Steel Guitar: Underground or Under The Ground

Leslie Sloan | September 10th, 2009

A recent debate with a friend has me wondering: Has the steel guitar gone underground, or is the steel guitar dead and gone from country music altogether, buried “under the ground?”

Since Webb Pierce came out with “Slowly” in 1954, the pedal steel guitar has been the signature instrument of country music. Virtually non-existent in all other musical genres, its prominence in country music until the last decade (and arguably, the last two decades) has made it an audible watermark of country music. Lloyd Green, aka “Mr. Nashville” (and the steel guitar player for hundreds of country recordings), has been quoted as saying that “the steel guitar is the other voice in country music.”

But where is that “other voice” today? I don’t hear it in mainstream country music. Recently, I forced myself to sit down and listen to the top 10 singles on the Billboard chart; from Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” to Blake Shelton’s “I’ll Just Hold On,” what struck me was that while a hint of steel is audible on most of the recordings, none of them featured the melodic intros, solos and fills that have long been a staple of the genre.

Subtle steel tones are there (as is the banjo) seemingly to “countrify” the songs.

Maybe the contemporary song format is just a rhythmic accompaniment to a vocalist. Maybe the steel guitar doesn’t “fit in” anymore. But the instrument has historically been prominent in providing signature intros and solos (and for those of us steel guitar enthusiasts, classic fills that define a song–sometimes more than anything else in the recording).

Today, that kind of instrumentation exists only in the country music produced by artists such as Dale Watson, Junior Brown, Wayne “The Train” Hancock, Asleep at the Wheel, James Hand, Jesse Dayton, Justin Trevino, Amber Digby, Brennen Leigh, Jason Allen, Jake Hooker and a handful of other roots country music artists, primarily based in Texas.

But while we in Texas tend to think that we’ve got it all goin’ on down here, the roots country music artists do not dominate Texas music festivals (although I do have to mention that the one reason I dig Kevin Fowler is that he tours with both a steel guitar and a fiddle). And the majority of us typically have less than 200 audience members at most of our shows. Quite a few of us travel without a steel guitar in our road bands.

Combine this with the fact that mainstream radio and even many Americana stations will not play music that is “too country,” and you have a musical sound that is struggling to be heard. A major label executive once told me, “Honky tonk doesn’t sell.” How would it? The potential roots country music audience is largely unaware that roots country music exists!

To me, underground implies that there is a sort of revival underway that is growing and ready to bubble up to the surface, while under the ground means that a revival is yet to occur. New life must be breathed into bones in order for the underground to stir and then break through to the air above. With little radio airplay and small audiences, it is difficult to feel like a revival is going on.

Sometime, when you have a few minutes, I want you to listen to 2 songs: “I’ve Just Destroyed the World I’m Living In” and “Look At Us.” Two songs from two very different eras of country music. Two songs that feature the same steel player. A voice that is no longer with us (John Hughey passed away this last year), but one of the great steel guitar voices that embodied the definition of the soul and spirit of country music.

I am not ready to bury the steel guitar. But top 40 country music has done just that. Buried it in a wash of sound–a sound without voices, without dynamics and without distinction.

The good news is that there are artists who are still making this music. We’ve yet to create a movement, but as long as the music is being made, there is always hope. We have some great steel guitar players in the world who continue to support and promote the instrument. Let’s not say that the spirit of the steel guitar is resting in peace. It’s roaming the earth, still haunting many of us. I believe that one day we can bring it back to life.

1 Ping

  1. [...] album, and one about Lloyd Green. Also check out this recent feature on Green by Rich Kienzle, and this lament from a steel guitar fan: Where the heck is the instrument in current country music? Published [...]
  1. Paul W Dennis
    September 10, 2009 at 9:11 am

    I predict that the Lloyd Green, Jimmy Day, John Hughey, Weldon Myrick, Buddy Emmons style of prominent steel guitar playing will experience a resurgence.

    If you recall (and probably you wouldn’t since you are much younger than I) during the early part of the “Nashville Sound” era, the steel disappeared completely from many recordings (particularly on RCA and Decca), slowly coming back during the later part of the 1960s and then being incorporated into the “county Cocktail” sounds of Billy Sherrill

  2. Pierce
    September 10, 2009 at 9:19 am

    Good observation… I sure do love me some steel. The only Top 40 with a real driving steel part is Strait’s “Living For the Night”

  3. Razor X
    September 10, 2009 at 9:23 am

    The absence of the pedal steel from contemporary country is just another example of how much the genre has moved towards 80s pop/rock. In the past, there’s always been a backlash when mainstream country strayed too far from its roots. It would seem that now would be a good time for that to happen. I’ve been waiting for it to happen for well over a decade now, but I fear that the consolidation of record labels and radio stations is preventing the pendulum from swinging back towards more traditional sounding music.

