Conversation with Lee Jeffriess, Part 1

Lee Jeffriess, to many of us, needs no introduction. He has been one of the driving forces in the revitalization of steel guitar in Rockabilly and Western Swing for more than 15 years. As a member of Big Sandy and the Fly-Rite Boys, he was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. His playing was a big part of the sound of that band: his boundless energy and exciting bursts of sound alternating with sweet melancholy and longing ala Speedy West. He also recorded a wonderful instrumental CD with guitarist John Munnerlyn, called Guitars In Perspective. Today, Lee leads the Western swing unit the West Coast Ramblers in the Bay area. I had a chance to speak with Lee, who not only is an encyclopedia of steel guitar and music, but also a very interesting guy.

Mike: Hi Lee, first of all I’d like to thank you for helping to open up the doors of steel guitar for me.

Lee: I’m the gateway drug, right?

M: I don’t know whether to thank you or blame you.

L: I’ve always said this: the thing is a can of worms, you know? It’s addictive and once you get in it’s all over, if you really get hooked. It consumes you, I mean, I’m driving down the freeway or my wife is trying to tell me something and I’m thinking “what was Vance doing there?”

M: It’s true. A friend of mine once told me that all steel players were crazy and just locked themselves up in their rooms learning how to play….

L: Well, I think that’s true of some of them, like anyone else—bank managers or airline pilots—I think a few of them are kind of eccentric. And then there’s guys like Vance who seemed to be a really level-headed, sober, super-smart guy and there wasn’t anything particularly odd about him. Just like anything else, it’s a mixed bag of people.

M: So, tell me about your musical background—did you play any other instruments before you took up the steel?

L: When I was a kid I played in a marching band, I played the tenor snare. It probably was the first band I ever played in—I was about 12 years old. And then, in the last year of high school, I started taking upright bass lessons with a Dixieland Jazz bass player. I wasn’t interested in Dixieland, per se, but I kind of liked it but I wasn’t hardcore about it. I had the Rockabilly bug and was listening to all these old Sun records, you know, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison….

M: Did you see any connection between the two types of music at all?

L: Yeah, the bass playing is almost identical—very syncopated, a lot of slap, there’s a lot of similarities. I got busted going into the music room (at school) and slapping the bass and the teacher said, “Don’t come in here and just mess around on this thing. If you want I’ll get you lessons, there’s a guy who’ll come around and teach you.” And fortunately for me, it wasn’t a classical guy—it was a Dixieland player. I just did this crude slap thing and the guy went, “Wow, that’s pretty good—you’re interested in this style. I play this stuff.” So that was kind of cool—unfortunately, it was the last 2 or 3 months of high school. It was just enough for him to show me some things.

When I got out of school, I had a job washing dishes at this big, fancy hotel and saved up all my money and bought an upright bass and got into it. I played it until I was about 24.

M: There are always gigs available for bass players.

L: Yeah, I got to play with a wide variety of people. It took a while to get good enough, maybe 2 or 3 years. I still enjoy it now—I still own an upright and a couple of years ago I had the opportunity to play professionally again, after nearly 20 years, with T.K. Smith (guitarist) and a Jazz fiddle player—we had a little trio. It was a lot of fun and I’d kind of forgotten how pleasurable it is to just be the bass player and make the groove.

M: It’s a completely different type of focus than playing steel guitar.

L: Completely different. With bass, you’re the foundation, and with steel you’re all the pretty filling in between.

M: What was it that piqued your interest in steel guitar?

L: Well, I was 14 or 15 and getting into Rockabilly and there was guy who was probably about 15 years older than me at the time and he played music locally, and we hooked up—he was playing in pubs and stuff—he was doing really Rockabilly/Sun Records kind of stuff. We didn’t really take him seriously, though, because he looked like a regular guy. We were all into the blue jeans with the big cuffs and having our hair all slicked, wearing ‘50s clothes and we thought he was square–it was a really shallow, face-value assessment. But he befriended us and that was the beginning of my real musical education. He would say “That stuff’s cool, but listen to this…” and “You like this, don’t you? It’s because you like this, too” and he put it all together for me and introduced me to a wide gambit of music. Especially guitar players like Tal Farlow, Barney Kessel, Merle Travis, and Gershwin and Debussy, and weird stuff.

M: That’s what we all need: someone to steer us in the right direction, get some wind in our sails.

L: I feel very, very fortunate, because I meet so many people that don’t know anything about music or the history of music. They think it’s just what’s on the radio and they have no idea where it all comes from—the rich history of American music. I guess what I’m trying to say is this guy opened the doors for me and I started working backward.

To answer your question, it would be discovering real good Rockabilly and then getting turned on to this other kind of Country music—I started going back listening to Hillbilly and Western Swing, initially more 1930s sounding stuff, but then I gravitated to a specific time period and it would be 1947-’53, Los Angeles-based stuff, thinking “this is the medium I like the best harmonically.” It’s got cool Rhythm and Blues in it and they were messing with Kenton ideas, too, implying them at least, with the Western Caravan. I remember being just floored by the Western Caravan when I heard them. They had great ideas and then Murphey just blowin’ his top over everything—super-arranged stuff with Murphey is just mind-blowing.

M: It’s amazing to me that this style of music completely flew under my radar. It wasn’t until about 10 years ago that a few west coast friends hooked me up—there wasn’t anyone that I’d ever known in the New York area that was hip to it. And yet, here you are in England….

