The fluid sound of the steel guitar flows throughout American music like a powerful river that cuts through and reshapes the terrain. It can be as tranquil as a babbling brook or as exhilarating as a raging torrent taking you on a thrilling ride. As it makes its way across our musical landscapes, it conjures the tranquil tropical beaches of Pacific islands, desolate deserts of the Southwest, beer soaked honky-tonks and jubilant dance halls of Texas, and lonely hollows of the South.
Whether it is conveying the authenticity of place or the sincerity of emotion, the flowing sound of the steel guitar is deceptively simple. Men of Steel takes you inside the sound to explore the rich medley of elements contained in its sonic simplicity. Whether you are a music fan or interested in American culture, take a fascinating trip through the lives, histories and technologies that we hear when we cry with the steel guitar and when we turn the dial across the airwaves of our favorite music and television. Experience the fascinating adventures of the steel guitar as told by the "men of steel" – the very musicians who put the sound of the steel on our cultural map.
The steel guitar arrived from Hawaii onto the US mainland in the early 20th century and created a craze for Hawaiian music that lured travelers to the islands as the tourist industry formed. As the icon of tropical tranquility, the Hawaiian guitar was later taken up in swing and country music, where it then became the signature of country music’s “hillbilly” sound. Once rock and pop musicians started incorporating the sound by the late ‘60s, the steel guitar could be found in any number of styles of music.
Although the original concept for the pedal steel was conceived much earlier—Gibson's Electraharp was introduced in 1941, for instance—extensive development of the instrument did not occur until Bud Isaacs played on Webb Pierce’s hit record “Slowly” in 1954. Using a pedal guitar in a brand new way to kick off the song, “Slowly” captured the imagination of virtually every steel guitar player in America. Bud Isaacs himself appears in the film to tell his story of how he came to play the groundbreaking guitar lick that permanently put the pedal steel on the map as the unmistakable twang of country music. Yet the new pedal steel sound was also contested within the world of steel guitar and it disrupted the futures of some of its greatest players.
In Men of Steel, a cast of pioneer steel players recount that instant when the steel guitar redefined the sound of country music when pedals were added to the Hawaiian guitar. They describe how the music industry would use its “hillbilly” voice as an icon to distinguish and promote country music. Steel guitar players were prominently featured as soloists who kicked off songs and played the steel as a voice in dialogue with singers, as Don Helms describes his own playing alongside Hank Williams. Interviews with the players who brought the steel guitar into country music and beyond describe their work with numerous legendary singers from Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline, to musicians like Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Sting, Elton John, and many others.
As the Nashville music industry grew from a small informal business into a publishing and recording mecca, generating massive amounts of money, forces were taking shape that would threaten the existence of this new instrument. The extreme popularity of Elvis Presley created all kinds of problems for the country music industry. As the sales of country records plummeted, the architects of the Nashville Sound started working on different ways to market the music to appeal to a wider audience. One of the methods they used was to remove or disguise the "hillbilly" sounds in the music to make it more palatable for a younger, more urban demographic. In many cases they started walking a thin line of not alienating their older country audiences and trying to lure new ones. Interestingly and coincidentally, when the real innovations in the pedal steel guitar were taking place the steel guitar was disappearing from the popular country recordings of the day. From 1957 to 1960, rock and roll scared the steel guitar right off of the country charts. Yet the recordings made at this time with Buddy Emmons and Jimmy Day on pedal steel guitar represent the foundation for instrument's future innovations.
The early 60s started to see some fresh new sounds from this brand new instrument. Ralph Mooney started playing on Buck Owens' recordings coming out of Los Angeles and played on virtually every country recording coming out of Capital Records in LA at that time. His unique approach to the instrument fit perfectly with the hard driving honky-tonk style of the country music on the West Coast. At the same time in Nashville Pete Drake was showing how to use this instrument to great effect with a "less is more" approach that put him in constant demand in the studios. His sound and style would be used on some of the greatest country and pop recordings for the next two decades. In 1967 he played on two tracks on Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding record, which paved the way for the next wave of popularity for the pedal steel guitar.