    There’s a YouTube clip of Charley Pride on the Lawrence Welk Show from about 1967 where he brought his own steel guitar player to perform on the program with him. You’d never see anything like that today.

    And if I can indulge in a little shameless self-promotion for just a moment, we recently had a discussion about the steel guitar at My Kind of Country. There are some great clips of some wonderful steel guitar playing, if anyone is interested in checking them out:

    http://mykindofcountry.wordpress.com/2009/09/05/steel-guitar-rag/

    BTW, Miss Leslie, love your new single. Keep ‘em coming.

  4. Zayn Jones
    September 10, 2009 at 9:53 am

    I hope the steel comes back into mainstream. There isn’t a more beautiful instrument.

  5. Jon
    September 10, 2009 at 9:59 am

    I’m inclined to agree with Paul (and to wonder why Razor X allows the handful of radio stations reporting to Billboard to determine what constitutes “contemporary country”). I’m old enough to remember that back in the day when you heard a lot of steel guitar on country radio (though perhaps never quite as much as some folks seem to think), you didn’t hear much fiddle; the latter became more prominent as the former receded. You barely heard a lick of banjer on the radio back then; it’s made a comeback, too. Times change, instruments tend to go through revivals, though almost always played as much (or more) in new ways as in the old. It wouldn’t surprise me if the pedal steel’s next resurgence in country music showed the influence of sacred steel playing; the collaboration between the Travelin’ McCourys and the Lee Boys is getting a lot of buzz here.

    In the meantime, though, it’s still around – even in Nashville, if you know where to look. I imagine (or at least hope) that folks are familiar with the Time Jumpers and their brand of western swing; Hughey played and recorded with them for a long time, and Paul Franklin’s doing a great job with them now. They pack the Station Inn every Monday night. And I’ll put in a plug for David Peterson’s Old-Time Country Revue – you might have run across Dave with his bluegrass band, 1946, Leslie – which appears just about weekly at various venues around town. I’ve played a few of those shows with some of the best steel players around: Hughey a couple of times before he passed; Doug Jernigan and Robby Turner. He’s always got some fine fiddlers, too (Luke Bulla, Aaron Till, Brandon Godman, Aubrey Haynie, Shad Cobb), and guitar players (Bryan Sutton, David Grier, Richard Bennett), not to mention drummers (Mark Horn, Tommy Giampetro). In fact, I’d hold their debut release, Comin’ On Strong (you can find it on Amazon, CDBaby, etc.) up to anything from Texas.

    And lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the excellent country track on the solo album by theInfamous Stringdusters’ Jeremy Garrett, which features some fine steel work by Paul Franklin.

    BTW, Leslie, I caught a good chunk of a set by KSBC over in Eureka Springs a couple of weeks ago; different band, mostly (Kris is still playing bass), but pretty much the same show ;-).

  6. Kelly
    September 10, 2009 at 10:17 am

    While it doesnt take a genius to see it’s decline on the national Top 40 radio format, I have rarely seen a live show recently where a lap or pedal steel wasnt used quite a bit. On the radio in Texas, it’s still well-represented. Recent “hits” by Roger Creager and Cross Canadian Ragweed, among others have featured the pedal steel prominently…

  7. Cliff
    September 10, 2009 at 10:22 am

    What a great point of view! Country music on the radio seems way too pop driven now a days. Seems to me like the fiddle and the mandolin are the only traditional instruments keeping the mainstream country music stitched to the country genre. Steel guitar is one of the best instruments for country music. Two other instruments in country that help create atmosphere are the harmonica and the not so popular Musical Saw. And I’ll agree the dynamics are really missing from the top 40 country. Thank God there’s still some old school country out there!

  8. Miss Leslie
    September 10, 2009 at 10:44 am

    Paul – yep I’m probably a bit younger than you, but I know more about 60s country music than I do modern country music, although I am certainly not a music historian. And while you definitely had recordings with a wall of sound, you didn’t lose the steel guitar during that time period. But maybe we listen to different music – great steel guitar players were certainly not sitting at home in the early 60s.

    As much as I would love to believe in your prediction that Jon seems to believe in as well, I’m not sure how you would have a resurgence today in the sounds of Lloyd Green, John Hughey, et al. Popularity in the mainstream and sales that make any top list on Soundscan in general come from a younger fanbase. And while I certainly love the Timejumpers and understand that there is a solid group of pickers in Nashville that love their country hardcore, my understanding from many Nashville sources is that the town has gone rock-n-roll.

