The most important institution for perhaps the most important instrument in modern country music is on Midland Avenue in Overland. It's a surprising fact, but only if one forgets that St. Louis once had a thriving country-music culture. DeWitt Scott Sr. remembers.
"You could go down to Vandeventer and Olive, and in a two-block area, you could hit 10 clubs," he says, "all country bars. If one had a full crowd, it wasn't uncommon for a neighboring club to send some goons over to start a fight so that everyone would leave and go to their club!" Scott (or Scotty, as he's known) played steel guitar in those joints. He's now in the Country Music Hall of Fame, president of the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame, author of more than 40 music courses and owner of the most respected -- and, likely, the largest -- steel-guitar store in the world.
"I was teaching 105 students out of my basement," Scotty says. "Many of them would want instruments, so one thing led to another. In 1963, I moved the family next door, and we opened the store in what used to be my house. And for one year we were the largest dealer, in the country, for Gibson guitars, the whole line. In 1966, the city of Overland said, 'Hey, you don't have a license.' That made Scotty's official."
Scotty leans down under his desk, where every late night he takes mail-order requests from Europe and Japan. The office is crammed with computer and audio gear, tapes and videos of steel players, awards and thank-you letters or photos from country stars like Roy Clark and Buddy Emmons. He pulls out a framed newspaper clipping from 1948, when Scotty played on the Hank Williams show in Oklahoma City: "To think that 50 years later, those players onstage with me, Don Helms and Billy Robinson, that they'd be in the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame!"
If guitar players obsess over their instruments, steel players make vows to theirs. "I started out playing trombone, even played second-chair trombone in the Oklahoma University Symphony, hating every minute of it," Scotty says. "One day I heard a song on the radio, 'Drowsy Waters,' and it turned out to be by steel guitarist Jerry Byrd. I told my mom I'd wash dishes for two months if she'd buy me a steel guitar. She couldn't get away from it after that. Now it's the love of my life. Even my wife plays second fiddle to the steel."
By most accounts, the steel guitar is Hawaiian in origin and was first popularized in the U.S. around the time of World War I, mutating into the boxy lap steel, the Dobro and, finally, the pedal steel. "The earliest pedal steels were used in the '30s and '40s," Scotty says, "mostly to change tunings: from an E7 to an A6, for example. Then Red Foley released 'Slowly,' with Bud Isaacs playing that slur up and down, and that revolutionized it overnight. Everybody wanted to know how he did it."
Scotty's instructional books helped break that code. "Mine was the first book on the Nashville tuning, E9 chromatic," he says with pride, partly because no one in Nashville believed he could do it; the sound and the intricacies of the instrument were still esoteric, still mysterious. Scotty has demystified the moaning, whirring, swooping, spiraling mathematical density of the steel guitar. But he still knows what counts.
"You've got to play from the hands and heart -- play yourself, what you feel. You get tired of copying after a while. When you play, you're actually talking to people. You have to give them the feeling behind what you're trying to say."
Like few other instruments, that sit-down guitar, played with a metal slab in one hand and metal claws on the other, unravels the core of feeling in music and comes uncannily close to the flesh-and-blood nuances of the human voice. If you'd like to see and hear the living masters of that sound cut loose, then you're in luck: The 29th Annual International Steel Guitar Convention is in town.
Scotty, of course, started the convention, in 1971. It's grown to four days of talent searches, award ceremonies, workshops, guitar shows and concerts featuring (among many others) absolute geniuses like Paul Franklin, Lloyd Green, Billy Robinson, Herb Remington, Ralph Mooney, Doug Jernigan, Hal Rugg and Tom Brumley.
Brumley, who performs Saturday afternoon, was born and raised in Powell, Mo., just outside Branson. He's played on more classic country records than he can remember. Has your heart ever been broken by the country music of Buck Owens, Dwight Yoakam, Rosie Flores, Sara Evans or even Robbie Fulks? That's likely Brumley's pedal or lap steel weeping along with you.
"If it hadn't have been for Buck, I probably would have ended up doing something else," Brumley says. "I had stopped playing after spending some years in LA. You have your ideas of what the music business is like, but you don't know till you get into the middle of it. I went back home to build houses with my father, but I never got the thoughts of playing out of my mind. I guess you've got to dream really hard to make something like playing with Buck come true. Right around December '63, Buck called me. Some people say there were 18 No. 1 singles; some say 26. I do know that every single we released went No. 1.
"I don't know where the music business is going right now," he continues. "I'm not getting the inspiration from the newer records that I used to. The musicians are great, the sound is great, but there just doesn't seem to be much creativity. A record don't have to be perfect to be a hit. It's OK to have some noises here and there, as long as it's got that feeling. You listen to the radio and you hear the same players all day long, and they're bored with it, even though they're great musicians, but it seems the creativity has been taken away from them. Lloyd Green told me about the last session he had before he took disability. They told him, 'Now, Lloyd, don't try to be creative, just play something and get out of there.'"
Some pedal-steel players, like Brumley, develop long relationships with their bands. Others head to Nashville, take the gigs as they come and make the most of it. For nearly 40 years, Hal Rugg has been doing just that. His musical history includes work with Porter Wagoner, Sammi Smith, Ray Price, k.d. lang, Loretta Lynn, Sammy Kershaw, even Joan Baez and Burl Ives. His first break in Nashville came with George Jones, in 1962. "Sometimes he was squirrelly; sometimes he was straight," Rugg says of Jones. "It was just like working for any other guy. Before we went into the studio to record that Best of George Jones album, he came to me and said, 'I've got this instrumental, but I need your help with it, and I'll give you half.' That was a tune called 'Jonesy.' Then I wrote that other instrumental called 'Country Rug.'"
Like Hal Rugg, Doug Jernigan has plenty of classic country sessions -- including some licks on the soundtrack to Nashville -- under his belt, but his most notable work has led the pedal steel out of pure country music. He was a central part of Vassar Clements' Hillbilly Jazz recordings and has also recorded with Stephane Grappelli.
"I started when I was 9 years old in Pensacola, Fla.," Jernigan says. "My daddy enthused me to play. We listened to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio, and we listened real close to the steel players. He came home one day with a lap steel. We found some old picks, a bar and a pawnshop amp. When I was 12, he bought me a Fender double-neck 1000 with eight pedals. I was too young to play the bars, but I played the American Legion halls, square dances and naval bases. When I got out of the Army in '67, I got a gig with David Houston's band in Nashville. Then I played with Jimmy Dickens and with Faron Young for about a year, and then Johnny Paycheck. I was still classified as a road player, so I didn't do a lot of session work. Like a lot of young players, I overplayed; I wasn't really ready for the studio."
Jernigan developed a lightning single-string attack on the steel guitar and drew on his experiences at dances, adapting old fiddle tunes like "Orange Blossom Special" and "Old Joe Clark" to his instrument. With Clements in the '70s, his playing broke free. "Vassar wanted you to play," he says. "He'd let you play whatever you wanted on either neck of the guitar, go as far out as you wanted to go. There were no limits to what you could play with Vassar."
For the maestros who will bring their Zunis, Sho-buds, Dobros and Nationals to St. Louis this weekend, the story is the same. "The sounds of the steel guitar are limited only by the guy sitting behind it," Scotty says. "It's capable of everything."