A little appreciation, please

When you’re working with a singer at a gig he expects you to back him up, to the best of your ability

OK,what's next?When you’re working with a singer at a gig he expects you to back him up, to the best of your ability, on whatever song he decides to do. It might be a request, paid or not, or just a song that he likes or is used to doing when he can’t think of anything else, or one of his hit records. Sometimes I don’t really feel like playing this particular song, but it’s part of the job, so I do it without complaint. Y’know how many times you’ve played “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” and ”Swingin;’, and you’re totally sick of them. But the dancers like this shit, so you play them. It’s business, you’re being paid, and you want to keep the gig.

If you happen to play something really outstanding you might get a compliment or a thumbs-up from the singer, but most of the time it’s just on to the next song, and you realize that you’re just hired help, like you’re stocking shelves at Wal-Mart, and any dumb ass can do that without practicing for years and investing 5 grand in equipment.

Sinatra was known for expecting his backing musicians to play world-class stuff with no recognition from him. Well, hell, he was Frank Sinatra, not just some local guy I’m backing up at a Dickerson Rd. skull orchard.

I have worked with some singers who dig what I do and let me know it, and that’s very cool. Good guys, fun to work with.

When I play an instrumental I make it a point to compliment the band, if they did a good job. I appreciate their efforts, and want to let them know that I do.

Anyway, it’s just nice to get a little appreciation for your years of practice and experience once in a while. I don’t need to be stroked, because I know I can play OK, but the singer could buy me a beer or something once in a while.

But OTOH, maybe he’s thinking the same thing about me, like, I’m this great fucking singer and these guys in the band are lucky to even be on the same stage with me.

Meh, it’s just the music business.

Faded Love

"Faded Love" on steel guitarI’ve been playing at a new club in Dickson, TN, the Wild Country Jamboree, and we’ve got a computer on stage with ProTools and we’ve been recording some of our efforts. We’re still learning it, but we’ve got some stuff that’s not real bad. Here’s one, “Faded Love”.
Click here to hear. Emmons P/P, 2 Nashville 400’s, Peavey ProFex II, minimal technique, maximum enthusiasm.

Coal Miner’s Daughter

I was watching “Coal Miner’s Daughter” last night, for maybe the 6th time, and for the first time I noticed a glaring omission. There was nothing in it about the Wilburn Brothers. Nothing.

Coal MIner's DaughterI was watching “Coal Miner’s Daughter”
last night, for maybe the 6th time, and for the first time I noticed a glaring omission. There was nothing in it about the Wilburn Brothers. Nothing. Loretta was on their show for about 10 years, and it was a major springboard to her success. A bunch of her songs were published with Sure-FIre Music, the Wilburn’s publishing company which they founded along with Don Helms, and there was a nasty lawsuit which led to her leaving the show. You can read about it here.

I used to watch Hal Rugg, Don Helms and Curly Chalker on that show, and they were a major inspiration for me to play steel guitar.

Teddy and Doyle recorded some of the best country music ever, and had one of the best and highest rated country music TV shows, and I think it was pretty damn chicken-shit for them to be left out of the movie.

BTW, (name-dropping) I was hanging around Owen Bradley’s office before the movie was made one day, and he showed me the script.

Right hand pinky

Some guys stick their little finger out, or even hook it around the first string, and other guys tuck it under their hand. I never gave this a thought when I started on steel, and after a few years I noticed in a picture someone had taken that I held mine out, and even curled it around the first string and tugged sometimes. I’ve tried playing with a closed fist and can’t hit anything.

right hand steel guitar technique
Me (L) and Lynn Owsley (R)

Buddy Emmons is a sticker-outer and I’ve seen Buddy Charleton play both ways.

Buddy Emmons

Buddy Charleton

The Road

Ah, the road! That unending ribbon of concrete that winds all over this great country of ours, magically connecting every truck stop and motel with your driveway.