    Throughout music history, every musical movement has come from the people, and THAT fact gives me hope. I also know that these movements are typically pushed by the young. I’m not sure how you would see young people getting interested in artists that sound like Johnny Bush or Connie Smith, but I don’t think the folk music revival in the 70s and the popularity that came to bluegrass as a result was expected either.

    And Kelly – I guess we’re going to different live shows. The only Texas Red Dirt artist that I’ve seen with a steel is Fowler. Great for Ragweed and Creager – but would you say that the steel guitar is featured prominently in Red Dirt music?

    Again, in my opinion, the steel guitar is off the radar. You see it in classic country cover bands but whether they’re in Nashville or Texas, they haven’t started that fire yet.

    Actually, Jon, I think that if bluegrass could embrace the classic country world, we could have a reunion of 2 music genres that started out together in the 40s/50s. Despite the use of steel guitar on some of contemporary bluegrass recordings, it just hasn’t happened yet.

    And I’m not surprised about KSBC. ;-)

  9. merlefan49
    September 10, 2009 at 10:45 am

    The steel is also very prominent in your great music Miss Leslie :D

  10. Miss Leslie
    September 10, 2009 at 10:49 am

    MERLEFAN – It’s because I’m in LOVE with the steel guitar. In my opinion, it is the greatest instrument ever invented. I wouldn’t play a show without one. As much as Ricky Davis is my steel player and the key to my sound, when he’s sick, I hire another steel player. I can’t do without it.

  11. Kelly
    September 10, 2009 at 10:54 am

    Miss Leslie – have you seen Charlie Robison lately? Kim Deschamps has been performing live with him for some time now…Also, there is a ton of Texas artists who dont really fit into the Red Dirt category that are still quite popular in the region (1100 Springs, Jesse Dayton, Macon Greyson are specific, regional examples of concerts I have seen recently with lap or pedal steel on the stage).

    My point is that it’s not off of “my radar” since I hear it on the radio and on the stage with far more frequency than you seem to.

  12. Miss Leslie
    September 10, 2009 at 11:08 am

    Hey Kelly – I think I wasn’t clear. Sure, those of us that love roots country hear and see steel guitar all the time, but as I mentioned above, the audiences are in the below 1000 (most of the time 200 or less), not the thousands and ten thousands that exist in the mainstream and at Texas Music Festivals.

    When you mentioned Red Dirt guys, I thought you were trying to say that the steel guitar is prominent with them, because Red Dirt IS the popular music in Texas. It DOES get radio airplay. I just haven’t heard steel guitar prominent among the Red Dirt folks and was curious if you had more info.

    The rest of us – including my good friends 1100 Springs and Jesse Dayton – are struggling for radio airplay and large bookings in front of thousands of people.

    It is because we are underground – with the music and the steel guitar.

  13. Kelly
    September 10, 2009 at 11:17 am

    Fair enough, you were probably plenty clear, but that isnt enough for me sometimes :-) I guess my point was that the steel is “more” prominent in Texas than on Top 40 radio (red dirt or otherwise) and as a result, I hadnt arrived at the point where I personally had a question of whether it was underground or under the ground…

    Again, I guess it’s hard for me to look past what I personally see or hear. 1100 Springs gets played on 2-3 different stations in DFW. They also play to crowds of several hundred (or more) every week. They are practically a cottage industry in North Texas. Yet another reason I am lucky to live in the Lone Star State (put that in your pipe and smoke it, Rick!)

  14. Junior Knight
    September 10, 2009 at 11:22 am

    I have to agree that the steel guitar is not as important to *modern* country music as it once was. Its still there a little.. Thanks to Paul Franklin, and a handful of others the steel is still there. Thank God for Alan Jackson..King George..and others in main stream music that still use the steel!

  15. Rick
    September 10, 2009 at 11:53 am

    Steel guitar was very prominent in the Post WW-II late 40’s music created by west coast based western swing artists Hank Penny and Tex Williams and really adds to its appeal. I have to laugh when I listen to Merle Travis’ version of “Steel Guitar Rag” where the most prominent instruments are trumpet & accordian! (lol)

    A talented but obscure traditional country artist who maximizes the use of steel guitar is Dave Cox. Dave writes country humor songs in the vein of Shel Silverstein and Roger Miller and the songs are musical enough they’d stand up even without the funny lyrics. Recently Dave put out a “Greatest Misses” compilation CD that is a real bargain and gives you more steel guitar per dollar than just about anything else out there!
    Link: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/davecox5

  16. nm
    September 10, 2009 at 11:59 am

    If bluegrass embraced the classic country world, would Bradley Walker get to have a pedal steel player in his band? He ought to have one.

