M: How did you end up in California?
L: I went to Austin to play a gig and we do a show with Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys and I’d already met him in the UK and I did tell him I played steel (I totally lied through my teeth), and they were like, “Come on, come back to LA with us, join the band.” I just jumped ship. I’d just bought the Bigsby steel, literally the day before I stopped off in Houston. It belonged to a guy called Dusty Stewart, who had played with Hank Thompson. They saw the Bigsby and were like, “You bought that? You’ve got to come back with us.” They didn’t know if I could play or not—everyone was just young and enthusiastic. They probably thought, “He’ll get it together” and that’s when the pressure came on, when I went into overdrive. I remember Palomino Club and places like that doing these big shows and I was pretty green.
M: California is where a lot of the history of the instrument was and you must’ve been like a kid….
L: I was obsessed with it. Let’s say you were into musicals and you’re a young actor or dancer—where you gonna go? You’re gonna go straight to New York or the West End of London and live your dream. Well, I went to my West End [laughs].
By this point I wasn’t just into to Western Swing; I was into Bop, good R&B—it was all in LA. LA was the ultimate melting pot. You’d have guys like Stuff Smith playing a bar gig in El Monte and playing with Speedy and Jimmy, and then you’d have Jimmy going to Central Ave. to play with the black guys, and it reflects in his playing—it was just hipper.
M: Were you ever interested in learning to play Bop?
L: No, because I was just so narrow-minded about the steel—Speedy, Joaquin, Noel Boggs, Vance Terry, early Chalker. Even though I was open to listening to a lot of stuff, when it came down to actually physically playing I was narrowed down to LA, 1947 to ’53—that’s what I wanted to play like.
M: Speedy and Capitol Records was right in that timeframe….
L: Absolutely, Speedy was right at the core of it for me. He really was the guy that made me go, “I want to buy a steel guitar and learn.” I remember I was at Ashley’s (Kingman) place in Southampton one night and we’d stay up ‘til 6 in the morning listening to music, and he said “I’ve got to turn you onto this, there’s some mad steel and guitar playing” and he showed me the jacket and it was “Two Guitars Country Style”. He put it on and it just ripped my brain out! Still to this day, it excites me just as much as it did then. Jimmy excited me just as much as Speedy—Speedy for his energy, Jimmy for hip.
M: Speedy’s playing, man, still is the highest standard for me. Speedy couldn’t do what some of the other players could do, and he couldn’t keep up with Jimmy on his level, but he had the energy….
L: He wasn’t with Jimmy harmonically—Jimmy’s ears were way bigger—but Speedy just came up with this stuff that’s exciting, like a shot of B12. I had heard him before—someone had played me a version of Frankie Laine “Ace In the Hole” and it sounds like a whirlwind blowing up a canyon. I like the fact that he’s breaking rules, he and Jimmy.
M: You can hear the influence that Speedy had on other players, like when I heard Vance playing Skiddle-dee-Boo….
L: You know, Mike, I don’t want to contradict you, but I remember thinking the same thing—Vance was always a very classy, civil, polite guy. Even in the end he had a diplomatic air about him. He basically…I don’t think he dug Speedy [laughs]. He didn’t want to say bad things, but you tell could tell it wasn’t there for him. I don’t think he took him that seriously. I think they both had a similar excitement in their playing, but I don’t think it had come from Speedy. Vance had it, too, you know.
Vance had a way of starting up solos that’s pretty damn exciting, and he has cool pauses that set up tension like Speedy, too. He just goes harmonically somewhere else with it, his harmony’s hipper. But I’ll tell you what–a big guy for him was Boggs. He wasn’t even that enthusiastic about Joaquin, to be honest, and I asked him numerous times. I’d say, “What about those Plainsmen things?” and he’d say, “Joaquin was really good wasn’t he?” It always came back to Boggs. It was like, “Noel’s chords, man, the drive….” That was it for him.
Comments from Lee: Here is the Billy Jack Wills band moonlighting with Paul Westmoreland, Tiny is playing twin fiddles with Cotton and I believe Rusty Draper is playing take off guitar, Vance is on fire on this one some of his best non pedal playing.
M: It’s funny, because when I think about it, if it wasn’t for the internet, I’m not sure that I’d even be playing the steel today. I mean I’ve owned a lap steel longer than I’ve owned a computer, but I know that I would have never learned how to play, because I was so isolated from it.
L: Yeah, it put you in touch with like-minded guys across the United States—‘cause we’re all isolated, there wasn’t that much around for me. I couldn’t go see anyone else doing what I wanted to do initially. I mean, there were some nice guys, great pedal steel players out in Los Angeles and they were nice people and good at what they did, but they weren’t doing what I was doing, so I really couldn’t glean that much from them. They were good musicians and I could glean that much from them, but it wasn’t until JW (Jeremy Wakefield) came along, and he’d been playing way under the radar, then all of a sudden there was another guy in town playing the same stuff as me and that was good.
