition, or “sacred steel,” includes evidence of how the Hawaiian guitar and the Oahu schools had a distinct impact on a particular style of African-American music for worship. Like Lloyd Green, early sacred steel player Troman Eason learned to play steel in Philadelphia through a branch of the Oahu school. Just as steel was taking hold in the swing ballrooms of Bakersfield, California, African-American players were integrating steel into worship in churches up and down the East Coast.
Another key to the multi-genre success of the steel was its early amplification; most estimates place the first electrified steel guitar in Texas in the mid-1930s, before the electrification of the traditional guitar. It was loud, which gave the instrument a huge advantage in a raucous church meeting or overcrowded honky-tonk. By the time guitar manufacturers had successfully amplified the traditional guitar, the steel had already established a role in many ensembles. As players integrated the steel in various styles, the instrument lost many of its associations with Hawaii and became known as the lap steel, more in deference to the manner of playing than to the instrument’s origins. It was easy to transport, easy to buy, easy to play, loud, and remarkably adaptable to different genres—the steel had established itself as an American instrument.
A lap steel is efficient—lightweight with clean lines, portable and straightforward. Belly-up and dismantled in its case, on the other hand, my single-neck Excel doesn’t even look like anything remotely musical. The legs and pedal rods are tucked away in a tightly bundled pleather roll; the pedals, attached to a long metal slat, poke upright from their custom-built velvet slot. The main body of the guitar, upside down, is hollow, wooden, and filled with parallel aluminum rods of varying lengths that look like they come from a vintage Erector set. Little squares of yellowing foam are tucked behind some of the joints to smother the sound of the mechanics while in use.
Since the lap steel’s electrification, musicians have looked for ways to expand its harmonic capabilities; some early experiments included multi-neck steels, with each neck tuned differently so that the player could switch from neck to neck while playing. These look a bit like writing desks made of guitar necks; like most furniture, they are clumsy and incredibly heavy—some of them more than one hundred pounds with the case. (An early four-neck custom guitar, played by young steel prodigy Barbara Mandrell, is on display in Nashville at the Country Music Hall of Fame.) They never really became popular.
When I asked various players about who first put pedals on a lap steel, no one could give me a clear answer; what all were in agreement about, however, was the first pedal steel song: Webb Pierce’s “Slowly.”
Listening to the track today, the three-second intro sounds like nothing special—Bud Isaacs plays a standard pedal steel guitar riff before the voice launches into what is now a country classic. But in 1954 it was the first time a sound like this had been used in a recording, and it had a dramatic effect on the steel community.
Like many players, Lloyd Green first heard the song on the radio and immediately went about trying to replicate the sound. He bored two holes in the side of his double-neck Fender, hooked the mechanics of a screen door handle over the second and third strings of the guitar and attached it to a pedal, which when pressed could mimic the Bud Isaacs effect. The method was inconvenient, to say the least, as the friction of metal against metal caused the strings to break every few hours of playing, but Green recalls that it was worth the hassle. Other players used coat hangers or button hooks—it would be a while before anything as advanced as the workings on my Excel would be developed.
To a layman’s ear, the pedal steel and the lap steel sound alike—even identical; the difference is almost purely technical. For players, the addition of pedals and levers to raise and lower particular strings created a new world of harmonic and chord possibilities, so much so that tinkering around with your own pedal steel has become a trademark of the instrument itself. Each player seems to have developed his own formula of knee levers, pedals, and strings to make the changes that he prefers. Many pedal steels are custom built (currently there are no major companies producing them; most are made by private artisans in small workshops) and if they are not specially constructed to your particular needs, it is possible to change the guitar yourself by making a few adjustments here and there.
More so than with many other instruments, it is particularly difficult to learn to play the pedal steel, simply because there is no standard instrument. A quick Internet search unearths dozens of pedal steel instruction manuals on the market—tape, video, and book courses on technique, tone, and how to speed up your licks. But for the beginner, just buying a pedal steel is already a hurdle. With a used guitar, you have no idea what you are getting; not only does the quality of the construction vary, but how the pedals and levers are set up, and how they function, varies, too. This renders any instruction manual, no matter how good, completely useless.