  17. TenPoundHammer
    September 10, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    I agree with Junior Knight. Paul Franklin is still there, still steeling away on Alan and George albums among others. Paul can also do a wonderful “crying steel” á la John Hughey; just listen to “She Never Got Me Over You.”

    As for a different sounding steel, Pat Severs of Pirates of the Mississippi had a more “chopped” sound that I found rather interesting — he didn’t do much sliding around on it.

  18. Paul W Dennis
    September 10, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    “I have to laugh when I listen to Merle Travis’ version of “Steel Guitar Rag” where the most prominent instruments are trumpet & accordian! (lol)”

    Yes but Merle’s version is chiefly vocal

    At one time I preferred the “hard” pedal steel sound but over the years I’ve come to prefer the lap steel and/or more basic pedal steel as it was used by Little Roy Wiggins, Speedy West, Kayton Roberts or Leon McAuliffe

  19. Janice "Busgal" Brooks
    September 10, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    Steel Guitar is one eliment that brings me to Texas more then Nashville. Anyone who has heard my online station http://www.live365.com/stations/busgaljan?site=live365

    knows that the only top 40 act if featured in the last 6 months is Jamie Johnson and steel is all over his tracks.

    However I have added a bunch of our Honky Tonk buddies

  20. Mayor Jobob
    September 10, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    You couldn’t find a good country album in the 90’s without Paul Franklin, Dan Dugmore, or Sonny Garrish at the pedal. Those were the days!

  21. Rick
    September 10, 2009 at 2:16 pm

    One of my favorite steel guitar drenched songs is Red Foley’s patriotic WWII song “Smoke On The Water” that topped the country charts for 13 weeks back in 1944. Written by Zeke Clements it is just one fantastic song that has a timeless quality to it. Now there’s a song that makes you want to dance!

    In Miss Leslie’s list of fellow Texas artists a couple of glaring omissions are Heart of Texas label mates Kimberly Murray and Heather Myles who both epitomize the roots country sound. Kim Murray especially uses the steel guitar as her primary instrument in most of her songs, making for a bit of honky tonk heaven in this day and age of mainstream pop-rock country crap.

  22. Nicolas
    September 10, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    I love steel guitar… and it still gets used, but from what I have seen, older stuff had a lot of steel guitar + not much else, but now its mixed in with other instruments.

    I still think it gets good usage

  23. Jon
    September 10, 2009 at 3:33 pm

    Folks who think Nashville’s “gone rock-and-roll” need to put down their copies of the Scene and get out a little more ;-).

    There are two somewhat different subjects here, and I think they’re getting squashed together a little. One is whether the “classic” sounds and styles might become more popular, and the other is whether the instrument itself – and I’m talking about pedal steel in particular; the 6-string lap steel is a very different instrument – might become more prominent again. I’d say the former is less likely, because it’s tied to a lot of other musical and socio-musical (so to speak) stuff – or, if not less likely, less likely to regain its former status, much the way that, while you can still hear some old-time country fiddle styles, they were basically supplanted by others, led by folks like Dale Potter, Tommy Jackson, Benny Martin, then Buddy Spicher, etc. Or the way that mandolin playing was permanently altered by folks like Monroe, Jesse Mcreynolds, Bobby Osborne on the one hand, and Tiny Moore et.al. on the other. You don’t hear too much of the brother duet style of mandolin playing anymore – nor, for that matter, do you hear much bluegrass-style mandolin playing on modern country records, even though the guys playing the instrument are often bluegrass-trained. I don’t know why it would – or should – be different with the pedal steel. But the use of the instrument itself is another story.

    I don’t hold out much hope for a bluegrass-classic country fusion, not because I think it’s a bad idea, but because too big a chunk of the bluegrass audience is fixated on its purported acoustic nature (people are still arguing over the electric bass, for crying out loud), and too big a chunk of the classic country audience don’t like a banjer ;-).

    Rick, being on the Heart Of Texas label no more makes Heather Myles a “Texas artist” than being on Rounder made her a “Boston artist.”

  24. Jon
    September 10, 2009 at 3:51 pm

    And BTW, I’d love to know where the picture for this column on the front page comes from; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a pedal steel player use a Stevens bar.

  25. Tom
    September 10, 2009 at 4:12 pm

    country without steel is like cooking without salt.

  26. M.C.
    September 10, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    Tom–Do you think Johnny Cash lacks salt?

    I love steel guitar too, though. I know it’s common to cite Webb Pierce’s “Slowly” as the beginning, because of the long solo, but truth is the steel wasn’t exactly new in country music at that point. Nearly all of Hank Williams’ records feature it prominently, which all preceded that recording, and the great steel intro to Lefty Frizzell’s “Always Late” was three years earlier, not to mention Wills, Tubb, etc.
    Also, as contemporary country goes, Brad Paisley often has some scorching steel all over his albums and concerts. It’s not in the ’60s style exhorted here, but it’s often outstanding.