By the late 1960s, with the help of the Beatles and Bob Dylan, the sounds of country music had infiltrated pop music and the L.A. rock band The Byrds devoted their 1968 album Sweetheart of the Rodeo to a country sound and featured two top session steel players from Nashville and L.A., Lloyd Green and JayDee Maness. By addressing country and rock audiences, Sweetheart musically diminished cultural and political differences between the US south and north during the Vietnam War. The record helped to open up country and steel guitar music to a generation of kids who had never been exposed to it or had only heard it in the context of their parent's music; it made it ok to listen to country music. Almost at the same time other acts were incorporating the pedal steel sound into their music. Buffalo Springfield's recording of "Kind Woman," featuring Rusty Young, was recorded right around that time. Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline featuring Pete Drake on the pedal steel soon followed. In just a couple of years the pedal steel would find a home in all kinds of unexpected places: The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, George Harrison, and Paul McCartney, just to name a few would start incorporating and altering the vocabulary of the pedal steel. The sounds of the pedal steel guitar became very prevalent in the country and pop hits all throughout the 1970s. Perhaps the most well-known steel guitar lick in popular music is the one that Jerry Garcia plays to kick off Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s‚ “Teach Your Children,” a song that was inspired by anti-war sentiment and belies the instrument’s origins in the machinery of the military industrial complex.
Interestingly, there was a parallel steel guitar universe that existed in some of the Pentecostal churches of the African American communities in the South. The Keith and Jewell Dominions of the House of God started using the steel guitar as a part of their worship services in the 1930s and by the 40s it became the centerpiece of their services. The churches are now all over the United States from Florida to California, and Alabama to New Jersey. Taken from the Hawaiian influences that spawned the steel guitar craze in mainstream Americana, it quietly began its own history and developed its own unique styles sheltered within the confines of the church. Its existence was "revealed" to the rest of the world in the early 1990s and itself has been the subject of many anthologies and a documentary. Superstar steel guitarist Robert Randolph came out of that tradition and is a prime example of how a talented person with a fresh perspective on the instrument can take it in a new direction.
While the role of the pedal steel guitar in popular country music has diminished over time it's continuing pervasiveness in all kinds of music ensure it an interesting future. There is no telling where it is headed and what forms it will take. What seems quite certain is that the lure of the sound of the steel guitar will keep fostering new talent and more and varied creative outlets for the instrument. There is a new generation of players ready to push the boundaries and expand the reach and vocabulary of this ever developing instrument.
INSIDE THE SOUND OF STEEL
The defining feature of the steel guitar is the piece of steel held in the player’s hand which is used to produce notes that can be played and manipulated in an infinite number of ways due to the nature of a sliding note. One of the confusing aspects of understanding what the steel guitar is, however, has to do with the many different forms it has taken in its development‚ which continues to this day. The fact is that during its evolution a number of new instruments were created that have survived into the present day. The steel guitar has grown into a family of unique instruments that include Weissenborn style guitars, resonator guitars, “lap” steel guitars, table-top or console steel guitars, and pedal steel guitars. Along with their development, changes to these instruments and their various playing styles were not without growing pains and controversy. The foremost players and inventors who made this history describe in this film the effect these changes had on them and how these differences shaped how the steel guitar would be used in different styles of music, and in some cases, even to define musical styles.
While it seems certain there are examples of slide instruments that existed in ancient cultures in Asia and probably Africa, there is no definitive link between these instruments and the sounds we have come to associate with slide and steel guitar in the fields of country, blues, and pop music. History does tell us however that lines can be drawn from the not so distant past in Hawaii that now cut across a surprisingly wide swath of American culture. Once Hawaiian music was formed as arguably the first example of "world music" by drawing on a number of widely dispersed sources from Spain, Mexico, Germany and Native Hawaii, the waves of the Hawaiian steel guitar sound hit the mainland of the US and quickly flowed across the continent and were channeled into a variety of American musical styles.
By flipping over the instrument to explore its hidden underside, viewers will trace its very components to their surprising cultural wellsprings in colonial Euro-American expansion across the Pacific, their mechanical sources in the machinery of US military and aerospace industries, and the musical innovations in the churning currents of the American entertainment business. Embodying these forces, the steel guitar is an American instrument as unique as the banjo and just as constant in the music of our times. There is no doubt that the impact of the steel has not been felt to the same degree as the banjo or guitar in modern society. This is true for abundant reasons, most notably the size and portability of the guitar and its ability to easily provide self-accompaniment for a song at a rudimentary level. But you can hear the constant presence and influence of the steel guitar in popular music from the dawn of music recording to the present and some of its players have been among the most influential musicians of their time.
The development of the pedal steel guitar, from a contraption capable of changing the basic tuning of the instrument, to an instrument capable of a wide range of expression in many different musical styles and genres, is a story involving many characters. It is also a story that continues to this day. It is an unfolding love story complete with all of the human drama contained in any tale involving lots of dynamic characters. This film offers a rare opportunity to be able to hear the story of this creation and development through the voices of the people that built and played these instruments. Combined with well-known musical examples and testimonials, Men of Steel reveals the unknown story of how and why this instrument evolved from a small, 6-string Spanish guitar used for Hawaiian music into the complex machine that is the pedal steel guitar.