when it’s time to pick and the steel guitar player hasn’t arrived yet. “Hell, I coulda hired Buddy Emmons not to show up.”
If you play big time gigs, like “The Tonight Show” or the Opry or union sessions or with an artist who has, or ever had, some hits you probably get paid with a check, and you might even have direct deposit. But when you’re playing a club or a little beer joint you typically get paid in cash, and it might come from anyone – the bartender, the club owner, the chick singer, the bandleader. And then there’s the tip jar to consider – who divvies that up? A night of beer drinking isn’t conducive to accurate math, and sometimes – God forbid – the drummer might get more than you.
I get asked about once a year by whoever paid me how much I got as I’m about to drive off. Then there’s a band meeting in the parking lot and it’s Show and Tell – everybody has to dig out their pay and count it and see if someone got shorted. If you put your pay in your wallet you might have a hard time proving just how much you got. Which is why I always put mine in an empty pocket, separate from all the Ben Franklins in my wallet, so I, and everyone else, can see just what I got.
Actually, it’s not all about you unless you’re:
1. A featured instrumentalist at a steel guitar show or similar function.
2. Recording your own album.
3. The World’s Foremost Steel Guitarist and half the people at the show are there to see you back up Johnny Bush or Darrell McCall.
Little Jimmy Dickens taught me how to play steel guitar when I went to work for him in the late 70’s. He told me to watch him like a hawk, and to follow him no matter what happened, because sometimes the song would come to a fork, due to any number of vagaries or unforeseen developments, and if it did I should probably take it. He also mentioned something about not playing over his vocals. Realizing full well that Buddy Emmons had the gig a few years before I did, I was all anxious to to impress him and everyone else with my fancy licks, but as it turned out, “Raisin’ the Dickens” was my chance to show off, not “Another Bridge To Burn”.
As a steel guitar player your main job is to make the singer and the song sound good. You’re not there to show everyone how many 16th notes you can cram into a bar.
This concept is pretty important when you’re doing a session, if you want to keep on doing sessions, though not so much these days as it used to be when everyone recorded together, live. These days so many tracks are phoned in that much of the spontaneity is lost and you get ProTooled at the producer’s discretion and some of your hottest licks may end up in the trash.
Weldon Myrick played some amazing stuff on “I’ll Come Running”, and it most assuredly helped make the song the giant hit that it was, but he didn’t get in the way of Connie’s vocals. Buddy and Jimmy Day played some of the most soulful and tasteful steel guitar intros, turnarounds and fills in the history of recorded music, but they never got in Ray’s way.
So what you want to do is come up with a wicked cool signature lick and play it couple times and lay back for the rest of the song.
If you’ve got an artist gig you’re there to make the singer and the song sound good. (Where have you heard that before?) You should also probably look the part of a successful musician who’s part of the big show, and not stagger out on stage disheveled or drunk… Well, that part may be negotiable these days, what with casual Fridays and all. Torn jeans might be part of the band uniform with some artists. But, hey, remember how impressive the Texas Troubadours and the Buckaroos looked on stage?
Buddy Charleton and Leon Rhodes could scare every musician in the place when it was their turn to do so on “Red Top” or “Honey Fingers”, but when then Ol’ Man stepped up to the mike they became sidemen again.
I saw Buddy backing up Van Howard at the Midnight Jamboree and, man, I don’t know if was planned ahead of time or what, but you could barely notice Buddy unless you were listening for him, and believe me, I was. It was the most tasteful, minimalist performance I’d ever heard. But it was perfect. Well, not perfect for me, because I wanted to hear something astounding, but as far as the overall show was presented – it was perfect. Apparently what Van wanted.
When I went to work for Faron Young in 1980 playing steel guitar he was a little unhappy with the job I was doing, and I didn’t know why, but after a few late night beers with the band on the bus I figured it out. I was playing too much. Yeah, I could play a few hot licks, but they weren’t necessary most of the time. What he wanted was melody lines, even though he didn’t realize it – he just sensed, in that amazing intuitive way that stars have – that something was wrong, but couldn’t put his finger on it, so I started playing the melody and he kept me in Crown Royal for 10 years.