  27. Rick
    September 10, 2009 at 6:15 pm

    Jon, at the recent “Heart of Texas Anniversary Concert” (now available on DVD) Tracy Pitcox announced that Heather Myles had just purchased a home there in Brady, Texas. So Heather is now an honest to goodness Texan! Heather actually grew up in Southern California area, so to me she’ll always be a hometown girl.

  28. merlefan49
    September 10, 2009 at 6:24 pm

    George Strait’s music use to be heavy with the steel it seems he has traded it in for the Hammond b3 organ.

  29. Jon
    September 10, 2009 at 7:11 pm

    “Jon, at the recent “Heart of Texas Anniversary Concert” (now available on DVD) Tracy Pitcox announced that Heather Myles had just purchased a home there in Brady, Texas. So Heather is now an honest to goodness Texan!”

    No, she’s bought a home in Texas; any Texan will tell you those are two different things ;-).

  30. corey
    September 10, 2009 at 7:41 pm

    Dierks Bentley actually features quite a bit of steel guitar in his music

  31. Saving Country Music
    September 10, 2009 at 8:04 pm

    EXCELLENT TOPIC, AND WELL WRITTEN!!

    Though you’ve stolen my thunder a little, because I’ve wanted to write about this for a while.

    Yes, as goes the steel guitar, so goes country. That is why I think the lack of steel guitar in radio-played country speaks to the ills of the genre.

    And though some would tell you they don’t want to hear the steel predominately because this is “too country” you will notice a lot of rock outfits are now featuring steel guitar. Why? Because the appeal for that sound is still out there. To make it fit in rock it has to bee fleeting, more ambient than in traditional country, but the steel is the roots that appeals to a lot of people, people feeling disenfranchised by pop country that has abandoned those roots.

    I think it is also important to point out the difference between the pedal steel and the stand up steel used by people like Wayne Hancock, Hank III, and former people like Hank Snow. The stand up steel gave the steel sound even more edge, more prominence.

    I think you can tell a lot about a country band even before they start playing just by if there is a steel rig on stage, and what kind it is. No steel: pop country. Pedal steel: traditional or mainstream country. Stand up steel: outlaw or insurgent country, with musicians who probably have some pretty heavy handed opinions about the state of country music at the moment.

    Good stuff. Thanks for this!

  32. Steve Harvey
    September 10, 2009 at 9:06 pm

    Gary Allan has a great steel player (CJ Udeen) in his band, who gets at least one solo in the show. Brooks & Dunn had a pedal steel player last time I saw him.
    Dierks Bentley has a great steel player in his live band, although his name escapes me.

  33. SRK Steel
    September 10, 2009 at 9:30 pm

    * * *George Strait’s music use to be heavy with the steel it seems he has traded it in for the Hammond b3 organ.* * *

    Although we are all big steel guitar fans (even George), there is still one major fact that has not been mentioned…..$$$$money,money,money.
    Without it there would not even be any Country music.

    Artists (if you can call um that) like Taylor Swift, Jason Aldean, Kelly Pickler and many others are raping “Country” and molest “Western” music.
    They however do, what the record companies tell them to do.These people fill public demand.

    I too……rather listen to Bobby Flores with Dicky Overbey on steel then having to listen to artists like Darius Rucker.A wannabee popstar that is now tearing down Country as we all know it.
    A failure as a pop artist (Hootie & the Blowfish) that is trying to get his foot in the door.We are surrounded by so-called artists who receive a “Simon Cowell” contract and are trying to make it.

    Sorta like a “Simon Says” kinda game.

    It will definitely take a good while to get it all back on track.
    However it has to be said that most steel players cling on to the older style C&W to much. The steel guitar is so much more then just “In the Garden”, “Amazing Grace”, “There stands the glass” and “Fraulein”.
    We do have to broaden our horizon or we WILL be pushed into a corner.

  34. dylan
    September 10, 2009 at 9:43 pm

    Actually a lot of mainstream artists have steel players in their live bands. In addition to brooks and dunn, dierks bentley, and gary allan; people like jake owen, rodney atkins, james otto, tim mcgraw, toby keith, blake shelton, trace adkins, josh turner, and even kenny chesney have a pedal steel player.

