I’ve played everywhere, man, I’ve played everywhere

I was in the middle of “Sit Here and Drink” for the zillionth time the other night, with my hands mindlessly playing something nearly appropriate, and I looked around the place and thought, well, I’ve played a lot of gigs and this is one of ‘em. I’ve played most of the usual places – bars, saloons, clubs, honky-tonks, auditoriums, outdoor parks, the Opry, VFW’s, studios, backyard BBQ’s… The list could go on, but I have played some unusual places that probably aren’t on everybody’s list.

Maggie Valley ski liftAt Magie Valley, NC the stage is at the top of a mountain and musicians get up and back down via the ski lift.

I played a gas station in Louisiana with Faron that had been turned into a club. Still had grease on the floor and auto parts scattered around.

I got to play on lots of trailers. Like, outside at a truck stop with Red Sovine, Dave Dudley and Dick Curless. And on a trailer in a barn because it was raining. And on another trailer at a mobile home dealership. I played a rodeo with Faron, and we set up on a trailer just outside the arena and waited for the hog callers to get done so they could wheel us in. Trouble was, there was no electricity to the trailer, and since hand-held battery operated tuners hadn’t been invented yet, we couldn’t use our electric Peterson strobe tuner so we had to tune during the show, because there was no set-up time once we were in the spotlight.

I played on a revolving stage once. Doesn’t sound like a big deal, but you can get seasick watching the floor glide past your hands.

There was an indoor rodeo arena at Gilley’s that had a stage way up at the top, about 2 or 3 stories high. We played there in the summer when it was in the 90’s. And it was in the 100’s at that altitude. You couldn’t chug a Lone Star before it got warm.

I played at a friend’s house way back in the Kentucky hills. I mean, way back, and the whole clan was there. They were like the Darlings or something. He had a niece about 12 years old who could sing pretty well and I asked her if she could do some Loretta. She hesitated and looked around nervously and then sang a couple. I found out later that her mother didn’t normally allow her to do no drinkin’ or cheatin’ songs, but since I was the first live steel guitar player that had been seen around them parts in a coon’s age, an exception was made in my honor.

I played a gay bar in LA one weekend. Hell, I’d never even been in a gay bar on purpose, but the bandleader said, hey guys, I got us a gig this weekend, but, uh, it’s in a gay bar. So we all looked at each other and decided, what the hell, it’s a gig. Thumbs Carlisle was the guitar player, and he was one funny guy and he got us through OK with his hilarious comments. There weren’t any tables or hardly any chairs in the place, just empty beer cases stacked up along the wall high enough to serve as tables. Guys would wander in, have a beer and a dance and then leave with someone. We spent the breaks in the back room laughing our asses off at Thumbs, and got the hell outta there when the gig was over.

I played another strange gig in LA, at a gun show. It was at a fairgrounds-type of place, and hundreds of long-haired, bearded folks with swastika and White Aryan Cross tattoos came down out of the mountains with rifles and ammo belts slung over their shoulders.

In Canada they put on country music shows in ice rinks. The ice is covered up with boards, but if you don’t watch where you’re walking you’ll step in a crack and hit the ice and be flat on your ass. That happened to Hank Snow, and Faron thought it was enormously funny, but Hank didn’t see the humor in it. “I could have been seriously injured, Fah-ron” he grumbled in his best Hank Snow voice as he got up and began to look around for his dignity.

I suppose I’ll be playing more odd places in the future. I’ll report back.

The Ear

The EarBehold the ear. Most people have two, for stereo hearing. Many musicians use them selectively, mainly just to listen to themselves. You think they’re listening to you? So they can complement what you’re playing, or to just lay out and let you have enough uncluttered space in which to play? Ha! Not usually. That’s why so many of them play on top of you all the time.

“THE HIT SOUNDS” by Lloyd Green

The first steel guitar album I ever bought was THE HIT SOUNDS by Lloyd Green, on the Little Darlin’ label. It was a dark, stormy night and I was at a grocery store on 16th St. in Indianapolis sometime after midnight stocking up on Oreos and milk, and they just happened to have it in a dusty display rack in a back corner, cheap. For some inexplicable reason I’d never heard any Johnny Paycheck or Warner Mack records, and Lloyd’s playing just blew me away.

Man, I wore that sucker out. I didn’t own a steel guitar at the time, just an old flat top, and I played along with that record all the time. I did get a steel a couple years later, and it was a Sho~Bud. Buddy Williams, from Michigan City, IN, was one of the first guitar players I started working with and he was a big Warner Mack fan, and was playing Lloyd’s licks on his Country Gentleman, so I learned as much as I could from him. Hell, I never would have figured out any of that stuff on my own in the first few months of steel guitar ownership without his help.

Two-Step Til You Puke

I played a gig or two at the New West Club in Ft. Worth back in the 80’s. Tommy Allsup, Cricket and western swing guitarist, was running the club, and they had some way cool T-shirts that said “Two-Step Til You Puke”. I got one of course, since collecting club T-shirts in one of the things road musicians do, and I was the envy of everyone wherever I wore it.

