Tail of the Weak 2.17
Updated: Jan 24
Tail of the Weak is a series of insights and musical memories from the mind of Uncle Dave Griffin, singer/songwriter and founder of the Annual Gram Parsons Guitar Pull and Tribute Festival, from Waycross, Georgia.
The first time I ever heard a pedal steel guitar, I was about four years old, listening to Daddy's Hank Williams records. I must've been drawn to that haunting, melancholy sound because, by the time I was 19 and had grown up listening to The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Motown, Led Zeppelin, and everything else the 60s gave us, I came right back around to the music of my childhood.
Early 70s music saw a return to country roots with bands like Poco, The Eagles, and New Riders of the Purple Sage, all heavily inspired by a Waycross boy by the name of Gram Parsons. Rusty Young, Bernie Leadon, and Buddy Cage incorporated the pedal steel guitar into rock music and brought it back into the lives of the baby boomers.
In 1977, I was playing the Sheraton on the Beach in Panama City with the Down Home Band. We had Sunday off and wound up in a little dive called the 8 Ball Lounge. In the back of the place was a small stage and on that small stage sat Julian Tharpe, a steel guitar legend who, like Waylon and Willie, turned his back on the politics of Nashville.
Mr. Tharpe didn't fare as well as those famous outlaws but he was not deterred. When I met him, he had just ordered a tall glass of Scotch and milk, and proceeded to play the most beautiful version of “Oh, Danny Boy” on his pedal steel, bringing tears to my eyes.
In the space of a few months, we were booked to play in Chattanooga at the Man o' War club. John Randall Smith, Ricky Alderman, and I never shied away from finding an after-hours party and landed in a big, country nightclub called the Beef Inn, housing a bandstand and a huge dance floor full of couples two-steppin' around the edges.
John and I crawled up on stage with the band and sung our version of “Good-Hearted Woman”. When we came down off the stage, we ran right into Russ Hicks, steel guitar player for Barefoot Jerry, a new favorite discovery of mine thanks to my brother, Gary. Mr. Hicks, by then, was already a seasoned Nashville session musician and had spent 13 years as a member of the house band on Hee Haw. He was a very gracious man and let us shake his hand.
The pedal steel guitarist who I most related to was the gentleman on those early Hank Sr. records—Don Helms. Mr. Helms played on many of Hank's most famous songs; and, in 2005, by the grace of God and Nashville photographer and friend, Jimmy Stratton, he played on two tracks of The Newfanglers' Blood in the Pines, an original recording that I helped to write, play on, and produce.
It was just like comin' home for me. Don Helms autographed each and every one of my daddy's Hank Sr. albums; then he and his lovely wife, Hazel, posed with us in the backyard for a group picture—a moving experience brought about by a simple love of a complicated instrument.
The 6-string guitar was introduced to the islands of Hawaii by visiting European sailors in the late 1800s. The Hawaiians then developed a playing style called “slack-key” in which the strings were tuned to a straight major chord. Joseph Kekuku, from Oahu, is said to have been the first to lay the guitar flat on his lap and play it with a steel bar and metal fingerpicks.
Sol Hoopi, the most famous of the Hawaiian lap slide guitarists, wound up in California, joining cowboy movie star Hoot Gibson's band in the early 1920s. The lap steel underwent necessary changes through the years, finally morphing into the pedal steel guitar that has been a staple of country music for generations.
But there's another side to this story. When the steel guitar came stateside in the Twenties, it was also picked up by a group of African-American Pentecostal churches.
The Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of the Truth was founded in 1903 by Mary Magdalena Lewis Tate. Following her death in 1930, the church divided into three branches—the Keith, Jewell, and Lewis dominions. The steel guitar was embraced by black musicians in the Keith Dominion, headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee, and the Jewell Dominion out of Indianapolis, Indiana.
The instrument was enthusiastically included in worship services across America in these churches. Brothers Troman and Willie Eason, along with Bishop J.R. Lockey, toured and recorded during the 40s and 50s, calling their sound and style, Sacred Steel.
This fantastic development was unbeknownst to me until I heard the name—Robert Randolph—in 2001. Randolph had been raised up in the Sacred Steel style of the African-American House of God Church, and was discovered while playing at a Sacred Steel convention in Florida.
His star has risen and he has since found himself a regular on major festival stages around the world, touring with Eric Clapton and opening for the Mississippi All-Stars. He paved the way for other black steel guitar virtuosos and groups including The Lee Boys, A. J. Ghent, The Campbell Brothers, and Roosevelt Collier.
It's not an easy instrument to play. I've heard great musicians describe it—as a lion, sitting in the corner of the bedroom, waiting to devour you—or—like trying to fly a jet airplane with the skills of a hang glider. The pedal steel guitar carries a completely different tuning, with levers for your knees, pedals for your feet, some have two or three necks, and more G-strings than a Las Vegas showgirl.
But, for somebody who gets it—the result is a sonic wash of transcendental beauty. Take the steel guitar solo from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's “Teach Your Children”, played exquisitely and passionately by Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead. Jerry gets it.
Joyce and Randy Sharpe's youngest son, Josh, picked it up in Waycross, Georgia just a few short years ago and made it his own. Following that path—down a long line of fine players—from Hawaii to the country music meccas of Bakersfield and Nashville and even in the spiritual recesses of African-American churches—Josh Sharpe gets it.
Thanks to my daddy and Don Helms, I get it too. I love the sound that it makes. I just cain't play the damn thing!
Blood in the Pines: The Story of Hollis Sheppard: The Newfanglers Download or Buy
Ross, Michael. “Pedal to the Metal: A Short History of the Pedal Steel Guitar.” Premier Guitar, 17 February 2015. Memories straight from the mind of Uncle Dave Griffin
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