Matt Glaser, Artistic Director of Berklee’s American Roots Program, reports from the 40th International Pedal Steel Guitar Convention in St. Louis earlier this month, which he attended with fellow faculty members Mike Ihde and Norm Zocher.
Ever since the 1970s, when I was a young professional musician in New York City, I have heard about and longed to attend the annual pedal steel guitar convention that takes place in St. Louis, MO. Well, this year, I finally got my chance. Along with Berklee’s steel guitar masters, Mike Ihde and Norm Zocher, I made my way to Scotty’s 40th Annual International Pedal Steel Guitar Convention in St Louis.
The pedal steel guitar is one of the most complex musical instruments ever to emerge from the mind of man. It started way back as a simple guitar played with a metal slide, then evolved into the lap steel, and finally into the two-necked monstrosity (with a bizarre range of tunings and pedals) that is both the most characteristic sound in classic country music as well as a fertile field for jazz-oriented mad scientists.
This year’s convention attracted 5,000 attendees, offered three days of programming, and featured some of the greatest living masters of this obscure instrument—such as Doug Jernigan and Herby Wallace. For me it was a chance to just soak in the sound of the instrument that I’ve loved for so many years, in addition to representing Berklee’s new American Roots Music Program and supporting my colleagues.
Mike and Norm did not disappoint, bringing the Berklee banner to this convention in the form of music rarely, if ever, heard on the pedal steel guitar—standards like “Take the A Train” and “Have You Met Ms. Jones,” as well as an inspired choice of “Quiet Nights and Quiet Stars” by Antonio Carlos Jobim. (When Mike was practicing his tune, I asked him how to say “Yeehaw” in Portuguese – but, speaking a little Portuguese myself, I actually know: it’s “Hopa!”)
If you listen to all sorts of country music, you’ll hear the yearning sound of the pedal steel, with its potential for polyphony and lyricism. The pedal steel guitar is also related to my own instrument, the violin, in that it’s very difficult to play in tune, and the mark of the master is truly fine intonation. You realize how dangerous it is as an instrument when you hear it played out of tune, which, alas, I also had the opportunity to do during the weekend! But, to be fair to the practitioners of this craft, playing in-tune is so challenging because the player must manage tricky real-time harmonic improvisation by sliding up to each note in a given chord, and then trying to resolve the notes in the chord on the fly.
One thing that saddened me at the convention was the relatively advanced age of the average attendee and practitioner. This is clearly an art form that is not being repopulated by young people at the rate necessary to sustain it. There are young people playing the pedal steel, but I would hope that larger numbers of them rise to the challenge of this complex and gratifying instrument!