How old were you when you first started playing?
I got my first flat top guitar when I was nine years old, but I didn't start playing steel until I was sixteen. That's when I got my first guitar.
Was that a pedal steel or a lap steel?
Oh no, there wasn't no such thing as a pedal steel back then. It was a lap steel.
When you started playing steel, John, who do you think was probably your biggest influence at that time?
Well, Little Roy Wiggins. I didn't know what a steel guitar was. This was just
before I got my lap steel. The radio was on everyday when we'd come home from school, and we always had the radio on, so I heard it, (I didn't know it was Little Roy Wiggins, or what it was,) I just knew I liked the sound of what was going on back there.
That sounds like me when I first heard Pete Drake.
Yea. Daddy carried us up to the radio station one night and they had this local band there. I saw this guy sitting over in the corner playing a lap steel. Then I knew that this is what I was hearing on the Eddy Arnold program, and found out it was Little Roy Wiggins. I guess you could say he was my first Idol.
What was your first steel guitar and how was it set up? That would be the lap steel that you were talking about.
It was just a little single neck six string. It was a Sherwood Deluxe, with kind of a sunburst finish. I got it at Montgomery Wards, and they had the amplifier and guitar together. I think it was like $85 bucks they paid for it or something like that, and that was it. All I knew was just tune it to a straight E chord, cause I had my little flat top that I'd got when I was nine years old. I put a pencil under the end of it, and tuned it up to E. I used a glass door knob to slide on it.
Out of all the steel guitars you've played right up to date, what would you say would be your favorite?
You know I've only played, actually, two guitars. They built me a ShoBud guitar one time. I played it on one session, one album which was never released. It was cut in Oklahoma, this guy was trying to get a deal, but I was having trouble keeping it in tune. So the Emmons and the JCH were actually, I would say, the two major guitars that I've played. Except for the ones I've built myself. I built guitars before in Memphis, and in fact, if you want to hear one of them, it was on the Next In Line album, by Conway. It was his first number one.
Did you have a name for that steel guitar?
It was just called the Hughey Custom guitar, was all it was.
Well it was too bad you didn't keep building those things, John.
Yea, it was a good guitar, but of course they're obsolete now, you know, because of all the new mechanics and mechanisms.
Would that have been like a push pull style at that time, then?
It was an all pull.
That's interesting. I bet a lotta guys'll be happy to hear about that stuff. Okay, on your current setup, how many pedals and knee levers are you using at this time?
I'm using nine each. Nine knees and nine floors. I used to use ten floor pedals, but there was one sticking out there I never used, so I decided to take that weight off. It's heavy enough by itself.
A lot of guys, you know steel pickers, they hear this certain little lick or trick that somebody has done, it's really neat and they want to find it. Who do you think you learned your first trick from like that?
It was Jerry Byrd. I first heard him, I forgot the name of the tune now, it was probably on the first little album he put out. It had several things on it. Three or four tunes. Any ways, it was the little licks that he did I guess, if you want to call it learning a lick. I didn't know anything about licks at that time, didn't know what a licks was. If you said "Play that lick" I didn't know what you was talking about.
Here's something that might go back a bit. What do you think was the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you during a performance?
Well, I was working with this group Slim Rose, which was my first actual professional job, in Memphis. I guess it wasn't really embarrassing, but it was too, because it happened before a crowd of people. I broke a string, and back then it was before we had pedals or anything, but somehow I broke a G string on the C6th. Now, the guitar player stood to my right, and we were right in the middle of a show. I got up and got a string, and I was twisting it up, and I got it part of the way up, and I started to sit back down. Well, when I started to sit back down, I sit right down on the floor. Our guitar player, when I was putting the string on, reached out and pulled my chair over, and he was propping his foot up on it. He had his volume up on his guitar, and he was practicing a little bit, he'd propped his foot up on my chair. I don't think he did it on purpose or anything, but when I went to sit down, I just sat down hard on that floor. Course, the crowd, you know, they just all busted out laughing. That had to be, I think, the most embarrassing thing.
What do you think was probably the most irritating thing you remember in connection with the steel?
You mean with the instrument itself?
Yea, it could be something like that.
I guess its on the earlier models, keeping them in tune. I guess that would be one of the worst things.
What do you think was probably the most memorable moment?