Ah, the road! That unending ribbon of concrete that winds all over this great country of ours, magically connecting every truck stop and motel with your driveway. The road will take you nearly anywhere you want to go, until you come to an ocean, and to a lot of places you don’t particularly want to go. But when you’re an out-of-work musician hanging around Nashville going broke sitting in at clubs for free beer waiting for some producer to snatch you off the bandstand and put you on his next master session, a road gig might be just the thing to let you keep up the payments on your old Datsun.

If you have the right look and can play the licks on the work tape, you might get an “artist gig”. One with a big star pays more money than you can spend legally. A gig with a singer who recorded his last album in somebody’s garage might not pay enough to Greyhound-it home if the van breaks down.

But you don’t want to run around the country in a van, anyway, unless you’ve been living in a monastery or a biosphere and just need to get out a little. A bus is definitely the way to go, if you have to go. You get a stereo, a TV, a refrigerator, your own bunk, and enough room for the star to slap you around so you don’t lose time pulling off on the side of the road.

Stars can be persnickety when their trainer’s not around, y’know, and you shouldn’t mind being rousted out of a sound sleep in your bunk at four in the morning to go get him a hot dog at some truck stop because he doesn’t want to sign autographs, or because he’s having a bad hair night and the bus driver backed over his hat, or because the regular hot dog-getter is the relief driver and he needs his sleep, or … just because you’re the new guy.

Motels are where you have to stay when you get off the bus. You might get a better one than war corespondents get in Iraq. There’s a motel in Bandera, TX with shower stalls so small that you can’t turn around in them if you’re any bigger than Jimmy Dickens, so you come out with only one clean side. A motel in Dallas double-booked a room once, and Mickey Mantle walked in on Ernest Tubb’s steel player in the middle of the night. RCA has a special factory in Arkansas that makes color TV’s that only show green that they sell at big discount prices to motel chains. And you know those “Do Not Disturb” signs you hang on your outside doorknob when you crash at five in the morning? They’re in English on one side and Spanish on the other? Well… motel maids come a-banging on your door about eight o’clock hollering in Egyptian or something, wanting to know if you need clean towels.

The dazzling musical technique that won you the gig in the first place can get a trifle rusty on the road, what with playing the same licks in the same songs in the same show every night. You’re so busy riding, and sleeping, and riding, and sitting around, and driving, and standing around… Who’s got the time to practice? And who wants to lug a sousaphone or a steel guitar up to a third floor Holiday Inn room? So you try to learn some new scale or something at a sound check and the singer cringes and gives you the fish-eye like you’re banging on a garbage can full of cats in heat. So you tell the sound man to turn the monitors down and then you play a little louder. You’re gonna learn how a whole tone scale can go from a 5 to a 1 and you don’t care what that farging bastage of a front man says about it.

MotelBeing on the road does have certain advantages, though. It’s a break from real life, especially if you don’t have to drive or handle money or do anything more responsible than play the show, and you can party ’til you puke, or sleep, or meditate, or withdraw from life, or whatever, as long as you don’t scare the star and make him think you’re one of those disturbed loners who would be better off working at the Post Office. If you’re having problems with a wife, or bills, or your neighbors, or a pesky lawsuit about that apartment you blew up, you can just kind of forget all that stuff until you get home. You can set a mental alarm that goes off an hour before you get back to town that tells you it’s time to start worrying again.

So, anyhow, you work the road long enough to count on getting a tax refund next year and then the unthinkable happens. You get laid off! Gee, you didn’t think you had any job security, did you? In Nashville? But management has been complaining about the costs of taking a band on the road, and the accountant has been looking real worried and drinking too much, and the record company needs some extra liquidity for investments in overseas construction projects. It’s not your star’s fault, shoot, he owes so much money to his record company and to his backers that he doesn’t have any say-so in what’s going on. But he tells you you’re the best musician he’s ever worked with, and when he can get the band back together you’ll be the first one he calls.