  35. FIONA TOMANY
    September 11, 2009 at 5:50 am

    Like most things its money driven and profits come first before the music. its the same really with pop music. Garth Brooks ans Shaina Twain set the rot in in the 90’s and their music appealed to a younger audience. so Country music changed because the record labels thought it would sell sad thing it was the artist themselves and not their music that sold. Paul Franklin’s fast speed picking style fitted in very well and to be honest it got very boring after a while. Thank fully Heart of Texas records and Bobby Flores keep making Cd’s with fiddle and steel. so i don’t think it will die completely. Remember in the 60’s Jim Reeves recordings almost killed it but it came back in the late sixties

  36. M.C.
    September 11, 2009 at 5:59 am

    SRK: You call Hootie and the Blowfish a failure. You do know the band’s debut sold 13 MILLION copies in the U.S., right? You can dislike Rucker’s music, then and now, but one thing he’s not is a “wannabe pop star.” He is a pop star, and now a country success story too. You don’t have to like it, but not many singers have million-selling debuts in two genres.

  37. Tom
    September 11, 2009 at 6:43 am

    @ M.C. no, johnny cash doesn’t lack salt. interesting though, i thought about him too, when i wrote my previous post. in the end, it probably all comes down to the right amount used.

  38. Paul W Dennis
    September 11, 2009 at 8:24 am

    p.s Johnny Cash did use steel guitar on several albums, most notably NOW THERE WAS A SONG , but at oher times, too

  39. Miss Leslie
    September 11, 2009 at 9:24 am

    JON – I didn’t choose the pic. If I did, it would have been a Sho-Bud. And I agree that there are 2 very different issues – a comeback of a “classic” country sound and a stronger use of pedal steel guitar in country music. I think that the steel’s sound could change and be integrated into this rock-n-roll thing. There’s a great youtube clip of Paul Franklin playing with Dire Straits that is a great example. Maybe it’s that mainstream music is not geared towards instruments period? Melody plays such a small role. And the dynamics that you encounter in a music like bluegrass, do not exist in mainstream country today. Maybe steel guitar is a casualty of an overall destruction of the dynamics of instruments in general?

    RICK – Heather and Kim are good friends of mine. I didn’t mean to make a glaring omission. And Heather, while having a house there, does not live in Brady. I don’t think she needs to live in Texas – Heather is a little bit Bakersfield, a little bit Texas honky tonk and a LOT of country. She has her own thing. And I would give credit for the Heart of Texas sound to Mr. Justin Trevino, who has stamped his signature sound on all HOT artists’ records with a sound that features the prominence of both the steel guitar and fiddle.

    M.C. – I said the first time PEDAL steel guitar was used in recording was on “Slowly”. Yes, non-pedal was already around and is a different animal in its history, context and outreach.

    ALL – I’ve said this to many friends. Just because you sit a steel guitar player onstage doesn’t mean that you are using the steel guitar. I have a friend that played a few shows with a top 40 cover band that would take a book to read during the many times onstage that he was not used. I wish that we would have had the space to show my notes that I made on the Top 10 Billboard Country Songs. Just because steel guitar is on a recording doesn’t mean it’s ON it. The steel guitar sounds I heard were awash – background tones, not even fills. A recent Dierks Bentley song was the same way.

    We all have our “scenes” that we’re proud of. I’m proud of the Texas honky tonk scene. I think it’s cool that Nashville has a traditional country scene. But you can’t look at Soundscan or even at numbers of people at live shows and say that the steel guitar is prominent today. As much as I hear the steel guitar in my “scene” down here, I can walk down the street and ask 100 – even 1000 people if they know who Jake Hooker and Dale Watson (2 of the largest drawing artists in Texas that prominently feature steel guitar) are, and they will say no.

    The steel guitar is not being heard today – as much as I try to bite my tongue while I admit that. As much as it saddens me, it is a fact. And I want us to grow these few hundred people that appear at shows for artists that feature the steel guitar prominently. More than that – I would love to see the steel guitar find its place once again at the forefront of a music genre. In the right hands, it is a beautiful, powerful, amazing instrument.

    And it should be HEARD.

  40. Bob M.
    September 11, 2009 at 10:06 am

    I LOVE the steel guitar. It is always the first thing i want to know when i hear a country album, “who is playing steel?” I think your steel player Ricky, is one of the best there is. When i visited Austin about 5 years ago i saw him play with Billy Dee at Ginny’s. Doug Jernigan is my personal fav of all time. I agree with you. Most of the steel heard in todays “country” music is buried in the background, which is why i only listen to what i consider real country music ie: Jamie Richards, Dale Watson, Justin Trevino, etc. Sadly as you say these great artists just don’t get played on the mainstream radio (unless you happen to live in Texas) or have the following that mainstream “country” artists have. I really wish that more people could find out about all the real country music still being played. I always find it a travesty when i hear what is being played today on “country” radio.

