Hello, friends. I’m Matt Allwright.
I work on television and radio as a reporter and presenter, but for many years I’ve been hiding a terrible, terrible secret. Deep in my heart I have, since I was a child, harboured a profound and abiding love for country music.
I’ve played the guitar badly in bands since I was 13 years old. I’ve played punk, funk, indie, rock and metal. I’ve played at weddings, festivals, pubs, clubs, tea parties and school fetes. I don’t really care where or with whom I play, as long as I can play. I’m not even sure I’ve ever got any better during the intervening 33 years, but then, there’s always going to be someone else who’s better than you, so maybe that isn’t the point. All that time I really wanted to play country. I like the way it gets into your guts. I like the way the sounds can be in the room with you. I like the way it doesn’t have to dress itself up, but sounds torn and frayed when it’s at its very best. I don’t always like the way people react to country, often citing the well-worn ‘both kinds of music’ joke, without realising that Country and Western really are two distinct and different genres (I’ve learnt to stop pointing that out, too) , but then that’s really their lookout. I now wear my obsession like a badge. Sooner or later, everyone’s country time comes. I just got lucky.
During all this time there has been one sound in my head that won’t go away. It’s the sound of the steel guitar. Specifically, I can’t get rid of the sound of the pedal steel guitar, which if you’ve never seen one, is a bit like a musical Zimmer frame with brake, clutch and accelerator. I’ve loved it since I first heard it and wondered how on earth you could make the notes go in different directions at the same time. Without every having seen one, I at first assumed that it was a number of guitars, carefully recorded over each other. The notes slip and slide alongside each other in a logic-defying way that you can’t achieve on any other single instrument, no matter how hard you try. There is no substitute. They merge and emerge and die and surge like a choir with perfectly tubular voices. Well played, it’s a thing of transcendent joy. Here’s British Steel Legend BJ Cole explaining it much better than I ever will, and then showing how it’s done in the most staggeringly beautiful way.
Lovely innit? What you can’t see is how hard BJ is working under the surface. Like the proverbial swan, his feet and knees are going like the clappers to activate the pedals and levers required to achieve the magic. There may somewhere be another instrument that requires all four limbs and both knees to work it, but I can’t think of one. Of course, I’d like to play the pedal steel guitar, but as you may have guessed by now, IT IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT and I’ve left it quite late. I also don’t have one in my possession. I have a wall full of guitars which I’m playing with decreasing frequency as I’m not currently in a band, being a bit fed up with the godawful racket and difficulties organising a herd of cats, and the regular occurance of drunk people stealing my harmonicas.
I’m not the most obvious steel player. The great names everyone associates with innovating the instrument tend to come from the southern states of the USA in the 30’s and 40s, steeped in the sounds of freight trains and freeways that they were trying to emulate on their brand new and developing instrument. I grew up in Reading in the 1970s and 1980s, buying scratchy unloved Boxcar Willie and Slim Whitman albums from boot sales, while my friends were into Ultravox and The Cure. I was an indie kid too, loving The Smiths and The Woodentops, but the country obsession sat behind it all, well hidden in case it earned me yet another wedgie and another ‘Yeehaw’. Bizarrely, though, the first time I can really remember hearing pedal steel and identifying it as a separate instrument was on an indie track. It comes in about half way through this diminutive album-ender by Felt. The first time I heard it, my mind was blown.
A perfect coming together. My country sound popping up on one of my favourite indie band’s albums. My mind has been blowing ever since. There’s no artist listing, so I don’t know who was playing that beautiful outburst. I’d love to know. Then I could thank them for opening my eyes and ears.
Anyway, the long and short of it is that I now search for Pedal Steel tracks wherever I can find them. I have been fantasising about playing the thing, at any level at all, for all this time, and I have decided that I don’t want to fantasise any more.
I want to do this thing. I think my pedal steel time might be coming. I feel it. Please join me.