Ahh, what the fuck. You’ve made enough money to pay off the Datsun, and you’ve got a string endorsement, and now you can tell road stories. So sign up for unemployment and start hanging out again and maybe now that producer will call. But in case he doesn’t, there just might be an empty bunk with your name on it in another Silver Eagle out there.

Spoon players, not

I’ve always made it a point to not turn down any work.

I’ve always made it a point to not turn down any work. Living in Nashville, with all the monster steel guitar players here, I figure I’m lucky to get calls. But I did pass on one gig, about 15 years ago. I got hired over the phone by someone I didn’t know to play a little club in East Nashville and I said I’d do it.

So I went down to the gig that evening and drove slowly by, scoping it out. It was summer, about 90 degrees, and the door to the club was open. Yikes, no air conditioning, I guessed. I could see the stage, and there was a spoon player and a guitar player on it. So that was the band? I just chuckled to myself and kept on driving.

10,000+ hours of playing

I’ve heard it said that if you spend 10,000 hours doing something you’ll get real good at it, whether it’s chess, acting, playing a musical instrument, or anything. So I got to wondering how many hours I’ve logged at steel guitar since I started in 1972, 38 years ago

Cal SharpIt’s been said that if you spend 10,000 hours doing something you’ll get real good at it, whether it’s chess, acting, playing a musical instrument, or anything. So I got to wondering how many hours I’ve logged at steel guitar since I started in 1972, 38 years ago.

I’ve played 1,876 gigs since 1997, when I started keeping track, which is an average of 144 gigs a year. So, figuring 4 hours per gig, that’s about 7,500 hours of playing, and that’s not counting rehearsals and practicing, so that’s a pretty conservative figure.

I don’t know how many gigs I played the 25 years (9,125 days, or 1,300 weeks) before that, but I worked steady the whole time, and there were times I’d go several months at a time picking 7 nights a week. Figuring 144 gigs a year, again not counting practice and rehearsals, would be 14,400 hours.

So, that would be a total of 21,900 hours of gigs since 1972, not counting practice and rehearsals.

I used to practice a lot, and figuring 2 hours a day for the first 30 years gives me 21,900 hours of practice time. Adding that to 38 years of gig hours would be grand total of 43,800 hours, but the actual number is probably much higher. Meh, seems like I’d be a better player than I am after all that.

Country Classics

The classics these days seem to be the same as they were when I started playing in the 70’s – Haggard, Jones and Price.

Having worked the road for 20+ years, I’ve been all over the country and I found it interesting that country bar bands from Maine to Florida to California all do pretty much the same songs. There are some regional differences; like you hear a lot of Southern Rock in Florida that passes for country, and in Texas they have the Cotton Eyed Joe and the Schodish. But it’s mostly Haggard, Jones and Price wherever you go.

I worked with a singer/bass player years ago who was asked why he didn’t do any current songs, and his answer was that he didn’t do them ‘til they were classics.

The classics these days seem to be the same as they were when I started playing in the 70’s – Haggard, Jones and Price. When Garth Brooks was hot we all had to play his stuff. Same with Billy Ray Cyrus and Alabama. But I rarely have to play any of that any more. Acts come and go, but I’m still playing “The Other Woman” and “Swingin’ Doors” on most gigs. There just don’t seem to be any new classics.

Doodling

I see a lot of guys doodling between songs. Working on a lick they’re learning, rehearsing the intro to the next song, adjusting their tone, polishing their technique, playing the theme song from some TV show that has nothing to do with the gig…

I see a lot of guys doodling between songs. Working on a lick they’re learning, rehearsing the intro to the next song, adjusting their tone, polishing their technique, tuning, playing the theme song from some TV show that has nothing to do with the gig… Yeah, you get bored between songs, but this is show business, and if you’re getting paid for the gig  you can try to be a little bit more professional about it.

If it’s loud enough to be heard while the front man or the star is introducing the next song or plugging the band’s next gig or if the bass player is telling you the numbers for the intro for the next song, then you come off like a fucking amateur. It’s a bad habit to get into, so don’t do it.