  41. Hanford
    September 11, 2009 at 7:03 pm

    …One may be able to argue that you don’t here “country” in “country music” anymore.

  42. SRK Steel
    September 12, 2009 at 8:43 pm

    * * *but one thing he’s not is a “wannabe pop star.” He is a pop star* * *

    If he “was” such a big pop star then why the big change to Country music? I’ll tell you why.
    Because he was done in that field.No-one wanted to listen to his music anymore.Now he infiltrates Country and Western like he is something.
    We all wonder where the steel guitar went….well I think I just gave you the answer.

    Acts like that make it harder and harder for players like you and I to keep above water.Maybe you don’t see it that way, but it is a fact.

  43. Jon
    September 12, 2009 at 11:03 pm

    Leslie, I’m more inclined to take note of the disappearance, or at least reduction, of instrumental passages as a factor; you hear a lot more turnarounds or simple repetitions of signature licks than you do verse or chorus solos these days, and not just on country radio.

  44. Stormy
    September 12, 2009 at 11:15 pm

    SRK Steel: There is a difference between a wannabe and a has-been. Pretty much everyone of my generation has Cracked Rear View. Not so many of us have Fair Weather Johnson.

  45. Rick
    September 13, 2009 at 2:40 am

    Miss Leslie, my comment on Kim and Heather was really just to give them a well deserved plug in this thread where the folks reading this would likely love their music! Amber Digby gets mentioned here now and then, but Kim Murray is grossly overlooked and under appreciated! (Well, in my opinion anyway.) Kim has that duet with Jake on her album and should tour with him to build a fan base!

    Here in L.A. we have a fine stand up steel player in Jeremy Wakefield, whom you hear on SpongeBob Squarepants cartoons. Jeremy is a member of LA’s premier (and likely only) western swing band The Lucky Stars and goes for that “hard” steel sound of the 1940’s. A couple of years back Jeremy had hooked up with Hot Club of Cowtown members Whit Smith and Jake Erwin to form “The String Devils”, but when Elana came back and the Hot Club revived the String Devils fell apart. I got the hear them perform once though and the interplay between Whit’s guitar and Jeremy’s steel brought tears of joy to my eyes! Sadly The Lucky Stars are lucky (no pun intended) to book even one gig a month here in LA and often they go months between gigs. I just have to get my steel guitar fixes when I can around here…

  46. Steve from Boston
    September 15, 2009 at 1:20 am

    Great topic, I always thought of steel as being an identity instrument for true Country music, and it’s essential partner is a strong fiddle. I especially love it when the two are paired together on intros to great sounding Country songs. Even Sara Evans “Love Don’t be a Stranger” has that essential interplay, indicating that yes, this is a REAL Country song you’re about to hear! Sadly Sara doesn’t even have a steel guitar in her band anymore, and I think that is symptomatic of her turn away from Tradition, as well as of the diluting of Country music in general nowadays.

    Joey + Rory’s Boots, also has a wonderful steel and fiddle intro. Signs of hope here. I give Patty Loveless a lot of credit for her heavy use of the instument throughout her Sleepless Nights album especially, and Al Perkins stunning and stinging turn on Crazy Arms is a true shining moment for pedal steel.

    One of the few things about Mountain music that I don’t like is the abscence of steel. (drums I don’t miss at all) I guess Dobro is the Bluegrass acoustic counterpart to steel, but I still miss it sometimes in the format. And here I applaud Patty again, word has it she weaves some steel into her upcoming Mountain Soul II album, and I give her and Emory a lot of credit for the way they balance creativity with rootedness in Traditional forms.

  47. TW
    September 15, 2009 at 11:25 am

    A very fine article. As a steel player I would like to point out (perhaps anally) that “Slowly” was not the first pedal steel recording. Pedals were used on steel guitars for years prior to that point, mainly as a way to change tunings and allow players to access different chord structures. The significance of “Slowly” was that Bud Isaacs, Webb Pierce’s steel player, created a signature sound by audibly bending the notes with the pedals as he played. This created the sound we now relate to as the pedal steel guitar sound.

    Secondly, I’d like to point out that while I too love the sound of the steel guitar (either pedal or otherwise), including it on a Kenny Chesney song (for example) does not necessarily a country record make. The problems with modern commercial country music are far beyond the steel guitar’s ability to remedy.

  48. Mojo Bone
    September 16, 2009 at 4:48 am

    Seems to me mainstream country often features dobro during periods that lack a prominent steel voice, but I can only hope that that sweet, soulful sound is poised for an upswing in popularity. I know of at least one honky-tonkin’ hillbilly band that’s itchin’ to help make it happen. Thanks for the article Miss Leslie, it needed to be said.