I'm sure there's probably been a lot of them.
To tell you the truth, I can't think of one that really stands out more than another, cause like you say, there were a lot of memorable times. It could be a lot of them, and I hate to put one above another.
What's your favorite song on steel guitar, by anybody?
There again, it's hard to pick one. I liked everything Buddy Emmons done. Everything he's ever done, I liked it. And I also liked Chalker, cause you know, they're two different styles totally. But each guy, like Weldon, and Paul and Tommy White, and all of these guys, if they play their own thing are great. I can't say this is better, it's not better, it's just different. I'm trying to rack my brain and think back, cause there's so many of them, but it's hard to single out one.
That's a reasonable enough answer, cause I know it's hard to name just one.
It's kind of hard, cause I say one thing, then after you're gone, I'll remember another, and its like, hey, That's the song I was thinking about!
You've done some of your own recordings, of those, which do you think you liked the most?
I don't know. A lot of that stuff was Conway's songs, and I was just doing them cause they were his.
Is there any particular song of Conway's that you really like the steel on?
Not in particular.
Well, I was thinking like Look At Us, with Vince Gill, thousands just love that song. Is there anything like that from the years with Conway?
Well, back then I really like a little Ray Price tune, I think it started out real low and wound up real high. I can't even think of the name of the tune now.
I'm trying to think of the name of it myself.
I guess, at the time we did it, I really liked that, but now that I listen to it, we don't sound so hot.
I know the feeling. I go back sometimes and listen to my old stuff and think, "Did I really play that bad?"
Yea, back then, you thought, Wow this is good, Now that you listen to it, It's like, "That sucks!"
Do you have any set opinions on the equipment available to steel guitarist?
There's not a whole lot of stuff, I think, available to the steel guitarist, it's all built around guitar players, which is great, I'm not knocking them. But, everything is built for guitar players, and there's only a couple, two or three amps, that're good for steel. There's Evans, and Peavey, and ... I said two or three, I can only think of a couple I really like. Course, I'm sure there's some I haven't tried, or don't know about, but those are the two most popular I've used on through the years. There's not really a whole lot available built for the steel guitar.
What's the current setup you use for the road?
My Equipment? I'm using an Evans pre amp, a Stewart power amp, a Lexicon reverb, and an Alesis MidiVerb III, I'm just using it for delay though, cause I like my delay separate from my reverb. That's all I'm using right now. I'm thinking about getting a Lexicon LSP 5, maybe. I've only been using this setup for a couple weeks, but I like it pretty well.
It sounded good during the sound check.
Did it? That's good, it's hard to tell from up here, you know.
Now you've got Evans speaker cabinets. Are you just using the cabinets?
Yea, I've got JBL's loaded into them.
Do you use any different setup for the studio?
I've got the Microverb II, the little bitty half rack thing? The same pre amp and same power amp. But I was using the exact same thing out here on the road, until I just recently changed over. I'm gonna change my studio rack too, as soon as I get back in.
Who would have been the first national star you worked with?
Conway, was the first I worked for. Out of Memphis, Wink Martindale would have been the first I recorded with. He was doing a TV show.
I know you worked with Conway for a long time. What was it like working with him?
I was with him for 20 years and 3 months. I'd say the first twelve to fourteen years were great. And then it kinda changed. It was still okay, but it wasn't like before.
Was it that the music changed?
Yea. I wasn't getting to play, and it was a lot of little things.
Have you produced any of your own steel guitar albums?
No. It's been running around in the back of my mind.
I was gonna ask you if you'd given it any serious thought.
Yea. I'm thinking about doing maybe three albums. I want to do a gospel album, just traditional gospel songs, with a little production in it. Also a country album, and an album of old 20's, 30's, and 40's standard tunes on the C6th. Not jazzy. I'm not a jazz player. Well I like to try to play it sometimes, but I would like to do some of those tunes, with a little production, maybe big band even, or maybe just piano.
Nice basic sound?
Yea, and just play the old tunes, play the melody on steel. I'm really getting serious about it. I haven't actually done anything yet. But I've been thinking about it for a couple of years, and I'm getting closer to doing it.
I hope you're real serious, cause I'd love to get my hands on it.
I'm gonna do it.
What was the greatest highlight you remember?
