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”.

Carol Lee hangs it up

Carol Lee Cooper has closed out a 40-year career as a background singer on Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – Carol Lee Cooper has closed out a 40-year career as a background singer on Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.
Carol Lee was one of the first things I noticed the first time I worked the Opry, right after I ogled those three black Emmons steel guitars, belonging to Sonny, Hal and Weldon, on the stage. Now she’s retiring. Sad to see her go.
Carol Lee Cooper

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.

Who played Speedy West in “Coal Miner’s Daughter”?

He recorded with Elvis Presley, Nat King Cole and the Beach Boys, wrote a No. 1 single for Chubby Checker and arranged Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’”.

Interesting bit of trivia, eh? He died Wednesday in Franklin, TN at 81. Need some hints? He recorded with Elvis Presley, Nat King Cole and the Beach Boys, wrote a No. 1 single for Chubby Checker and arranged Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’”. He played on the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” and arranged and played on Nat King Cole’s hit “Ramblin’ Rose” and acted in an episode of “Rawhide”. This guy really got around. Give up? Here’s the answer.

1 of 5 country music fans don’t listen to country stations

One in five country music fans never tune in to country radio stations

What a shock, eh? We all know country radio sucks, because they don’t play country music. Duh.

One in five country music fans never tune in to country radio stations, according to a research study released Wednesday afternoon at Country Radio Seminar, a four-day national gathering of music makers, players and radio industry executives in downtown Nashville.

Instead, self-described country music fans get their music from websites, their own collections stored on iPods or listening to other types of radio stations, the annual report on industry trends found.

When I want to listen to country music I get it from my own collection, certainly not from the radio. Unless it’s an internet station, like Shufflemainia.

Read the rest of the story on The Tennessean.

Dead Steel Guitar Players

“Can you think of a dead steel guitar player?” one of us asked.

It was a dark and stormy night and I was on a long road trip with Faron, and RIchard and I were the last ones still up, drinking one more beer (apiece) and discussing life in general.

“Can you think of a dead steel guitar player?” one of us asked. “I mean a famous one, a well-known one, who worked with big artists and was on some hit records?”

Another swallow of beer, and the other one of us said, “Hmm, no.”

We considered that for a few moments as the dark Texas landscape whizzed by at 70mph. Oh, wait, the bus was going 70mph. Neither one of us could think of a dead steel guitar player.

Pete Drake died not too long after that, in 1988, and AFAWK he was the first one to go to the big recording studio in the sky. Jimmy Day went in 1999 and Jimmy Crawford in 2005. You can look up other dead musicians here.

Some not so well known steel guitar players, guys that I hung around with in Nashville and traded licks with, died some time after that late-night bus conversation.

Chuck BartlettChuck Bartlett was a fine player, from Ohio, who worked with John Conlee and Kitty Wells and who played every club in Nashville at one time or another, night after night, when he wasn’t on the road. He had a beautiful Sho~Bud that I sat in on many times. I followed him on the Red Sovine gig. Cancer got him.

I met Wayne Kincaid at a club on Lower Broad in 1972 when I bought my first steel guitar at the Sho~Bud store. I’d hang out in Merchant’s and watch him play, and on the breaks I’d bug him, asking what this or that knee lever did or something. He was an old West Virginia coal miner, and a crotchety bastard whom everybody didn’t get along with, but we were great friends. He minded my drink for me one time at Gabe’s when I had to go knock some smart-ass out the door. He was at Gabe’s for many years, and toward the end the cancer was really getting to him and he’d call me at the last minute some nights to sub for him when the pain was too bad. I went to his funeral, in Fairview, where Billy Walker presided over the proceedings from the pulpit and LaDonna Capps sang, and I inherited his gig at Gabe’s.
Wayne Kincaid on steel guitar
There’s been a bunch of other pickers pass on since I’ve been in town. Guys I’ve worked with, roomed on the road with, learned music from, drank with, loaned money to… If you have a musician friend, cherish him or her. At 2AM after the gig when you’re packing up your axe you never can be sure that you’ll ever pick together again.

Name That Tune

When you work with the same bunch of musicians for a while, or even the same kind of musicians, you develop nicknames or introductions for oft-played songs.

When you work with the same bunch of musicians for a while, or even the same kind of musicians, you develop nicknames or introductions for oft-played songs. I worked with Faron Young for a long time, and when he said “Here’s Cal’s favorite song” I knew we were going to do “Country Girl”. Didn’t matter if I hated that song, which I didn’t, but it was our cue to kick it off. Just part of the show.

I worked with a bass player who, when he said “Here’s my favorite George Jones song” I knew to kick off “She Thinks I Still Care”. Which goes by a lot of other nicknames, like “She Stinks But I Still Care”, “She Thinks I Steal Cars” and “She Thinks I’m Still Queer” to name a few.

“The Bottle Let Me Down” and “Swingin’ Doors” are often confused, which wouldn’t be a big deal if they weren’t in such disparate keys, “Bottle” usually being in “D” and “Doors” usually being in “G”. So we developed a mnemonic to help us remember their respective keys, and we ever after called “The Bottle Let Me Down” “D Bottle Let Me Down”. “Swingin’ Doors” has also been known as “Closin’ Time”.

So the chick singer wants to do “Crazy”? Holler “Nuts” across the bandstand and we all know we have to play “Crazy” yet again.

I do an instrumental rendition of Gene Watson’s version of “No One Will Ever Know” and I call it “No One Will Ever Suspect”. Which isn’t far from the truth most of the time. And “Steel Guitar Rag” is “The Rag’.

One band I worked with did “When Two Worlds Collide” and we called it “Clyde”. Roger MIller, who wrote it, called it the same thing, or so we later heard.

“The Other Woman’’ is “The Udder Woman” or “the Other Mother”, “Last Date” is “Lost Date”, “Statue of A Fool” is “Statutory Fool” and “From the Window Up Above” is “From the Window of A Bus”.

There’s also some yet un-written songs, like “I Miss You More Every Day, But My Aim’s Getting Better”.

But our favorite song is “Here’s our favorite song, and we hope it’s one of yours”, Kenny Price’s “The Shortest Song in the World”, the break song.