The Musician’s Personality

There’s lots of different kinds of steel players. Pro’s, amateurs, hobbyists, wannabees… You can make it the central point of your life and do it all the time and aspire to be a pro, or you can just do it for the fun of it, and maybe make a little extra cash once in a while.

You can work in a studio most of the time, or do a road gig, or play in church, or just with friends in someone’s garage, or maybe only at home as a hobby for the edification of your wife and kids.

Me, I came up the way most guys who wind up doing it for a living usually do, playing in bars, getting chops, and then going on to working artist gigs on the road and playing sessions. Buddy and a zillion other players came up that way, although Weldon Myrick told me that he hardly ever worked bars, but he’s gotta be an exception. Just about every pro steel player I know spent years in bars and honky-tonks developing and refining their technique, and you learn a lot doing that. Y’know, when you’re in a live playing situation, with dancers and drinkers waiting for the next song, and the singer calls some song you might or might not have ever heard, you gotta jump on it and play something at least passable, and you’ve got to tap into your wealth of musical knowledge to come up with something. You get this wealth of musical knowledge from lots of experience and by listening to a lot of music, if you’re serious about being a good steel guitar player. You have to listen to a lot of music. You really do. I used to listen to Charlie Parker and Jake Hooker tapes while I slept, and it made a difference.

Coming up the way I did, playing bars most of the time, I think I developed a kind of musician’s personality, in that I became inured to the night life, which ain’t no good life, and I acquired a tolerance for drinkers, loose women, druggies, con artists, ego maniacs and other characters who tend to live life on the edge, and after a while these “bar people” began to seem normal to me. Part of the price you pay for spending half your life in bars with a bar in one hand and a drink in the other, waiting for the next shuffle and pursuing ”that tone”. So now I’m scarred for life, unable to develop and maintain relationships with “day people”. Yikes!

So when you’re visiting Mom or looking for a day job or you’re in social situations with people who might be a little more – refined, shall we say? – you might endeavor to overcome the years of ill-treatment and exploitation, albeit precipitated by your own insane addiction to the steel guitar, at the hands of the music business, and be sure to use the correct fork at dinner and not blurt out “Fuck, fuck” like you’ve got Tourette’s syndrome, and to make any other necessary personality adjustments to become socially acceptable, or merely adequate, at least for a little while, or as long as you can fake it.

Lynn Owsley, guest blogger

Lynn Owsley
Lynn and me
I’ve known Lynn Owsley since the 70‘s. He’s been a great friend, and he helped me get my first artist gig in Nashville, with Stonewall Jackson. If you know Lynn, and you probably do, you know that he’s got a lot of stories, and here’s one of them:

Playing the Opry as a Troubadour was always fun. It takes a little time to get used to it because the Opry, at that time, was like a big family. It was a job, but one we performed with ease and we loved every minute of it. Just coming in to go to work, we had to make the rounds to see old friends, catch up on the latest news, and always make a few new friends and fans. We usually showed up early to make time for these activities.

You might know that I had some good luck from time to time with the dice, the bones, the galloping dominoes. One such time was on our bus while parked at the Opry. Between shows I was able to enhance my money roll while at the same time trimming down the money roll belonging to ET.

When we went onto the stage for our set I was still rubbing it in on ET, and he was still vowing to “get even.” Our second song was “Half A Mind” a Roger Miller tune in which ET always featured me on the solo that Buddy Emmons made famous for steel guitarists. I had hidden a big old pair of bright red casino dice on the top of my steel guitar, and just at the end of ET’s vocal, I grabbed the dice and threw them across to the front side of the stage, and bumped them off a monitor speaker at an angle and they came up right between ET’s feet, spinning, and they stopped and landed on a four and a three, total of seven. ET was speechless, and everyone on the stage was cracking up.

Then I calmly sat down and played my solo while laughing uncontrollably. The audience loved this and they probably thought that it was a part of the show.

