Music Row's A Team
Music row musicians discuss their days as members of the fabled “A Team,” describe the mechanics of the pedal steel guitar, and perform excerpts from some of their biggest hits – including one or two surprises.
- Well when you get to play a recording session
you really, they just, sometimes will say
well bring a banjo.
Uh, bring a gut string guitar.
Bring your tic tac, bring this or that.
And that's it.
And you walk in, and then you can either do it
or you can't.
You play the song and we write down the chords,
and then that gives us a framework.
That's our foundation of the house.
And then we start playing,
and then we build the rest of the house.
- They were able to keep it fresh
even if they were giving you the same thing
that you wanted from your last record.
You know, I want that same style
because I'll want to sound,
I want my style to come through.
They were able to do that but also,
give you freshness and a new lick
every once and a while, that you weren't expecting.
- Listen to the lyric and let your licks
and feel determine what you play.
You learn to play in between the lines, the singer.
The singer is the main thing and you know,
I just always considered the musicians as support.
- Some times they don't know what's there
in their fingers until they do it.
Until they're asked to do it.
Until they're allowed to do it.
- Kinda the amazing thing is that most of the A team,
I was probably the only guy, and Buddy Harman
the drummer, that could read music.
All those other guys are what I call back porch pickers.
In other words, they learned to play
just sitting on the porch or by playing.
- By not having to read arrangements,
which we could do, we had to get the feel
of the song, and if it's a quiet place
we might "ohh" or do a single unison line.
And when you build into the bridge "ahh ahh ahh"
sometimes we'd sing words, sometimes we wouldn't.
But it went according to the message in the song
and the feel of the song overall.
So, as the artist goes, so went the Jordanaires.
- The week for me was 15 to 20 sessions a week.
Which was three hour sessions.
They start at 10am, with a break for lunch.
2pm session to 5, and break for dinner.
And 6pm session to 9, break 10pm to 1am.
That was the four session and that
was a typical week, a day for us.
The top session players of the era.
And that doesn't mean we were in the
same studio either.
I might be in four different studios for
four different sessions.
- You know, I was a guitar player.
I was pretty comfortable with keyboard, you know,
because of Chet's suggestion
I learned to play vibraphones.
I was on a session with him once and he said
"I don't hear harmonica on this.
Why don't you go out there and
play a couple notes on the vibes."
And I said, Chet I don't play vibes.
He said "You can do it. Go on out there."
So I went out there and I, two vibe sticks.
And I said, man this is fun.
So I got serious about it and I learned to play.
I play a little sax a little trumpet
Trumpet on 'Rainy Day Women #12 & 35' by Bob Dylan.
Baritone sax on 'Pretty Woman', Roy Orbison.
The tuning guitar on 'Detroit City', Bobby Bare.
Of course I played bass on three Dylan albums
and on Jeannie Seely 'Don't Touch Me'.
On Charlie Rich 'Mohair Sam'.
Played organ on 'Easy Loving' Freddie Hart.
Played vibes and bells on 'Blue Velvet' Bobby Vinton.
But more harmonica than anything else.
- Pedal steel is capable of so much variety
that I think other instruments are limited by,
just because they're less complex.
They don't have all the mathematical
stuff involved with pedals, the change pitch.
Only guitars or, you playing a harmonica.
m akes magic with his harmonica
but he's still limited to that little harmonica.
- No, I don't play pedal steel,
I like to sleep at night.
Have you ever looked at the bottom
of one of those things?
- This one has ten strings on the top
and various knee levers and floor pedals.
But it's played, instead of like a guitar with fingers,
you use a metal bar in the left hand and
two metal picks and a plastic pick.
- Looks like a mad scientist worked on it.
- Then you get into the floor pedals
which are pretty much basic
for the E-9th commercial tuning,
which is heard on most records.
It's these three pedals here.
- Get somebody, if you ever get a chance,
get them to turn their steel guitar over
and look at the bottom of it.
You'll be amazed.
- Then you get into the complicated part of knee levers.
Which are under the guitar.
Anyway I just raise the first string
a half tone with a pitch.
With is from F sharp to G.
And then my left knee, going right,
I raise my two E strings to F.
So, you got things going every direction.
Then the right knee I'm lowering
the second string a half tone.
With a stop and a tune in it
I got another half tone on the same knee lever.
So I can go a half or a whole tone.
Then the right knee I'm only lowering
the 8th string a half tone.
(guitar strings play)
And from that you got all the mathematical
potential that's in the universe.
- Who came up with this?
Ya know, it's like an engineer,
some engineer from outer space or something.
(energetic steel guitar plays)
- Then the ending was,
(plays enchanting steel guitar)
And that's sort of the way we did those things.
- Well when I was called to play on
'Orange Blossom Special' with Jonny Cash
and it was, always been a fiddle tune
and I was trying to figure out how to
kinda get the same mood that the fiddle does.
And on the chorus part the fiddle always
goes into that recognizable train little thing.
So I decided to try to replicate the
(upbeat harmonica plays)
Kinda like that.
And that's when I, at the end of the session
Johnny Cash asked me how I did it
and I showed it and
I gave him those two harmonicas.
But here's a little quick sample of
(fast-paced harmonica plays)
Somebody asked me, did I have a very favorite song.
I've recorded 38 solo albums and
"Do you have a favorite song out of solo albums?"
I said, believe it or not, I do.
(somber harmonica plays)
- [Interviewer] Which is?
Oh and just for the heck of it, one more.
(bluesy harmonica plays)