I would say, getting to play on the Grand Ole Opry stage. When I was growing up, my mother and daddy listened to the Grand Ole Opry, and I wound up getting to play right on the stage, at the old Ryman. I'd say that was one of the highlights. Course there were several others. You are talking about in my musical career?
Yes I am.
Cause my biggest highlight was when my little girl was born, and when I married my wife, the girl I'm still married to.
Yea, I can sure relate to the highlight of the Opry Stage. I did that just one time. Jack Bowles had happened to get me up there one night with Weldon Myrick and I played with Tammy Wynette, and it was just a big thing to me. I was scared to death.
Hal Rugg came and sit down beside of me, breathing down my neck. ( You know they do that to newcomers,) and he says "Milk It." He was whispering to me, "Milk it, milk it", and you know me, I was already nervous.
Do you think today's steel players are concentrating too much on speed, instead of the steel guitar's ability to bend the heart strings?
I think so. I think there's too much emphasis on speed. Don't get me wrong. There are guys out there that just blow my mind. All these guys can play, and it's just great to be able to do that. I wish I could do it. I just don't think you're going to play that on the record unless it's you're own record. Just speaking from the business end of it. It's great to be able to play like that. I love hearing it, I love trying to play it, but I think you should start out trying to get your tone, play the simple things first and develop your speed as you go, instead of learning all the licks you can cram into your brain, and playing them all on every song. Maybe eventually twenty years down the road you start developing a little tone and smoothing yourself out, you know. I think all of that should come first, and then develop your speed as you go. I'm not knocking the guys that do it, it's just that, from my standpoint, I think I would learn the simple stuff first, try to do the toning, smoothing out the notes.
It's a pretty thing to hear. A lot of people like to hear this flashy speed picking, but nothing takes the place of that beautiful crying steel guitar.
Yea! That's right. That's the way I think about it. I may be wrong, but . . .
I know you've been working with Vince for a while now. Have you appeared or are you going to appear on any of Vince's videos?
Well, I've been on, I believe three. Pocket Full of Gold, course you could just see me there. If you were watching you'd get a glimpse of me. I was on the "One More Last Chance". Maybe it was only two of his. I was the guy sitting there playing cards, with a hat on. He kept flipping my hat up.
Has he got any more videos coming up that you might appear on as well?
Not that I know anything about. He hasn't mentioned it, course lots of times he waits till the last minute anyway.
Do you have any other hobbies or interest outside of playing steel guitar?
I love fishing. I got a woodworking shop, and love doing woodwork. And I love gardening. I usually have a vegetable garden.
One thing I feel that we steel guitarist need more than anything else is the strong support mentally and emotionally of our wives or significant other. How do you feel about that?
I do too. My wife supports me five hundred percent. She always has, and I know a lot of women would already been gone, cause there's hard times, money's thin, there's times when you think, "What are we gonna do?" But she's stuck by me through thick and thin, and I admire and appreciate her more than she'll ever know for doing that.
Do you have any feelings about your children following in your footsteps in the music business?
I'm glad mine didn't. I only have on child, my daughter, she's twenty seven. When she was about nine or ten years old, we made her take piano lesson for five years. She got pretty good, and won some little recitals, certificates and awards, and she could play about anything she wanted to play. But she just was not interested in doing it for a living. When she got through taking her lessons, and when we told her she didn't have to take them any more, she quit taking them. But she would go and play for her own amusement. She'd go in and set down and play for a long time. But I'm glad she didn't. Course, if she'd wanted to, I'd have helped her to do her best. But, I'm glad she didn't, cause its a hard road to travel. I've been a very lucky person to have come across the guys and people I have in the business to keep me working all my life. And that doesn't happen too often. You're just lucky when that happens.
If you had to go back in time and start your career over again, is there any single thing you'd go back and do differently, or perhaps not do at all?
If I did anything, I'd probably go to college, and get a college education. I guess I really wouldn't want to change anything else.
Okay, last question, John. Kind of a strange one. Is there anything you've wanted to do on stage, but just haven't done yet?
On stage? I don't think so. I don't think I'd even want to be a star out front. It would be nice, but it was never my bag to be out front. I just want to play.
I'd like to thank John for taking the time from his busy schedule to do this interview. I wish him the best of luck, and look forward to meeting with him again in the near future.
To be continued . . .