The Accidental Steel Guitarist

I got to be a steel guitar by accident. I played guitar in rock bands in high school and had a lot fun, but I wasn’t a particularly good player, and I knew what a dicey career music was, and I never planned on becoming a professional musician. When I graduated from college I bought a steel guitar just because I liked the sound of it, and I figured after a few years I might be good enough to play a VFW on weekends, but I enjoyed it so much that I found that I didn’t have a problem sitting alone in my room for hours at a time practicing, and I just picked up on it and was able to get jobs in bands and get paid for it and I was playing full time and making a living in a few months. At the time there were a lot of places to play, and I was kind of easygoing and didn’t get drunk or start any shit with band leaders or club owners. It was just so fucking easy, and there were parties, girls, free booze and other perks that go with being a musician. I decided I didn’t want a regular job.

I did go on one job interview when I got out of school, waving my diploma and my portfolio, but I didn’t get the job. Hell, I wouldn’t have liked it, anyway. Wearing a suit and having a department manager peeking over my shoulder didn’t seem like any fun.

I’m basically a lazy sumbitch and I took the easy road. Whenever I needed a gig I just hung out, sat in, drank a few beers with the guys in the band and I got hired – much easier than a formal job interview with some supercilious HR interviewer giving you the hairy eyeball and just waiting for you to say the wrong thing so you could get your ass booted politely out the door.

I had a lot of friends and I didn’t have to get up early and shave and commute somewhere and punch a time clock and I just kept on being Peter Pan, having fun and never developing into the mature, responsible, tax-paying, voting, community-involved, church-going consumer-type family man that the government depends on to keep the country running. I was living on the fringe, not too worried about things like retirement, pension funds, 401K’s, political or social issues or nebulous threats from foreign countries.

So steel guitar was just something I fell into, something that steered me away from real life, and it’s been fun. I got to travel all over the US and some foreign countries, ride in limos, meet famous people, be on TV, eat expensive meals that a lot of working people couldn’t afford, have people arrange my hotel reservations and car rentals and drive me around in a big ol’ bus.

It was all too easy. Falling into it, that is. Climbing out could be more problematic.

The Dreaded Day Job

Day Job It ain’t easy when a musician has to get an actual job. It’s a big leap, let me tell ya. You might have to develop a whole new personality. You can’t walk around with a beer, cracking crass sexist jokes, swearing and sleeping under your desk. Geez, I, along with everyone else – I wasn’t singled out just because I was a musician – had to take a class in sexual harassment. And I thought I already knew all about it…

I had this office job in a corporate environment, when I thought that I didn’t want to play steel guitar anymore and had turned down gigs with Johnny Paycheck and the Flying Burrito Brothers, and one of the first things I learned at that job, from a cute little customer service rep who took pity on a poor lost musician, was how to CYA – Cover Your Ass. If something went wrong with an order or a customer or a job you didn’t want be the fall guy, so you made sure every email, contract and phone call was documented so you could show the CEO that it wasn’t your fault if the shit hit the fan. Hell, office politics were all new to me. If you ever read “Dilbert” you know what I’m saying – Cubicle Hell!

Steel and Amp Cover ComboIt’s also a good thing to CYSG – Cover Your Steel Guitar. When you leave it set up at a club or a studio all week like a lot of players do – Pete Drake had guitars in studios all over town – you don’t know what might happen to it. Over zealous cleaning personnel, rambunctious kids, leaks in the roof, tourists wandering around, some other steel player trying to steal some licks off your guitar…

Anyway, I keep my guitar and amp covered when I’m away from them. The black and red retro colors knock me out, and they’ve even got a C# on them. Available at Sharp Covers Nashville – sans the C# – but you gotta get your order in soon if you want it by Christmas.

Broadway and the Ryman

The Ryman AuditoriumLower Broadway in downtown Nashville degenerated into a somewhat hazardous part of town after the Opry moved from the Ryman to Opryland in 1974, and by the 80’s it was eat up with peep shows, winos, druggies and other interesting characters, and you were more likely to hear really loud blues than a country shuffle, which helped make Gabe’s, north of downtown off Trinity Lane, such a popular spot for pickers to go and jam.

Roy Acuff even owned some of the buildings down there, but it’s doubtful that he knew what kinds of businesses were in them. Bye’n’bye, Nashville decided to “revitalize” the area, and started a clean-up. Might have had something to do with The Gaylord Entertainment Company wanting to turn Nashville from a music town into a sports town, or so it was rumored.