Doing little bars gigs, you’ve got more room for experimenting with your latest licks and just dazzling some other possibly disoriented musician who might have wandered in from Robert’s or Weehawken or somewhere. Overplaying can be fun and even enlightening, at times, especially when you’ve been playing the same 20 songs with some artist for the last 10 years. Faron was fond of mentioning that Doug Jernigan quit him because he got tired of playing “Hello Walls” and “Wine Me Up” every night.
But it still might not be all about you, dang it, at least not for most of the night, although the last set can be an Emmons of a different color sometimes. The singer might have his eye on a hot chick, and if you make her wet her panties with your soulful rendition of “Last Date” it might take too much attention away from him. I guess you could let him sing a verse – Conway sang it in “F” after Papa John started it off rather spectacularly in “C”.
Hal Rugg walked in the door at Legend’s one afternoon when I was finishing up the last set with my band du jour. He was in the next band, and started setting up his steel guitar on the floor a few feet away from me. I played the intro to “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’” and grinned at him, and he just grinned back. Did I impress him? Not hardly, and I wasn’t trying to, but it was just a way of letting him know that he was one of my idols and that I’d paid attention to his great work over the years. Maybe the guy from Weehawken would be impressed, I don’t know. Every time Weldon walks into a club where I’m playing I do the “Once A Day” intro, and he still gets up and sings with us. It’s all in fun, and if you can’t have fun you might as well be a drummer. (Drum roll, cymbal crash…)
If you want to impress someone, impress yourself. Play a lick better than you did the night before, come up with something you never played before, lock in with the fiddle player, get the best tone you can. There’s more, but you get my drift. It’s not really all about you.
This composition appears in the Nashville Tennessee Steel Guitar Association March newsletter.
Some pretty cool stuff at Sharp Covers Nashville.
John Anderson in the studio October 29th with (left to right) guitarist Guthrie Trapp, bassist David Hungate, guitarist Bill Hullett, John Anderson, pianist Jeff Taylor, pedal steel guitarist Buck Reid, drummer Billy Thomas and Steve Fishell.
The lovely, personable and talented Judi Martin used to preside over a whole slew of jam sessions and talent contests in the clubs around Nashville a few years ago, and she even put out her own magazine, Judi Martin’s Country Inside & Out. I was a staff writer. From the May, 1993 edition:
Judi Martin’s Country – Inside & Out magazine has been a thought in the back of my mind for years. In the 17 years I’ve been in Nashville, I have hosted talent contests, jam sessions, benefits, hosted both a live radio show for new talent and a cable television show featuring new talent.
There is so much talent in Nashville and so much for tourists to see and do. My goal is to promote Nashville and try to focus on all aspects of the music industry.
There will be a lot of little things to change over the months ahead, but I am willing to learn as I go. I want you to give me any suggestions you think would make this a better magazine. I want it to have a personal touch. I love Nashville and one of the things I try to tell everyone I meet is that we are all here for the same reason – music!
I also like the feeling of camaraderie.
To all of you who have followed me around for so many years and been there for me and my family in some rather difficult times, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. To all of you that I have not yet been privileged to meet-welcome to Nashville and I hope you will join us real soon at a jam or talent contest. I am just a phone call away if I can answer any questions for you.
Be sure that you keep your phone number and address current with me if you are a musician or singer and looking for work!
by Cal Sharp
Up until 1980 or so, there was a lot of jamming going on in Nashville. Bass players and drummers would finish a set with hands so tired from playing thirty or forty choruses of “C-Jam Blues” or “Billie’s Bounce” at Mach 2 that they could barely open a beer. When two or three guitar players and a dance floor full of steel players all get to solo until they run out of licks or break a string, it can really wear a rhythm section out. But there was usually someone waiting for a chance to sit in, and you could take a break, grab a drink, play a little pinball, and be ready to go all night.
Jam sessions were fun. You made your money backing up singers in studios and on long road trips with sometimes questionable musicians. But at a jam session, you could get creative on some instrumentals and play whatever you wanted, or whatever you were capable of, with musicians you admired. Jazz standards, western swing, big band numbers … anything that swung and had a groove. You could play a whole-tone scale without worrying about someone giving you the hairy eyeball.