On the radio, the pedal steel sings on country, gospel, jazz, and pop stations throughout the day: a pop solo on Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven,” the dreamy melody of Santo & Johnny’s classic “Sleepwalk.” It is possible to hear a pedal steel for years, whether in film, on the radio, or live in concert, without ever noticing a player. In a band setup, the pedal steel player is usually at the back of the stage, leaving the front-man duties to the lead singer or guitarist. The instrument doesn’t really lend itself to grandstanding; for the most part, sitting at the pedal steel is about as sexy as sitting at a sewing machine. Steel players are, in a way, handicapped—it’s hard to emote when you’re busy with your instrument from the armpits on down. Aside from the occasional nod or smile, most players are focused on what is happening on the fretboard in front of them.
Paul Franklin was the first person I ever saw play the pedal steel. It was the late ’90s in Nashville and he was playing at the Station Inn on 12th Avenue South with the newly formed Time Jumpers. At that time, the area was seedy at best. Abandoned warehouses dotted the street, and other than the music venue, the only landmark was a porn store, identified by a large neon X, that loomed like a guard tower over the nearby highway.
The Station Inn is known for its bluegrass acts, but the Time Jumpers drew a large crowd with their blend of quick, danceable western swing. My friends and I chose a table up front and got a pitcher of beer and a basket of popcorn. The venue is small, and unlike most pedal steel players, Franklin sat toward the front of the stage so the audience could clearly see what he was doing. At first, he supported the main tune played by the fiddle, but then he launched into a lightning-fast solo, his fingers flying effortlessly over the strings.
At the time, I was studying Rossini and had been working for several months on developing improvised coloratura for the conclusion of an aria. In opera, coloratura describes runs, trills, or other ornamentation used to elaborate a melodic line. The technique is quite demanding physically and requires an inordinate amount of focus, breath control, and melodic precision on the part of the singer. Quite unexpectedly, I was struck by how the pedal steel solo mimicked sung coloratura, that Paul Franklin’s fingers turned his instrument into operatic soprano, flashy, fleet, and confident.
Since his arrival in Nashville from Detroit in the early ’70s to play with Barbara Mandrell, Paul Franklin has been a fixture of the Nashville scene. Where Lloyd Green had been a product of the Hawaiian steel guitar craze, Franklin emerged from the pedal steel “Golden Age” of the late ’60s and ’70s. At no other time since has there been such an interest in the instrument. There were plenty of players coming out of California, Texas, Oklahoma, and the Deep South, but Nashville was the recording center of country music and musicians flocked to the city looking for chances to play. By the mid-60s, players like Pete Drake and Lloyd Green were working on up to 500 recording sessions a year, sometimes three or four sessions a day; Buddy Emmons, “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow, and Tom Brumley developed highly individual sounds that led to solo steel albums like Suite Steel and Pacific Steel Co. and to custom equipment for the steel like an EBow made for multiple strings. Innovations and players were featured in a short-lived magazine called Steel Guitarist that released six issues before it ceased publication in 1981. There was an attempt to create a more standardized instrument to satisfy the growing number of ambitious pedal steel students. The Jeffran Method, created and developed by guitarist Jeff Newman in the ’70s, continues to be the most accessible way to learn the pedal steel if one isn’t fortunate enough to have access to a private teacher.
I was lucky to have met John, and one couldn’t ask for a better teacher, but learning the steel is about so much more than just getting down the right moves.
“You’ve got to watch that left hand like a hawk,” he says.
For months, I watched my left hand like a hawk. By 2007, I had been playing my Excel for a little over a year, making weekly treks from Venice Beach down to San Pedro to take lessons with John in a room off his garage. Over time, I had grown accustomed to the instrument. What had initially felt like an awkward brace on my knees became more and more an agreeable prosthetic as my lower body learned to exert the right pressure on the levers and pedals. The name “guitar” is almost a misnomer for the pedal steel; aside from the fact that the classical guitar and pedal steel guitar both have strings, I found that the number of strings, and different tuning and playing position, made it more similar to playing a piano.
I bought National picks and molded them to curve over the pads of the first two fingers of my right hand. I learned to cup my palm slightly, so as to be ready to mute the strings. I trained my left hand to have a firm but flexible grip on the steel bar, to keep it loose to create a natural vibrato, but not so loose that I’d lose the pressure on the strings. Still, most of the time my pitches weren’t in tune and my vibrato sounded like an accident.
