My friend Philip reminded me the other day why I took up the pedal-steel guitar. It may seem like a country music cliché, but I had just recently laid my dog to rest and desperately needed a way of focusing my attention on something productive, to rid my grief.
In a time of trouble, the idea of learning pedal-steel guitar simply had a deep resonance, like the sound of the instrument itself. It gave me a much-needed platform to pass time, absorbed in a complex task. And, of course, it very appropriately tapped into the musical tradition of heartbreak: country music, where most people have heard the pedal-steel guitar (even if they don’t know what it is) and where many a dog has been lovingly laid to rest. (I miss you Della.)
For those unfamiliar with the pedal-steel guitar, its sonic textures can be chime-like, mimicry of feral meowing, reverberant echoes, atmospheric touches, pure twang, bend and release and slow volume swell.
Mechanically, it is the musical equivalent of a nautilus machine. For the player, every limb gets a workout. One hand slides an aluminum bar across the strings, altering the pitch as the smooth metal passes up and down the neck, while the other hand picks. The left foot presses floor pedals that are connected to spring-loaded rods in the undercarriage of the instrument, bending the pitch of specific strings. The knees pivot in and out on levers that likewise alter the pitch. The right foot seesaws on a volume pedal that allows certain chords or notes to swell. This all happens in a miracle of coordination; thus it is more than a little ironic that an instrument with such a slippery sound demands such an incredible steadiness of execution.
As my obsession with learning the pedal-steel guitar has grown over the past several months, I have had a chance to hear many different approaches to the instrument. There are players like Norm Hamlet, on Merle Haggard’s recordings, who are masterful at employing the instrument for melodic purposes. (Listen to the intro to “I Could Have Gone Right,” for example, where the opening line establishes the melodic framework). For the virtuosic side of pedal-steel, Buddy Emmons is your man – I especially enjoy his work with the tragically underappreciated guitarist Danny Gatton in the Redneck Jazz Explosion. (Do a web search for either of these players and prepare to have your mind blown.)
Ben Keith was perhaps my first major introduction to pedal-steel playing, largely through his decades-long affiliation with Neil Young: an affiliation that is itself a true testament to Keith’s artistry. Young is famous – if not infamous – for changing band lineups, often at a drop of the hat, to suit the mercurial nature of his muse. The fact that Young called so frequently on Keith for sessions and tours was a sign of Keith’s depth and versatility as a player. Keith (who, sadly, passed away in 2010) started out as a Nashville session player and can be heard, most famously, on Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces.” However, I am particularly inspired by his move into the world of folk and rock where the subtlety, economy and restraint of his playing are true art. Listen, for instance, to the haunting textures in “Words (Between the Lines of Age)” on Neil Young’s Harvest. Keith’s part comes in shortly after the lyrics begin.
However, one of the most intriguing players I have encountered in the past year is Lloyd Green, who provides a very real example of the artistry of the pedal-steel guitar. His work shows how the instrument’s function as a conduit for call-and-response and its flexible use of tension and resolution – permitted by the sheer mechanics of the instrument itself – truly assign the pedal-steel player with great responsibility as an artist. Lloyd Green’s work on the early records of Johnny Paycheck, in particular, offer a real testament to the pedal-steel guitar as an exciting artistic medium.
But first a bit about Paycheck … Despite personal failings and the over-popularity of recordings like “Take This Job and Shove It,” some of Paycheck’s early repertoire is worth a close listen because it delves into some really fascinating, deep and dark psychological realms. This is damn serious stuff: murder-suicides (“Pardon Me, I’ve Got Someone to Kill”); a psych patient’s fantasy of sharing his room in the ward with the woman who wronged him (“Like Me, You’ll Recover in Time”); and, of course, there’s the typical fodder of prison, booze and run-of-the-mill heartache.
In talking about this music to a friend recently, I described it as Link Wray meeting Edgar Allen Poe in a honky tonk: sonic experimentation mixed with dark psychology and, of course, country music. This mix can be found in “The Cave,” which uses a dream narrative to offer up a harrowing Cask-of-Amontillado expression of isolation and expiration, all wrapped in the Cold War-era fear of imminent destruction – again, some pretty heavy material, even for country music.
But what makes the tune so exciting are all of the artful sonic touches on the pedal-steel, courtesy of Lloyd Green whose use of “sound-painting” (imagery through sound) so fittingly echoes the lyrical content. For example, hear: the faint, whispering, near-subliminal echo that follows the first lyric where Paycheck introduces the dream (:12); a series of galloping, slightly percussive pedal-steel lines that accompany the dream descent into the cave (:39 to :52); not to mention the fluttering bat-wing mimicry that opens the song and follows every verse.
Lloyd Green’s playing on these early Paycheck tunes exhibits how pedal-steel, in its supporting role, can truly contribute to the act of storytelling, in this case supporting some pretty sinister imagery. Other examples include the piercing pedal-steel work – almost too painful to bear – in the aforementioned “Like Me, You’ll Recover in Time." Beyond the screeching tone of the instrument, even the approach of Green’s phrasing in this song (deliberately unpredictable and off-kilter to the vocal lines) reflects the lyrical content of the song’s mad fantasy.
I wouldn’t have stumbled onto Lloyd Green’s playing, much less listened to it so closely, if it weren’t for the musical recommendations of mentors, the demands of trying to make sense of a complicated instrument, and the need, as part of this process, to explore all of the exciting ways that players use instrumentation to make great art. Sadly, much of modern commercial pop-country music has resulted in a kind of cultural amnesia about all of the artistically deep music that came before it. There are even some amazing surprises, if you delve deep enough.
Roger Noyes is a musician from Albany, N.Y., who plays guitar, bass and, now, pedal-steel guitar in a number of area bands, performing everything from jazz to "Americana" and rock. Sound clips as well as information on his various music projects and show dates are at rogernoyes.com. He is also a local writer and a communications professional during his day gig.