Steel Guitar: Underground or Under The Ground
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.
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