M: Were you really interested in gear at that time?
L: I’m like a poor…a gear head…but with no money. I’d hustle a cool amp together and make it happen and then I’d trade it on for something else. I’ve never really had a collection of stuff—I’ve always had a nice guitar to play and a nice amp to use. I’ve tried a lot of different things and a lot of different brands. Probably the one I’ve got now is the one I’ve been most happiest with….
M: That’s the Sierra?
L: Yeah, it’s an early Sierra, a ’64 Sierra Wright Custom.
M: It sounds beautiful.
L: It sounds very similar to the Bigsby I owned. It’s 24 ½ scale. They are Chuck Wright pickups but what I did was scrounge some Bigsby magnets from Todd Clinesmith and I upped the inductance of the pickups quite a bit. It went from sounding good to really good—smoother, more extended bass. It was more noticeable in the bass.
M: Chuck’s pickups had a really unique sound…
L: A lot of them have this really scooped out, really unique sound—you hear it on “Crazy Arms” with Jimmy Day playing that Quad. It’s that sound. I like it, but I don’t like it—it’s not for me. I like hearing Jimmy Day with it, but I wanted to get away from that. My guitar had a little of that going on, but not as much as Day’s. The magnet thing seemed to cure that. There were 2 types of pickups he made: the blade one and the pole piece one and mine is a blade which, for all intents and purposes, is identical to a Bigsby. I just put a Bigsby magnet in mine and it made the guitar more “hi-fi” and also more microphonic. When I hit pedals and stuff I can hear it. To me, it’s like riding an old 1949 Harley.
M: I really think that adds a lot to the sound. With most of the good recordings I hear, like yours and JW’s, you can hear all the dynamics coming from the amp….
L: Yeah, definitely. They’re more honest sounding guitars, I think, and they’re just so beautiful looking…a Bigsby, or a really nice Rickenbacher console, or an early Wright Custom….beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But back to Maurice Anderson, who said there’s something about when you sit down behind a pretty guitar that’s pleasing to your eye—you will play better. I sit down at my guitar and I think, “God, you’re pretty!” And I made the cabinet, so maybe it’s sort of like I’ve got a little bit of extra pride in it
Originally when I got the guitar it was made of…the top platforms were made of mahogany and the back aprons were made of plywood and everything was skinned in a cherry formica veneer. I think he was the first guy to make formica guitars. It didn’t sound bad, but I had all this wood lying around because for a long time I’d been a French polisher—I repaired antique furniture. So, I said, ‘you know what, I’m gonna take this apart and rebuild it.” I had fiddle back cherry and western quilted maple and I just used the original body parts as a pattern and remade it and finished it. I put it all back together with the original mechanism and everything. I did that because I wanted the guitar to look like a ‘50s one, beautiful maple and all.
M: How many pedals do you have on the guitar?
L: Well, the guitar originally had 9 pedals with no knee levers and I use 6–2 of the pedals work on both necks and there’s 4 pedal changes on the front neck.
M: Do you use an E13 copedent?
L: I use F13, Boggs’ tuning and I just have the split pedal change like Vance did on the Bob Wills and Billy Jack stuff and the front neck is probably considered just standard C6 changes, but it’s in Bb6. But I do have the option…the pedals that operate the back neck also come to the front neck and they lower the high 3rd and the high root ½ tone, so when I go to the IV chord, I can fake Bud Isaacs’ changes there. That lowers the 3rd to the 2nd and the root down to the maj7. It’s backwards—a lot of guys did that in the ‘50s—they got these E9 things in 6th tunings. I first picked up on it on Brisbane Bop. I remember telling a couple of old-timers about it and they were like, “Oh yeah, everyone was doing that.” [laughs]
M: I’ll admit, I’ve always had trouble digesting that stuff…I try to envision but it doesn’t make all that much sense to me.
L: Well, I don’t really have a comprehensive understanding of it, either—I try and approach it from the old way of just looking at those things as “chord changers”….
M: That’s what I’m hearing when I listen to you, I don’t hear a lot of pedal action, but every once in a while there’s this chord….
L: Right, I really believe it’s still primarily non-pedal playing, but there are these chord changers.
M: Right—I hear a lot of bar movement as opposed to staying in position….
L: Well, I’m just trying to find those notes [laughs]. I honestly really believe that the most interesting pedal steel players—guys like Chalker and Vance—they were damn good non-pedal players first. I think it makes you understand the tuning better and makes you more of an individual.