From the very first day, when I purchased my Excel in that camera shop in Torrance, I had felt like an apprentice. So much of learning the pedal steel was a hands-on practice that the mentor/student dynamic became essential. John recorded our lessons, so I could review and practice during the week, trying to imitate his sound. When it became difficult to remember sounds by ear, I began to learn to fill in my own personal ten-line (for the ten strings) tablature.
Written down, pedal steel notation looks like guitar notation that’s been infused with algebra. Along the ten lines were clusters of numbers indicating the fret; my pedals were indicated by letters (A, B, C), and my knee levers by their position (the left knee left lever, for example, was abbreviated LKL). The result was a complex cipher of numbers, letters, lines, and arrows that related to the music about as much as the punched holes in an old player-piano roll. Like a fingerprint, my notation was unique to my guitar, specifically designed to reflect my own set-up of pedals, levers, and harmonic short-cuts.
Remembering certain licks and melodies was one thing, but the real challenge was good tone. After about six months, I managed to get a decent sound out of my guitar, but nowhere near the dulcet tones that John seemed to get out of his. Good tone is the one thing that can’t really be taught; it is the secret formula that every steel player is searching for.
There is such a thing as musical alchemy, and I was already familiar with it. Long before I ever got near a pedal steel I sang concerts in Austria, Switzerland, and France—programs of Messiaen, Schoenberg, and Debussy. The kind of apprenticeship that I was experiencing with pedal steel was familiar; in the classical world, there is an accepted devotion of student to teacher, a relationship that not only influences the style of playing but can shape a student’s career. My last mentor, dramatic soprano Hilde Zadek, was the reason I moved to Vienna in early 2000.
Opera singers will talk about the “sweet spot.” The sweet spot is the secret formula that every singer is looking for. This is the imaginary spot you focus your voice on in your head when you sing a high note and it feels effortless, like the note is singing itself, and you could sing it forever as if you were just made of air. You learn to recognize what the sweet spot feels like physically since it is difficult to hear it while you are singing. For me, this effortless, perfect sensation was always accompanied by what I can only describe as a “whooshing” sensation in my ears.
For singers, the search for the sweet spot leads to odd metaphors—like “sing that high B flat as if an egg were cracking open at the back of your throat,” or “imagine an ocean wave rising up from your pelvis.” There are no such metaphors in the pedal steel world; instead, players often have their own technical formula for good tone. Some swear by certain cables, pre-amps, speakers, picks, or bars; others claim it has to do with a certain order of operations, the high cut on the amp, or the amount of pressure exerted on the bar at certain points along the fret board. As with singing, the solution is often highly individual and almost impossible to fully communicate. It is something you have to learn yourself along the way.
In 2008, I left the West Coast and headed east, driving through the suburban tide pools of greater Los Angeles and into the San Gorgonio Pass. It was winter, and by late afternoon day was fading as I drove into the desert, the red lights topping a forest of wind turbines blinking arrhythmically against an impossibly fuchsia sky. My destination was Nashville, but my first stop was the Southwestern Steel Guitar Association Convention in Arizona.
I pulled in late to a nondescript chain hotel on the outskirts of Phoenix that had nothing much to recommend it but the price. After a restless night, I picked up my convention materials and entered a strange universe. If learning the pedal steel is like an apprenticeship, then this was like a meeting of the guild. The conference room at the back of the hotel was dominated by a main stage with a house band that backed a lineup of invited players. Along the back and side walls a number of vendors had booths to sell their own steel innovations—music racks, pre-amps, screw-on drink holders.
The crowd was small, mostly senior, and predominantly male. I was one of a half-dozen women at the convention, and I was certainly the only one under fifty, which made me something of a novelty. Barbara Mandrell, the only woman to have been inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame, once commented that the steel is “not a masculine instrument—it’s an amazing instrument and as long as you’re a tomboy and you can lift some weight it’s doable.” Still, Mandrell remains an exception. Most players are men.
That first night, I ended up having a tequila contest with a jovial songwriter named “No-Neck” Dean before I stumbled back to my room and couldn’t sleep. The low thud of pre-recorded play-along country tracks was coming through my wall from the cowboys next door.