  49. Ed Starkey
    September 17, 2009 at 4:08 am

    Forget Radio –there are too many other outlets these days for your music. Make your music as you see fit & sell it to the people. The steel wont make it country if it isnt & it wont stop being country if it is not on there. Is your song good, is your cd well produced? Are you exploring all the new adventures & opportunities on the internet?
    You make the the song country. The people who buy it from you from the your web site, or off the independent radio stations both on the web & on the air, publicly supported stations [ie: Pacifica] will tell you if you’re are successful by buying that product. And they wont buy it because of the inclusion or omission of a steel guitar. Unless you are Buddy Emmons.
    They will buy it because your song was good and you were ready & able to deliver the song & the show. LOL –and if you want to add a good steel player on your cut—- god bless ya

  50. Miss Leslie
    September 17, 2009 at 11:09 am

    Thanks for all of the comments everybody. I think this is important to talk about. And I think it’s cool that lots of people mentioned some great steel players.

  51. paterson dave
    September 21, 2009 at 4:55 pm

    i like the steel guitar too, and used to enjoy picking with the late jim shobe, who played without pedals. he was a real musician, could play mood indigo and anything else he read or heard.

    modern steel guitar fans should check out robert randolph. he is a musician of the first order and a steel player equal to anyone named above. gillian grisman made a documentary about him, but it was stifled by the company because randolph records for someone else. very strange and sad story.

  52. Marcia
    September 23, 2009 at 12:43 pm

    I’m glad someone mentioned Dierks Bentley: he’s a chart topper but his songs have a lot of twang in them, be it the banjo or the steel. Reba has some steel on her latest CD. But what we need to remember is that music is organic, some people prefer the old some prefer the new but that doesn’t warrant hating on either one.

  53. Miss Leslie
    September 23, 2009 at 12:56 pm

    It’s not an issue of old v new. It’s an issue of an instrument that used to be prominent in a music genre, and now limited to a background position, and many times missing altogether.

    I miss the instrument. Whether or not I like the music is an entirely different question and doesn’t matter whether it was recorded today or 50 years ago.

  54. stormy
    September 23, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    The problem is that steel laced music doesn’t have to be “old” and most of the 80’s AM Rock wannbes on mainstream country stations don’t sound as though they are doing anything new. Heck, if they added some steel or mandolin they would at least be caught up to the soft rock of REM, Tracy Chapman and Shawn Mullins in the mid 90’s.

  55. Greg
    September 27, 2009 at 2:46 pm

    We were fortunate to see Jake Hooker and the Outsiders for three straight weekends..Rick Price on steel always wows the crowd. I make it a point to ask newbies “what do you think of the steel?”..I can’t recall anything less than “amazing”, or “outstanding”, as a response.

  56. Chip Nall
    October 1, 2009 at 7:41 pm

    Right on! My friend Dave Westheimer turned me on to this article. I love a fiddle (or 2 or 3) along with the steel. Don`t wanna slight you fiddlers but I would have to use a good steel over a fiddle for Country music. I really love a honky tonkin or boogie woogie piano too. The real honky tonkers know that todays crap is in no way country. They will never fool us.

  57. Bigred
    October 7, 2009 at 6:31 pm

    I just read this topic and thought of a good point. Texas is the only type of music that uses the steel. It takes that type of song to need a steel guitar and Nashville doesn’t write that kind of music anymore. Who is the biggest artist with prominent steel use in their music. Miranda Lambert. Her current single, White Liar has plenty of it, the very opening is a steel guitar. Usually she has one of her guitarists, Scotty Wray playing the lap steel and only for a couple of songs. But on White Liar it’s her keyboardist, Chris Kline. And that is the only song he plays it on.

  58. Rebecca
    October 9, 2009 at 9:50 am

    This 14 year old country gal can appreciate some great steel! I USE to go hear Aaron Watson ONLY for his talented steel & fiddle player.
    He no longer plays with a steel player.
    I no longer go to his shows.

  59. Jesse
    October 9, 2009 at 9:59 am

    Ah Miss Young Rebecca-you have great taste.
    I love to hear young David play. He is an amazing musician. I use to hear him with Johnny Lee. Good guy.

  60. Rick Ryan
    May 28, 2010 at 1:13 pm

    I think “If Teardrops Were Diamonds” by Dwight Yoakam and Willie Nelson is the PERFECT steel guitar song. I don’t know how long I have had it. It came up on an iPod playlist and I just played it over and over. Dwight Yoakam uses a lot of steel guitar. I don’t listen to the radio any more. I buy music off the internet at the rate of about $150 a month. Steel guitar or banjo music usually sell me the CD.

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