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.
As the Internet got going, in the early 1980s, futurological professionals liked to speak of “dead platforms,” archaic media rendered silent and/or invisible by the advent and ascendance of subsequent media. My own most poignant experience of a dead media platform, at that time, had been my discovery, at a swap meet in the early 1970s, of several reels of very thin, oddly brittle steel wire, the precursor to magnetic recording tape. The seller had no idea what might be recorded there, nor indeed whether the wire had ever been used. Neither the seller nor I had any idea where we might find a machine capable of playing them.
Unexpectedly, Bert asked me to move a little closer to him on the seat. I edged over and waited but he didn’t speak. After a long moment he whispered, just loud enough for me to hear, “What do you think of programming for Negro people?”
Pete's banjo plucks the rhythm, Ronnie Gilbert's alto slips into the water, Lee's big bass aches the lullaby. That's all it was to the hit parade, but to Lee, especially, "Goodnight, Irene” was a secret language, "a great notion"—all that could be said for a nation that responded to folk songs with burning crosses, the "drowning" as much of an allusion to Leadbelly's darker words (a junkie's lament, a love gone cold) as Decca Records would allow. For those who could hear, the song was thick with broken-hearted meanings, an elegy for wrong choices and a hope for the sweet, revolutionary bye and bye.