I interrupted the pedal steel party and they apologized for the noise, invited me in for a Pabst, and offered to restring my guitar. I brought over my Excel, and while cutting strings and tuning my guitar, they told me their life stories—accidents while working on oil rigs, broken heels, broken hearts, rehab, wrecked cars, divorce—stories like country songs. They didn’t seem to want any sympathy, but apparently took pleasure in recounting the facts. The two cowboys were lifelong friends and pedal steel enthusiasts, and came to the convention every year to listen to the players and stay up late noodling around on their own guitars to pre-recorded rhythm tracks. Though talented on the guitar, they never thought to perform. They were happy just to be there.
The convention itself was a curious pocket of music lost in time, a church devoted to preaching the gospel of ’50s and ’60s country and western swing. The majority of the players paid homage to the greats, attempting to reproduce famous solos like the one Buddy Emmons played for Judy Collins’s “Someday Soon,” or Norm Hamlet’s solo on Merle Haggard’s “Silver Wings.” At the time of the convention, Ray Price was still alive and working in Texas, actively touring and recording, but here he might as well have been dead for decades, his music preserved Lenin-like in static exercises of devotion. The audience seemed happy to hear the same songs with the same solos repeated several times during the day, as if listening to a mantra.
There were a few exceptions—Al Vescovo delivered some smooth renditions of jazz classics, and Dan Tyack ripped it up with a fuzzy, gospel sound—but for the most part, the convention was a musical museum. The pedal steel guitar, for all its innovative potential, was reduced to nostalgic playback.
On my last evening at the convention, Stu Schulman, a player based in Alaska, and I decided to get some food before the Johnny Bush show. The hotel restaurant was closed, so we headed across a parking lot wasteland to a strip mall that had a few semi-ethnic assembly-line-style chain restaurants. Over some tacos in plastic baskets, he asked if I’d ever been to Scotty’s. I shook my head.
“I used to go every year,” he said. “St. Louis. Those were the days—dangerous too. You couldn’t leave your gear alone for a second, even in broad daylight in front of the hotel. It would be gone.”
Later that night I went online and found the website for Scotty’s Music, Inc., a self-described “steel guitar paradise.” Dewitt “Scotty” Scott, a Texas native, founded a steel shop in his basement in 1966, and began organizing steel guitar conventions two years later. By the mid-70s, the convention in St. Louis was the biggest of its kind and brought together players from all over the world, including Japan and Norway. Like the Oahu schools for the Hawaiian guitar, early steel conventions formed a network that promoted the instrument, offered a platform for craftsmen, and, most importantly, attracted new players. In this kind of environment, the atmosphere was less about preservation than innovation. From what I heard players saying in Phoenix, however, the main convention in St. Louis isn’t what it used to be.
From its peak in the ’60s and ’70s, the pedal steel world has been shrinking. In St. Louis there has been a steady decline in vendors and attendance in the past decade. Small shows like the one in Phoenix may not be growing, but their numbers have been holding steady, if only because they deliver the no-risk, traditional country sounds that many players love. Conventions, which used to be hubs for discovering new techniques and sounds, are now more like fan clubs. For that reason, I didn’t just stand out at the Phoenix steel show because I was young and a woman; I stood out because I wasn’t a member.
The next morning I packed my steel and headed toward North Texas. As the sun was setting, and long into the blue evening hours, I kept pace with a freight train riding the tracks beside the highway. Like me, it was heading east. My finger was constantly finding the seek function on my car radio; the airwaves were a desert. Every so often I would latch onto a local radio station—gospel, country, oldies—and one of the songs played at the convention would emerge in its original version. The steel was in the air as I drove past Dallas and through Arkansas; it was playing when I crossed over the Mississippi River; it was ringing in my ears when I reached the end of my journey and parked my car on Belmont Boulevard in front of my new home in Nashville.
It’s been almost a decade since I first heard Paul Franklin play with the Time Jumpers. These days, the Station Inn looks like a relic. Gone are the abandoned warehouses and seedy porn store; the area has undergone a complete cosmetic and conceptual overhaul. The intersection of Division and Twelfth, now known as the Gulch, is crowded with homogeneous condos, organic-friendly restaurants, and a gym offering boot-camp classes. One of the Gulch websites promoting the area proclaims it “true Nashville.” The front stoop of the Station Inn is now illuminated by the neon of an Urban Outfitters across the street.
