Fundamentalist Musicians

Guys in cover bands who play every song note for note like the record, and who give you the skunk eye when you don’t, are kinda like fundamentalist Christians who believe that everything in the Bible is literally true. They give you the skunk eye too.

The worst guy with a guitar I ever worked with

Wichita didn’t know any intros, solos or standard country licks, despite owning a guitar and playing in bars for maybe 40 years.

The bass player, who was just subbing and didn’t know what to expect, called “Mama Tried” and waited for the intro. The guy with the guitar just looked him like a cow looking at a new gate. “I don’t know it,” he said, and the bass player began to suspect that he was in for a long night.

We’ll call the guy with the guitar Wichita, as in Lester Roadhog Moran and the Cadillac Cowboys. We used to do a version of “Lil’ Liza Jane” by the Cadillac Cowboys, playing all out of tune and out of time like they did, and the funny thing was, the guy with the guitar sounded pretty much like he always did.

Wichita played on top of me all the time. And on top of the vocals, and the piano, and anyone else who happened to be playing with us. If there was a way to play on top of the bass and drums he would do that, too. He just didn’t grasp the concepts of solos, fills, comping and rhythm. The most important concept to me in this kind of playing situation was laying out, and he didn’t have a clue about that, either, although he did give me a break when he was lighting a cigarette or thumbing through the huge country music bible on the music stand in front of him to select his next song. He had to read the lyrics to songs he’d been doing for 30 years.

Wichita didn’t know any intros, solos or standard country licks, despite owning a guitar and playing in bars for maybe 40 years. “Workin’ Man Blues”, “Highway 40 Blues”, “Thanks A Lot”, “Old Habits” – never mind. He did know couple generic intros, but he didn’t know how to count them off. I showed him “Old Habits” once, but he couldn’t get it. We had a girl singer who sat in with us once in a while and did “Satin Sheets”, and after 5 or 6 years he figured out a version of the intro, enough to get us into the song. He’s the only guy with a guitar I ever worked with who didn’t play the signature lick when we did an Ernest Tubb song.

Wichita could get a lot of sounds out of his guitar – bird sounds, airplane sounds, finger scrapes, submarine sounds… But no guitar sounds. No Grady Martin, no Roy Nichols, no Chet Atkins. Wich was a true original; he had his own unique sound, unequaled and unmatched to this day. Shrill and metallic with lots and lots of reverb, echo and chorus, and no bottom, and he never changed it all night long, whether we were playing “Johnny B. Goode” or “Help Me Make It Through the Night”. Sometimes when he’d be playing his version of rhythm up the neck on the high strings it sounded exactly like a tambourine.

Musical talent, of lack thereof, manifests itself in many diverse ways, and Wichita couldn’t play in tune yet he could sing perfectly on pitch. He usually tuned up once a night before the gig, but it didn’t do any good. He always sounded like an Apache raid on a Chinese laundry. Somebody in the band would check Wich’s tuning on the break once in a while, and it was usually close, and when a real guitar player sat in on his guitar it sounded fine. He was just bending the strings out of tune. He couldn’t play a guitar, but he could smite it.

I’ve tried to learn something from every guitar player I’ve ever worked with, and what I learned from Wichita was to trust my ears a little more. When I first started working with him the band always sounded out of tune, and I was checking my tuning all night until I realized we sounded fine when Wich stopped abusing his guitar to light a cigarette or take a sip of beer. I used to wonder if spending too much time on the bandstand with this guy would destroy my sense of pitch.

Wichita had a house full of cats, and the pervasive odor of their litter box clung to him and his clothes and his equipment. Apparently his bathing and laundry habits were less than exemplary. I used to sneak up behind him on stage and spray him with air freshener.

You might wonder why I even worked with ol’ Wichita. Well, it was an easy gig in town, and we played the same places all the time and I could leave my equipment set up. The guys in the band were easy to get along with and we did classic country. It wasn’t the worst gig I ever had, but it was the worst band I ever played with.


Some guys just shouldn’t own a guitar…

Some guys just shouldn’t own a guitar and should sell it real cheap and go home and find another hobby before someone calls the Country Music Polic

or inflict it on innocent musicians. We let a guy sit in with us one night and he did kinda OK. He wasn’t a professional level player by any means, and he played where he shouldn’t have on some songs, but he did have his own band and they played a gig every once in a while. He was a friend of ours and were just being nice, really.

Well, we got to that dreaded point in the night where we had to play “Swingin’”. The way we had it arranged, toward the middle of the song the guitar would play an 8-bar solo and then the singer would come back in on the 4 chord. Then the same deal with the piano and then me. So, by now we’ve done this little rigamarole three times and then we let our sit-in have his turn and what does he do? He plays his 8 bars and then a few more and keeps on going, stomping all over the vocals with his dazzling mediocrity. Being the experienced been-there-before pickers that we were, we covered nicely for him and avoided a train wreck, but Holy Cow, if he couldn’t figure out what he was supposed to do after hearing us do it Three Times Mister, he shoulda sold me his axe real cheap and gone home and found another hobby before someone called the Country Music Police on his ass.