The National Life and Accident Insurance Company, who had operated the Opry since 1925 and WSM radio since 1923, was taken over in the 80‘s by American General, but they had no real interest in steel guitars and theme parks, and they sold everything to Gaylord in 1982.

The Ryman Auditorium

A convention center was built across the street from the Ryman at 5th and Broad, where peep shows used to be and where this photo was shot before construction began, when Broadway was in its decline, with the back of the building facing Broadway. After the revitalization the building was ”turned around” so the front faced Broadway. Funny.

The Ryman Auditorium Recently

Here’s a recent shot of the Mother Church. Broadway is safer than it used to be, if you don’t count harassment by the cops for double parking for 20 seconds to unload a steel guitar into a club, and it’s packed with tourists and drunken Vandy kids most nights, but it’s not a hot spot for jam sessions as it was when the Opry was just across the alley from Tootsie’s.

the alley behind Tootsie's

The misplaced sound of two hands clapping

I’m working the Opry with a Big Star and when it’s time for me to play the 4-bar turnaround the Big Star points at me and says, “Here’s Cal Sharp on the black Emmons steel guitar!”, and applause ensues, drowning out my 4 bars like a flood engulfing Opry Mills Mall. Nobody hears what I play, and I don’t think they care. This tells me that most country music fans are more into the show and the personalities, the rhinestones and the hats, and that they’re not musically sophisticated enough to tell a steel guitar from a Farfisa organ. There is, though, a small minority of country fans who are fanatic about who played on what record, and will go into more detail than you ever want to know.

Middle-aged housewives listen to Alan Jackson while they’re cleaning the oven in the nude and think about how cute he is and what a lovely smile he flashed that time when they got his autograph at that show in Abilene, but they don’t know who played steel guitar on their favorite Jackson songs, not even on that song about the waitress where Paul Franklin played his ass off.

Jazz fans, OTOH, hold their applause ‘til the soloist is finished, and the next guy will wait a few bars to start his solo. Jazz fans probably don’t ruminate about Charlie Parker’s heroin habit or his untimely death or the rumpled suits he was wont to show up in when they listen to “Billie’s Bounce”. They most likely wonder where all his fantastic ideas came from, and how he could play so goddamn fast using a number 5 reed, although he might have filed it down a little.

Things you don’t often hear on the bandstand

Hand me that piano.
No thanks, I don’t want a beer.
Let’s do “Crazy”.
My other steel guitar is an Emmons.
Oh yeah, we know all Taylor Swift’s songs.
You wanna hear “The Other Woman”? Are you nuts?
Whaddya mean it sucked? I played it just like Jerry Garcia.
Yeah, I’m married.
Man, you sound just like Buddy Emmons.
Hey, the club owner said he’d pay us extra if we get his brother-in-law up.
Well, we might as well leave our equipment here for next Christmas.
Can we do any Garth Brooks?
The key? One up.


There was an article in the Tennessean this week about Tootsie’s celebrating 50 years. I first stopped in there when Tootsie Bess was still running it, and thought it was pretty dang cool when I saw stuff on the walls that I’d hear about on records.

I’ve worked Tootsie’s many times since then. When they had a grand re-opening back in the 80’s I played it with Faron’s band and we had a pretty good time. Working the upstairs room is OK, because you can park in the alley long enough to load your stuff in, but working the downstairs stage is a bitch. You have to pile your stuff on the sidewalk, because there’s no room in the club, get somebody to watch it, and then go try to find a place to park and run back to get set on stage when the other band gets done. Some of the best tips I’ve made on Broadway have been at Tootsies, but of course that depends on how good your front man is at soliciting them, and Jimmy Snyder does an outstanding job. They don’t have real good air conditioning, and I showed up for work one sweltering summer night in a tank top and one of the infamous bouncers tried to throw me out until he found that I was in the band, and he grudgingly let me stay. Wow, what a guy!

It’s noisy and there’s not a lot of elbow room, but it’s worth a look-see when you’re in town. Here’s a cool pic of Buddy and Willie from the Tennessean.

Tootsies, from the Tennessean

My guitar dazzles me

Emmons guitars have a serious design flaw. That chrome plate between the necks where the controls are – it reflects stage lights right into your eyes. Really annoying. I sanded it on one of my guitars to give it a matte finish, and that worked pretty well.
Guitar flare