The Time Jumpers still play together but have moved to another longtime Nashville venue, 3rd and Lindsley, where they play most Monday nights. I recently caught a show. The place was packed, the crowd mostly above sixty, with the exception of a few young East Nashvillians with nostalgic facial hair. The group is still made up of some of the best players in town; their playing is so tight it’s loose, and they’re clearly having a good time. Most of the evening consisted of their trademark western swing style, with its chirpy, up-tempo beat and virtuosic solos, a classic country idiom that satisfied the majority of the audience. The highlights were a sultry version of drummer Billy Thomas’s “Blue Highway Blues” and a searing rendition of the Buck Owens classic “Together Again.”
The arrangement for the latter was spare; the three fiddles and the accordion pretty much lay out for the whole number, leaving Vince Gill and Paul Franklin to turn the song into a duet between voice and pedal steel. At its finest, the pedal steel breathes within the framework of a song, swelling to fill the empty spaces and retracting when the mood demands it, and the best players do this intuitively, weaving a kind of musical spell that holds other elements of a live show or a recording together. Franklin is more than impressive as a quick picker, but this solo was true gold—a coy melodic line that he spread over the strings with relaxed twists and bends of his steel bar in a manner so effortless, it seemed playful. He filled the club with a round, honey-like sound.
As other pedal steel players say, “Franklin has tone for days,” which is one of the reasons that he is one of the most sought after players in town. For session work, where many producers want the instrument to “just sound like a steel,” it is easy to rely on stock licks and picking patterns to deliver a clichéd country sound. Players like Franklin, who have a unique style, are becoming more and more rare.
When I ask about young players, many guitarists just shrug. In the last ten years, many of the greatest pedal steel players have passed away: Jeff Newman, Tom Brumley, Hal Rugg, John Hughey. These days, Dan Dugmore, Russ Pahl, Mike Johnson, and Paul Franklin are the main session players in Nashville. In a place where you can find a lead guitarist on almost every corner, and which has experienced a musical renaissance of sorts in the last decade, it’s surprising that all four still remain the go-to steel players in town, despite the generation gap. There just isn’t a new wave of young players coming up who can replace the quality of the old guard.
Recently, I met a friend at his studio in East Nashville to listen to some of his new demos. The second track featured a beautiful pedal steel solo.
“Who played that?” I asked.
“No one,” he answered, pulling up a window on his computer. “It’s Wavelore.”
Wavelore is an online company that offers software for the replication of what, until now, were instruments that were difficult to convincingly reproduce digitally: dobro, pedal steel, theremin, zither. The Wavelore Pedal Steel Guitar is a software library that uses single note samples, instead of pre-recorded licks or patterns, to let you design custom pedal steel guitar sounds without ever getting near an actual instrument. If you play around with the pitch bender and add some reverb, it is difficult to distinguish the software from a real player when it’s set into a track. There is even a function that distinguishes between blocking (muting) a string with a pick or with the side of your palm. The sounds I had thought were played by a session player were, in fact, oblong black boxes on my friend’s monitor where the pedal steel line was represented by constantly morphing, nebulous green wisps. Technology has finally caught up with the complexities that had protected the pedal steel from digital replacement: one can now get an authentic pedal steel sound without using a real player.
There’s no debate that the recording industry has undergone a massive upheaval in recent years, and Music City, USA—despite the fact that the local music industry generates almost $10 billion in annual economic activity—has not been spared. Music Row continues to shrink. Many venerable old studios like the House of David have either relocated or closed their doors, while Vanderbilt University snatches up real estate in the area as it expands over 21st Avenue South. As production budgets for recording projects shrivel, producers and musicians opt for more cost-efficient home studios; as music software improves, they can do without session musicians as well. The community that had nurtured the individual sounds of Buddy Emmons, Lloyd Green, and Paul Franklin is slowly disappearing.
The pedal steel was always an instrument on the fringes, but as the number of innovative players dwindles it appears to be entering a period of terminal decline. Software like Wavelore is convenient, but merely compounds the problem. When a computer program can pass itself off as a real pedal steel, the resulting sound may be satisfying, but it fails to incorporate one of the most essential aspects of musical creation—that every player is also an inventor, creating his own individual technical and musical formula out of experimentation and failure. The instrument itself was the result of trial, error, and ingenuity. If Bud Isaacs hadn’t wanted something more than his lap steel could offer him, the pedal steel might never have become the uniquely American instrument that it is today. What is true of every musician becomes acutely evident when one hears the gold spun by a seasoned pedal steel player on a custom instrument. Technical innovation cannot replicate the human element. There is no substitute for the mysteries of musical alchemy.