Part of the reason that I am obsessed with country-rock is because I can’t get enough of the sound of the steel guitar, either of the pedal or lap variety. I will confess that for many years I had no idea what a steel guitar was: I honestly thought it was a guitar literally made out of steel (which in retrospect seems really heavy). Since then I’ve learned that the “steel” is actually the slide and the guitar has it’s origins in Hawaii, along with pineapples, spam and fat guys in garish shirts.
Now it’s impossible to list all of the great pedal steel players in music history and it’s often hard to draw a line between country-rock and country. For example, Dwight Yoakam is considered a country artist, but the Bakersfield sound he favors is closely aligned with California country-rock. The great Tom Brumley played with Dwight, and he’s one of Buck Owens’ Buckaroos which makes him country (of course, Buck Owens is considered one of the fathers of the Bakersfield sound and now my head is spinning). So I’m just going to attempt to list some of my favorites, in order of my exposure to them.
Jerry briefly got obsessed with the pedal steel in 1970 and played one of the most famous pedal steel parts in rock history on Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Teach Your Children”. Old Jer might not have been the best pedal steel player, but he did some mighty fine work for CSNY, the Dead and on the first New Riders of the Purple Sage album.
Ben played with Neil Young for almost 40 years and was an original Stray Gator, starting with Neil’s breakthrough album “Harvest”. Ben helped to define Neil’s iconic country-rock sound that he’s returned to over the years. But rather than play something off of Harvest, let’s be a true rockist and bust out “For the Turnstiles” from “On the Beach”.
Buddy replaced Garcia as the steel player in New Riders of the Purple Sage after establishing his country-rock bona fides in Ian & Sylvia’s Great Speckled Bird. He also played on one of the greatest albums ever made – Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks”. Speaking of that, Buddy lays down a killer outro solo on “Meet Me in the Morning”.
“Sneaky” Pete Kleinow
Of all of the great players on this list, Sneaky Pete is probably my favorite. First, he has a cool nickname that is spelled both “Sneeky” and “Sneaky”. Secondly, he was an animator on “Gumby” and “David & Goliath”. Finally, he ran his guitar through a fuzzbox which gave it a really unique sound. He’s most famous for playing with The Flying Burrito Brothers, but he did session work for everyone. “Christine’s Tune” isn’t my favorite FBB song but it’s a showcase for Pete and it was featured on the soundtrack for my favorite sexy vampire show.
Al replaced Sneaky Pete in the FBB but is best known for playing with Stephen Stills’ Manassas and a million other great projects, including a little something called “Exile on Main Street” and both of Gram Parsons’ solo albums. There’s so much great stuff to choose from, but here’s “So Many Times” from the second Manassas LP “Down the Road”.
Rusty Young is best known for playing in Poco, a band that got famous for their later soft-rock material but was the tightest, hottest country-rock band in the world for a while. Rusty ran his pedal steel through Leslie speakers which gave it a very organ-like tone. He also played a lot of dobro in Poco, sometimes going back and forth between the two instruments in a single song. What a great player. The first Poco-esque song is actually a beautiful Richie Furay song from Buffalo Springfield’s “Last Time Around” called “Kind Woman”.
“Farmer” Dave Scher
Farmer Dave plays pedal steel and lap steel and keys in the criminally under-appreciated band Beachwood Sparks. His playing helps to create the dreamy texture that defines the fresh yet classic cosmic American sound of the band. “Desert Skies” is a great example of their skills.
He of the bad jokes and the sweet steel, Jon is most famous for his stint with Ryan Adams & the Cardinals, but like many steel players he’s played on a lot of cool stuff over the years. Jon is obviously a lot younger than many of the players listed above, so it’s great to see a new generation of players on the scene. Here’s the beautiful “Dear John” from Ryan Adams & the Cardinals’ “Jacksonville City Nights” (featuring Norah Jones on vocals).
Bonus: Clarence White
While technically not a steel player, no list would be complete without Clarence White – one of the greatest guitar players that ever walked the planet. Clarence, along with Byrds band mate Gene Parsons, invented the stringbender, a special guitar doohicky that allows the B string to be “bent” into a C# by pulling the neck, creating a tone that sounds like a pedal steel. Clarence used this to great effect in The Byrds, especially on their “Live at the Fillmore” album. While the whole album showcases Clarence’s incredible skills, listen to their version of “Buckaroo” the iconic Buck Owens instrumental.
I hope this brief overview inspires you to listen to these pedal steel players and explore their respective discographies. The pedal steel, to my ear, is one of the most beautiful instruments in music and is a definitive aspect of the country-rock sound.