"Show 'em the left foot that made Merle Haggard a star, Moon. Show 'em the one you used on Buck. Show 'em the one ya used on Bonnie. The most imitated steel guitar player and the best one, by far...that's the great Ralph Mooney everybody."
When Waylon Jennings spoke those words in September 1974, Ralph Mooney was already a legend. He had already played in acclaimed Western swing bands and influenced the design of Fender's pedal steels with his homemade setup. He had written "Crazy Arms," a song that became a classic in two genres in the hands of Ray Price and Jerry Lee Lewis. He had helped develop the Bakersfield sound while backing up Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, and the underrated Wynn Stewart.
Even in 1974, calling him the greatest pedal steel player in the history of country music would have been an understatement of the highest order. At that time he had been with Waylon's band for four years and would continue to play with them in the studio and on the road until the early '90s, playing a major role in the outlaw country revolution and in the sound of country music's greatest vocalist.
Not to mention Corn Pickin' and Slick Slidin', his 1969 LP with the legendary guitarist James Burton. Or his great work just last year on Marty Stuart's Ghost Train, where his playing provided the heart and soul of the entire record. Or the hundreds of hits and non-hits he played a part in during his six decades of playing music professionally. I think it's safe to say that country music as we know it would not exist if not for Ralph Mooney.
Earlier this week, the country music world mourned the passing of the great Ferlin Husky and, unfortunately, tonight Ralph Mooney joined him. According to what I'm hearing he had been ill for about a year and passed away at his home this evening. I'll keep you posted with more information as it comes. In the meantime, please use the comments section to share your favorite recording featuring Mooney or tell us your memories of him.
Over at Saving Country Music, The Triggerman has written an excellent piece on Mooney where he called him one of the three greatest musicians in country music history (I would agree) and had this to say:
"Ralph Mooney’s strings ring eternal with the most infinite beauty, his life’s work reverberates in our souls with zero diminish till kingdom come. When our society downfalls from selfishness, over-consumptive hedonism, and a wanton unappreciation of art, and the archeologists of the future sift through our ashes to find something, anything worth preserving and paying forward, they will find the sound of Ralph Mooney’s steel guitar, and make sure it is heard by the future to stir the souls of mankind forever."
Jeremy Mackinder, the bass player for Whitey Morgan and the 78s, sent me a beautiful tribute to Mooney that I would like to share with you:
"To me, the most unique thing about country music is the pedal steel guitar. All kinds of instruments have been used, but, the ringing tone of a pedal steel defines what country music is.
You hear it, and you know what you’re listening to. It’s rarely used in any other style of music, and if it is, it’s only on a song or two on an album that the artist wanted to show their country influence on. Fiddle is kinda the same way, but, it also runs through bluegrass. Pedal steel is country music and country music alone.
So, to have such a defining instrument run throughout the genre, to be given the title of “The Best There Ever Was” defines that person as one of the most important people in country music ever. That man was Ralph Mooney.
Mooney passed yesterday. From what I’ve read he’d been ill for quite some time. Saddest thing is, there wasn’t much to read today. I found a few articles, but only from the usual suspects. Nothing in Google searches. Nothing on CMT’s page (as of 10:30 Monday morning)…checked a bunch of “country” radio stations websites just to confirm my belief. Nothing.
I could run you down a list of what he’d recorded on, who he’d played with, what he’d accomplished. Chances are, if you’re reading this, you don’t need me to. You wouldn’t have found this if Ralph Mooney hadn’t been an influence on your life, whether consciously or subconsciously. He was a side man and so not knowing his name doesn’t make you ignorant, but not knowing his playing and his sound definitely would bring into question your status as a country music fan.
It’s a sad day. His impact on my life will ring forever. Country music has saved my life, and for that, I could never thank Ralph Mooney enough. Turn up some Waylon or some Merle, turn it up LOUD—and listen with great respect to the Best That Ever Was, Ralph Mooney."
A public service will take place for for Mooney on Wednesday at 10 AM at Pleasantview Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas (located I-20 at Kelly-Elliot exit, South side of I-20 between Arlington and Kennedale).