In Nashville searching for a pedal steel

Now that they’re dead, George Jones and Johnny Cash have been allowed back into Nashville.

Each man now has a museum in his honor, I discovered as I walked up and down Music Row in MusicIMG_4008 City.

I’m in Nashville at the invitation of Prof. Ted Fischer and Vanderbilt University’s Center for Latin American Studies to give some talks about heroin and pills.

Nashville’s a great town. First time I visited, in 2001, also at the invitation of CLAS, I spent time at a West Nashville apartment complex watching Sudanese Lost Boys and Bosnian immigrants play soccer. The town has the largest Kurdish population in America, and had 80,000 Mexicans as well. That night, I went to a Mexican circus – Los Hermanos Vasquez.

And it’s got country music.

I’ve been a country fan since I was about 16 and my guitar teacher started playing me some Merle Haggard and Emmylou.

Johnny Cash and George Jones have been my favorites for so many years. These two guys had voices like oak trees. They shared a lot in common, I thought, with jazzman Sonny Rollins, whose saxophone had the same kind of sound. But neither Cash nor Jones was much appreciated by Nashville’s new pop-rock country, big-hat-boys sound toward of his life. Cash didn’t even have a record deal. Sorry state of affairs for two of the greatest singers we Americans ever produced.IMG_4012

Problem is, from the radio, I gather that there isn’t much about current Nashville country music that would have room for either man if he were starting out today.

In fact, as I walked up and down Music Row in Nashville, I searched in vain for what I consider to be the soul of country music: a pedal steel guitar.

Pedal steel is what makes country music sound so sweet; the instrument sounds a lot like the voice of Emmylou Harris. I’m told that Ms. Harris, my personal country music goddess, doesn’t listen to new country music any more. Maybe it’s because they’ve done away with the pedal steel guitar, I thought as I walked down Music Row. Pedal steel also makes country music sound raw sometimes, too, and I like that.

Walking down the Row, there was a lot of what I took to be rocknroll. I heard some Michael Jackson. I heard some Eagles and was going to call the Chamber of Commerce to complain. I had dinner in George Jones’ Museum and Restaurant and ate three scallops that cost me $11 per scallop, but I didn’t find any pedal steel guitars in there.

I peered inside Margaritaville, but all they had was a rock band. Same with the place next door. No pedal steels.

I did happen in to Ernest Tubb’s Record Store, where I found CDs for $2.99 each in the bargain “tubb.” I bought five, including a compilation of truck driving songs, with some frantic pedal steel picking, called Lay Me Down a Truck Driving Man. Jewel of the CD was Mac Wiseman’s song, “Eighteen Wheels Humming Home Sweet Home.”

Raindrops on the windshield

Teardrops on my steering wheel

This old truck’s the only thing I own.

My old heart is pining

While her old engine’s whining

And eighteen wheels humming Home Sweet Home

From poetry like that you can see why I thought the CD would be the night’s highlight.IMG_4014

Then I stumbled into the Full Moon Saloon. On the stage was a bar band and in the band was Mike Bourque. He was sitting with a Telecaster in his lap and a pedal steel before him, burning holes through songs with both instruments. So there I stayed until they stopped playing. Don’t know who Mike Bourque is, but he sure can play.

I guess this is where the real heart of Nashville music resides, not so much on those radio stations.

So I’ll leave you with Mike Bourque, on Telecaster and (briefly here) pedal steel blazing through the last three minutes of Merle Haggard’s “Honky-Tonk Nighttime Man.”




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3 Responses to In Nashville searching for a pedal steel

  1. Judy King

    Hey Sam — while you are in Nashville, there’s another angle you might enjoy catching — Becca Stephens, Mark Harmon’s wife (himself a grammy winner) started a great program there called Thistle Farms. It started with a home for prostitutes and women coming out of prison. Then after medical and dental and psych and rehab help, came jobs — with none to be had she set up a candle making and body care “factories.” with the women receiving fare wages. It has grown to now include 16 fare trade organizations around the world, including one here at Lake Chapala. Second in command is Fiona Prine — yes Mrs. John — yep THAT John Prine. These are great women, real, natural, down to earth and fun –and the work they are doing there with the women and around the world with poor, abused women is nothing short of astounding. Mexico, Ecuador, two or three places in Africa and a number in the orient — a whole lot of positive work in the formerly men only tea industry.

    A starter place for contacts would be The Thistle Stop Cafe in Nashville.

    If you head that way tell Becca and Fiona that Judy King turned you on to their gig — Becca’s quote is good — We don’t make candles because we enjoy making candles — we make candles so other women can see the light.

    Judy King.

    A starter place is

  2. Sweet pedal steel. Sam, check out Robert Randolph and the Family Band. He can make it sing better than Emmylou!

  3. All true…
    all sad and true
    thank you for bit of musical heat at the end.

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