Sometimes a singer would get up, if one of the musicians knew him and he promised to do some good songs and not sing over your fills, and the band might trick him and launch into a string of double-time solos in the middle of a ballad and he’d need a country music map to fill the last verse.
When the Opry was still downtown and before Lower Broad went to hell, jam sessions like this used to go on all the time; in the clubs on Lower Broad, at the old Sho-Bud store, backstage at the Opry, in hotels during the annual DJ convention … you could park your car downtown and walk to these places and see guys like Buddy Emmons, Jimmy Bryant, Doug Jernigan, and Paul Franklin. It was great. You could learn more about your axe in one night than you could learn in a year’s worth of music lessons back home with Miss Poultice, and tourists and musicians from out-of-town would go home bragging about all the hot picking they had heard from the Nashville cats.
But it’s not happening much anymore. Some of the older players have retired or died. Some had too much fun back then and have to take it easy these days. Some only play now when there is a time card around to sign. To find picking like you used to hear all the time here in town, you pretty much have to go to one of the steel guitar conventions in Dallas or St. Louis.
It’s too bad that more of Music City’s hot musicians aren’t burning up the clubs anymore, but maybe they have to be up early for a ten o’clock to make a payment on their BMW. Or maybe they showed up at a couple of clubs and thought it looked too much like what they’d been paid to do all day. Or maybe they got stuck at the last jam session with some bass holder who should have been arrested by the Country Music Police for loitering in front of an amp.
These days a jam session is a bunch of singers in hats and striped shirts hoping somebody in the audience will sign them to a record deal. Every girl sings “Crazy,” and the band is supposed to know every song in the world, even the one that somebody just wrote in the bathroom during a sudden flash (or flush!) of inspiration. You hardly ever hear an instrumental, I guess because the band is so worn out backing up all the Garth and Reba wannabees, and there are not nearly enough shuffles being played. A lot of singers wouldn’t know a C-sharp from a flat tire, and they think all it takes to be successful in the music business is nice hair and a financial backer.
Once in a while, a group of good players might happen to wander up on stage all at the same time and start swinging, but then some slug will get up and play “Guns ‘n’ Roses” volume and some germ will want to sing some commercial piece of drek that everybody is sick of playing, and some drunk in the crowd will holler for rock ‘n’ roll. Hey, just sit there and be quiet, Mr. Beer-and-a-Shot, and enjoy the music and buy the band a round.
In the good old days, guitar slingers prowled the streets, deadeye steel players lurked in the shadows, and a jam session could break out anytime someone pulled a Telecaster on you. But today, it seems that you have to organize the thing and advertise it, and spend time on the phone to get anybody to come out. And it’s great that Judi Martin and one or two others are doing that. It’s not like the old days, but what the hell … you can hang out, show off your latest lick, get a job, and stuff yourself with free popcorn if it’s been a long time between Krystals. Be sure to listen to the radio a lot before you show up, but don’t waste your time learning the changes to “All the Things You Are,” because chances are slim that anyone will know them.
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.
Sometimes when you’re out on the road you see more of friends that live a few neighborhoods away in Nashville than you do at home. I was in Kansas playing a club with WC Edgar and in walked Jack Cotton. He’d been driving past in a bus and saw our name on the marquee. Ha. Jack’s from my part of the world, NE Indiana, Hammond in his case and South Bend in mine, and he’s been in Nashville since 1980 or so. And he’s a Cubs fan, which is a good thing. I used to go to Jack’s house and watch the Super Bowl, and you could watch any Super Bowl you wanted because he’s got them all taped.
Jack’s a fine singer and bass player who’s worked with Eddy Raven, Dottie West, Sammy Kershaw and the famous “many others”, like I have. He sent me a great email:
“Hey Cal, love to read your stories. I just read the one about the ‘Fans’, good stuff. I’ll share one with you if don’t mind. We were in Kansas for a one nighter with Eddy Raven and one of the young guys in the local opening band was trying to start up a conversation after the show and asked, ‘So do you guys work with Eddy all the time? Or does he have a regular band?’ I couldn’t help it, I had to laugh out loud in his face.”
So there ya go, that’s the kind of respect we road pickers get sometimes.
Once 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.