The Essentialness of the Steel Guitar
A few people recognize that Hank Williams, Tammy Wynette and Waylon Jennings were not alone in performances of their greatest songs. The stark early recordings of Hank Williams were duets. Many of Tammy’s biggest hits were poignant call and response partnerships like “I Don’t Wanna Play House”. We do not remember who it was because the pedal steel guitar does not have a voice that we can easily associate with a human name. Steel is country and an essential implement of the great country performances that have reached into our hearts. Generations of pedal steel players were inspired by Jerry Byrd who played with Hank Williams. Behind Waylon Jennings there was the picker who took solo upon solo whenever Waymore would yell, “Pick it, Moon!” Ralph Mooney learned to play by listening to Leon McAuliffe. That would be the Leon of “Take it away, Leon!” to whom the exclamatory Bob Wills was addressing himself. Barbara Mandrell had one of her first big breaks when she played pedal steel behind Patsy Cline. Hoss called Mandrell, “a 13 year old blonde doll that plays the steel guitar out of this world,” in a personal letter to a friend.
The pedal steel originated around 1880 in Hawaii where Portuguese sailors would entertain by playing slide churango with knives. Or maybe it was a guitarrillo, or a Mexican vihuela. The Hawaiians developed the instrument to great effect and featured it in their Royal Hawaiian Band. The instrument migrated to the mainland in the early 1900’s and got countried out by jazz bands that developed the Western swing sound. The pedal steel has an exceptional range of timbre and attack. This perhaps makes it more like the human voice than other instruments. Who knows, and who cares when you hear Ben Keith playing that little walk-down that drops the verse in “Harvest Moon”