Everything just goes better with a steel guitar

Most people at a live music event don’t know what a steel guitar is, and a lot of people couldn’t even identify the bass player in a lineup if he shot somebody and the police were holding them as a witness

Emmons Steel GuitarOnce upon a time there was a band that billed themselves as a country band. They played a bunch of good ol’ country songs and had a chick singer and OK vocals and a pretty good guitar player, but they didn’t have a steel guitar in the band. Or a fiddle, for that matter. Now, how ya gonna do Tammy Wynette or Ray Price like that? Well, you can’t, not really.

This band was fairly popular and had quite a following, but they sounded pretty lame to me and I didn’t enjoy listening to them. Kinda like that time when one of the speakers went out in my car stereo.

Most people at a live music event don’t know what a steel guitar is, and a lot of people couldn’t even identify the bass player in a lineup if he shot somebody and the police were holding them as a witness. Singers get most of the attention. But however musically unsophisticated an audience may be, wouldn’t you think a smattering of them could tell something was terribly wrong if there were no steel guitar in “Apartment No. 9”?

I get a compliment every once in a great while from a non-musician, and it’s always a surprise when someone seems to know what I’m up to on the stage. A nice surprise, and always unexpected, as surprises often are. Sometimes they just want to know somebody in the band and they pick on me for some reason, even if they think I’m the keyboard player, but if they buy me a beer, so much the better.

I’d like to think that most people – even though they can’t actually identify the sound or sight of a steel guitar – still recognize it somewhere in their subconscious as an integral part of, say, “Together Again” or “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” while they’re dancing and if it weren’t there they would get a nagging feeling that something was wrong and become disoriented and maybe two-step on their partner’s instep.

Everything just goes better with a steel guitar.

Dude, where’s my chops?

I got some of the best advice I’d ever gotten from some older players: “Son, you need to play 6 nights a week.”

Cal SharpWhen I was new to steel guitar, trying to learn as much and as fast as I could, I got some of the best advice I’d ever gotten, from some older players: “Son, you need to play 6 nights a week.” Yep, that’s real good for your chops, and you learn a whole lot about intros, turnarounds and faking your way through songs you don’t really know. There’s nothing better than experience. But the initial problem is that you have to reach a certain level of competence before you’re so much in demand that you can get that many gigs, and that necessitates squirreling yourself away in your room, practicing like crazy until you make some significant progress. But once you’re there, you’re there, and playing 6 nights a week will help you realize whatever potential you might possess.

So you cruise along, for years maybe, playing all the time, getting better and better – as long as you don’t start to burn out – which can happen, just ask me.

Bye and bye you might turn into such a monster player that you find yourself the darling of the producers on Music Row, on their A list, and spending your days, and half your nights, in studios. But when you’re doing a lot of sessions you spend most of your time listening to playbacks, drinking coffee, discussing your golf game and networking. You’re not actually playing very much, certainly not enough to keep your chops up, and the same thing can happen with an artist gig, where you’re playing the same old stuff every night and your chops go to shit.

I’ve seen guys like Paul Franklin, John Hughey and Hal Rugg working clubs around Nashville for peanuts, but they just wanted to get out and play, even if cartage cost more than the gig paid. Years ago you might find Buddy Emmons or Jimmy Day at some club on Broadway or in Printers Alley jamming like crazy, but it just ain’t like that anymore.

Is the current crop of hot session players just not into that anymore? And, if so, why not? Well, back in the day a lot of hit records featured some pretty outstanding steel guitar – songs like “Touch My Heart”, “Night Life”, “Together Again”, “I’ll Come Running”, and a lot more. But what have you got on the radio today? A lot steel guitar pads, mostly, and a lot of generic-sounding playing mixed way in the background underneath the guitars and other oddments that somehow make their way onto “country” sessions these days. Nothing much in the way of inspired playing that would grab you by the balls and cause you run your car off the road or make you want to run out and buy a steel guitar.

So, anyway – and I now find myself in this position because I spend more time writing HTML than I do playing hot licks – the problem is how to keep your chops up if you don’t play all the time like you did when you were young and driven and getting so good. Yeah, you can sit around at home and practice scales and finger exercises for hours at a time (like you did when you were starting out, and had the fire) but when there’s not a whole lot of inspiration left, and not very many clubs to play, and just a modicum of steel guitar on the radio it’s hard to muster the enthusiasm to really get anything accomplished. Like, if you get your chops up to where they were when you were in your prime, where you gonna use ‘em? Probably not on an artist gig or on any sessions. There don’t seem to be very many gigs left where you can play real good steel guitar stuff, and jam sessions that don’t feature an endless queu of vocalists that only let you play a turnaround are real hard to find. Well, there’s steel guitar shows, maybe the last refuge of guys that just want to play, but the structure and the cliques may be a trifle off-putting to newcomers – but, damn, real live jam sessions on Broadway in the 60’s and 70’s could be more intimidating than that anyway.