Several years later Tommy had a studio in the Berry Hill section of Nashville and I happened to do a few sessions there. Tommy and I talked about the club and he asked me if I still had the T-shirt and would I bring it in next time so he could use it to get some more made. So I brought it in and never saw it again. Damn.

Picking outside

This was at the Kansas State Fair quite a while ago. I started out on the E9th neck, and then switched to the C6th, and then had to reach down and lower one of the knee levers. It was hot as hell, and windy, and I think the camera man was drunk.


Picking hard

It was brought to my attention some years ago that I didn’t pick the strings very hard, so I began to analyze my right hand technique and to experiment with picking harder or softer. It seemed to me that when I was in doubt, like when I wasn’t real sure that I could accurately play what I was trying to play, or trying to play faster than I really could, I picked softer, in case I fucked up. But that’s a double-edged sword. If I did fuck up, I might have time to mute the offending note(s), back off the volume pedal or correct the clam. But, playing softer seemed to take a little bit of the edge off my technique, and actually made me play less accurately. It also seemed to have a deleterious effect on my tone, and that’s the last thing I want.

So what are ya gonna do, risk a hairy ol’ clam hanging out there like a big Matza ball or go for the gold? Hell, I’ve heard Joe Pass records where he muffed a note, but producer Norman Granz let it go by because the rest of what he’d played was so great.

After many years of experimenting I now vary my attack on the strings considerably. I wang the hell out of the strings sometimes, and barely let a pick graze them, or it, at other times. Like, I’ll play a G chord at the 10th fret and then work my way down to the 3rd fret when I’m about to go to the 4 chord and just barely pick the 9th string to get that dominant 7th in there before I go to the C chord.

If you’re fortunate enough to be playing with a good bunch of musicians who actually listen to what you’re doing, you can play with a lot of dynamics – louder and softer as the band follows you – and create something worth listening to.


Some people call me C Sharp, as in C#. It’s a nickname. Not a good key to play in unless you’re doing “Steelin’ the Blues”. These days I get confused with computer programmers sometimes. I was playing at Gabe’s one night and when it came time for the big steel guitar solo in “Tonight I’m Going Home to an Angel” the singer hollered “C Sharp!” and half the band changed keys. It was funny.

Get started early

Beethoven’s first music teacher was his father. Beethoven was about six or seven when he gave his first public performance in March 1778.

At the age of five Mozart was already composing little pieces, which he played to his father who wrote them down.

Charlie Parker showed no sign of musical talent as a child, but his father presumably provided some musical influence; he was a pianist, dancer and singer. Bird’s biggest childhood influence, though, was a young trombone player who taught him the basics of improvisation.

When Buddy Emmons he was 11 years old his father bought him a 6-string lap steel guitar and signed him up for lessons at the Hawaiian Conservatory of Music in South Bend, Indiana.

Paul Franklin’s father, Paul Sr., loved the steel guitar, and when Paul was eight, his father asked him if he would like to play an instrument, and Paul said a steel was what he wanted. So Paul Sr., an inveterate tinkerer, converted an old Vega guitar into a dobro-like instrument. Paul plucked on this for about six months, after which he got his first pedal steel, a Fender 400.

Mickey Mantle’s Dad, Mutt, who named Mickey after baseball great Mickey Cochrane, used to give him baseballs to play with when he was still in the crib.

I got started early, too, but not on steel guitar. I’d always wanted to play guitar, but my Dad, who’d been a semi-pro trumpet player in his younger days, started me on piano when I was in 2nd grade. Didn’t learn much, mostly music theory. The curriculum was classical music, Chopin, Mozart et al. and I wasn’t really into that kind of music. And my teachers weren’t really very inspirational, even though they might have been good teachers. My first teacher was a nun, and my second one was a gay man. Not that there’s anything wrong with being gay – hell, I didn’t even know what gay was when I was 10 – but when I thought of a piano player I thought of Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard (whoops, bad example) or Dave Brubek, and my teachers seemed totally L7 to me.

A few years later my Dad started me on trumpet, again not the instrument I really wanted to play, but I learned more theory and got some experience playing in a band at the music school I attended in the summer.

When I was in high school I finally got a guitar, an old arch-top, and a friend showed me what little he knew – “Louis, Louie”, C Am F G, basic stuff, and we decided to start a band. I needed an electric guitar and an amp, though, and once my Dad saw that I could actually play a little he begrudgingly bought me a Harmony guitar and a Fender amp, with the caveat that I had to take lessons from an actual guitar teacher.

It wasn’t until I graduated from college that I finally got a steel guitar, with money borrowed from the owner of a tree service where I’d been working since high school. I was finally where I wanted to be, with little or no parental encouragement, and I practiced like a demon and was soon playing gigs for money around South Bend and eventually wound up in Nashville playing on the Opry.

But I still have gaping, yawning black holes in my technique and execution, even after 38 years of dedication to the instrument. Would I be a better steel guitar player today had I started on steel, or at least 6-string guitar, instead of piano in the 2nd grade? I don’t know, but I strongly suspect that I would.