L: Well, like I said, I started at a certain point and started working backward…I believe in the Law of Attraction. When you start looking for something, it’ll come to you—you’ll find it. I remember looking at a picture of Vance Terry, a promo picture of him in I think ’63, and he’s sitting down at this crazy Sierra Wright Custom doubleneck, and I’m goin’, “Man, I just gotta see one of these guitars, I’ve got to have one. This thing looks like it was made on another planet. I have to have one of these.” A year later, I’ve got one…. And the same thing with Bigsby—I was talking to a guy in England in 1990, asking him all about a Bigsby because he’d seen one when he’d been to the states and I knew Speedy played one and I’d seen a photograph of one…literally 7 months later I owned one. When you hyper-focus on things, you know?

Maurice Anderson talks about this stuff a lot and he applies it to playing music. I remember reading a quote by him saying, “You should never practice unless you really want to. If you don’t want to, or you just do it out of rote or whatever, you don’t learn anything or get anything out of it.” I remembered what he said and I thought, “Wow, this is really informative—it felt like some of the information was some of the best wisdom I’d ever heard on the subject. He went as far as to say “some of my best practice is done in my head, driving around.” I think the big thing that he’s sort of getting across is the visualization, whether about a material item or a musical goal–just maybe reprogramming yourself to think about things in a different way.

M: Do you recall your first steel guitar?

L: Yes, it was made by a guy called George Denley in the UK in the ‘60s. It was sold under Rotosound—they sold it in their catalogue. It was a really well-made, professional single 10 pedal steel. It looked a lot like a Sho-Bud fingertip, or something like that.

M: Was it set up in E9 copedent?

L: Yea, when I got it I took it to a guy who was a professional pedal steel player in the Southampton area, really good pedal steel player, top-notch, like a studio-type musician, and he just said, “Oh, you’re interested in this kind of stuff, we’ll put it in a 6th tuning” and he rearranged the pedals and everything. He put the option there and I said, “oh, I’m not gonna use that, I don’t want pedals, I just want to play it as a non-pedal instrument” and the guy was like, “Well, let’s just do it anyway, ‘cause you never know, you might want to get into it.” He didn’t force it on me or anything, didn’t say “why are you doing this, all you need is E9, don’t be silly”—of course, everyone after that said it to me….

M: He must have asked what kind of music you were into….

L: He said, “Bring me some music that you’re interested in, let me hear what it is you want to get into.” I brought him over some cassettes of Spade Cooley and Bob Wills and he knew who those guys were. His main bag was like a Lloyd Green E9 type of thing….

M: You never had any interest in doing that?

L: No, never. I mean I have an appreciation of it now and I’ve made a couple of attempts to sort of try it but I just don’t feel it, I guess. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy it—it wasn’t ’til about maybe 5 or 6 years ago that I actually sat down and listened to Lloyd on those Little Darlin’ records with Paycheck and Ralph Mooney with Wynn Stewart and then I got it. Man, it’s just so soulful.

M: At what point did you decide to move to the US?

L: Well, I got a job playing with another English guy, actually from my hometown, as well, a guy called Carl “Sonny” Leyland and he called me up one day. He’d been living in New Orleans for a 5 or 6 years at this point in 1991 and he was just bitchin’ about how he’d just gone through his 7th bass player and he couldn’t get anyone to stick it out, they were always wrong and weren’t into the right stuff, just playing noodly kind of Jazz bass. I just literally jokingly said, “Buy me an airline ticket and a bass and I’ll come out and play with you”, you know just totally messing around and he went silent and then said, “…Would ya?” And I was like, “Yeah, I guess I would.” He told me to make the arrangements, “quit your job, ’cause you can make this amount a month, I’ll rent you a house….” It was the most money I ever made playing music.

M: How much time did you spend in New Orleans?

L: I was only there 3 months…[laughs], but I did a lot of work! The biggest compliment I ever had playing music was, we were playing in this backyard and this big, old black lady ran out of the kitchen and she was standing and she goes, “Goddammit! You’re white!” [laughs] That was pretty cool.

M: Did you bring your steel guitar with you?

L: No, my experience with steel at point was that it was pretty painful the noise that was being made from it and I kind of went, “Shit, this is really hard!” So it went under the bed. [laughs]

M: Well, I’m really happy to know it’s not just me!

L: Well, I was only down for a few months, though…[laughs] I had the bug by then.

M: In that short time you were in New Orleans, did you get a chance to play with other musicians?

L: There was a great guitar player in town called Steve Spitz who also plays pedal steel and Steve is just a local guy that everyone knows, very funny guy, and he just played the most badass 50s R&B, like Johnny Guitar Watson, just scary. And he had the steel bug, too, and he turned me on to a guy called Johnny Bonvillian and put me together with him. At the time I didn’t have a steel but he gave me his phone number and said “You should talk to this guy.” This guy knew Joaquin and Boggs and people like that. This was the first time I’d had a direct connection to the past, like a real direct one. I remember going to him a year or so later when I was on the road with Big Sandy and then sitting down with him just playing my guitar and saying, “This is what Joaquin would’ve done,” and he’d pick a tune, “Joaquin would do it like this” or “Boggs would have played it like this” and he could perfectly imitate them. Still his own man, but that was mind-numbing to see someone to sit down and really do it in front of you. He asked me to play and he was pretty non-plussed—he was like, “Yeah, you’ve got a lot of woodshedding to do, kid!” [laughs] That was kind of brutal, but that’s the kick in the ass you need. Back then I had the bug pretty strongly and really threw myself into the deep end.

Go to Part 2

(This interview may not be reproduced without the permission of Mike Neer.)

John Munnerlyn & Lee Jeffriess: Guitars in Perspective