So, if you like to to play steel guitar and you find that you can’t quite play like you used to, it may not be arthritis or Old-Timer’s disease – it might actually be something that’s totally not your fault, like the fact that the world has changed a lot since Ray Price recorded “The Other Woman”.

Tracy Lawrence

Tracy used to come around Gabe’s and sit in and win Judi Martin’s talent contest sometimes.

Tracy used to come around Gabe’s and sit in and win Judi Martin’s talent contest sometimes. He was an OK singer, and a nice enough guy. He’s got a new album coming out, and in a recent interview he says “…it’s more contemporary and more in the same vein as where the industry is headed. I don’t have steel guitar, but rather more guitars and fiddle.” Doesn’t sound like something I’d want to listen to. Read the interview here at the Boot if you care.

Big amps

big amps

Why are amplifiers still so big and heavy? Everything else has gotten way small and really portable, but we musicians are still lugging around 60 pounds of amplification equipment all over hell just like we did 50 years ago. You can put your music and your videos and the tracks from your last 500 sessions in your pocket, but you still need something bigger than a Peel (the world’s smallest car) to wag your stuff to a gig. This might have been on Steve Jobs’ bucket list, I dunno.

Another reason not to listen to 40 country radio stations

We all know there’s very little real country music on top 40 country radio stations

We all know there’s very little real country music on top 40 country radio stations; y’all bitch about it all the time. Over-produced, compressed, pro-tooled, re-cycled 70’s rock’n’roll that passes for country music and that’s marketed to a certain demographic that’s supposed to buy the stuff they pitch on the commercials between the songs.

Well, there’s something thing else that really pisses me off, and that’s the traffic updates, weather reports, station ID’s and DJ banter that overrides the intros. I’m not necessarily a Reba fan, but I heard “Where Were You” today on WSM AM, and I couldn’t hear the intro. It didn’t really matter to me, but if I were a Reba fan I’d like to hear the whole damn recording from the beginning, and if I had been on the session doing the intro I’d be doubly pissed off.

No big news here; DJ’s have been doing that forever, but it still sucks. Radio’s on the way out anyway, what with iPods, Sirius and the rest of the internet, and you’d think they’d have a clue by now.

Learn your damn part, damnit

I worked with a guitar player who sang great, but didn’t really know how to play guitar.

I worked with a guitar player who sang great, but didn’t really know how to play guitar. He couldn’t play the intro to “Mama Tried”, “Workin’ Man Blues”, “Satin Sheets’… and the list goes on. He’d tune before the first set and never even look at his tuner the rest of the night. He had 4 or 5 licks and played them in every song. He was a lazy bastard.

Good country drummers are hard to come by. Country drumming can be kinda boring, but, damn, if you’re hired for the gig and getting paid, please try to play something appropriate, if you possibly can. One drummer I worked with, who sang one song, didn’t know the ending on “Neon Moon”, where there’s this little thing that cues the band. He never did learn it. I put a picture of Buddy Harman on his snare one night and he went around asking everyone who it was.

Bass players – holy shit, some of em’ think they’re lead players, especially if they play with a pick. Have they ever really listened to what the bass is doing on “The Other Woman” or “Swinging’ Doors”? Bass players almost always sing.

I worked with a piano player who would show up 5 minutes before the downbeat and then complain about the PA during the 1st set, and how his mike was set. Duh, he coulda got there a little sooner in time for a sound check. He liked to play between songs, too, just diddling around, while someone was announcing the next song or a birthday on the mike. He also made faces when someone hit a bad note, and complained between songs about the drummer and the bass player – the audience could see and hear all this. This was a guy who’d worked a lot of big time gigs, and I don’t get how he could be so unprofessional. He did know the piano parts on our set list, so he at least had that going for him.

Many years ago a singer got up and called “Night Life” and introduced me as this great steel guitar player who was going to kick it off. Well, I didn’t know it. My excuse was that I’d only been playing a couple of years and I couldn’t know every damn intro yet. But I learned it as quick as I could, actually from a guitar player, Lonnie Atkinson, who got it from Jimmy Day. It was the only thing Lonnie knew on steel guitar.

If I’m on a gig and the band does a song I don’t know I’ll learn it when I get home and be ready the next time. I’m not gonna get caught again. I don’t know how some of these guys can go for years in public without learning their parts. Seems like they would be embarrassed or something. But I guess not. I guess they’re just fucking slugs.

I don’t sing, because I can’t, but maybe if I did I’d be able to get away with this kind of unprofessional shit, too, although I wouldn’t want to.