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The Pedal Steel Guitar Slides Into Jazz

A look at a unique instrument and the artists with a desire to push it forward

Charles Lloyd & the Marvels in 2018 (L to R): Eric Harland, Leisz, Reuben Rogers, Bill Frisell, Lucinda Williams, and Lloyd
Charles Lloyd & the Marvels in 2018 (L to R): Eric Harland, Leisz, Reuben Rogers, Bill Frisell, Lucinda Williams, and Lloyd (Photo: D. Darr)

Tear Down the Walls

Like Leisz, Susan Alcorn started playing the pedal steel in its most familiar environment: country-flavored roots music. Like a lot of baby boomers, she listened to free-form FM radio, which was “what YouTube has become now,” she says. Muddy Waters and the Chicago bluesmen got her interested in slide guitar; Poco and the California country-rock bands got her interested in dobro. The first time she saw a pedal steel guitar played on stage, in a club outside Chicago, she was hooked. She got her own instrument, mastered it, and in 1981 moved to Houston, where there were still plenty of gigs for steel players.

“In country music, unlike jazz,” she explains, “the solos tend to be short and based on the melody. But it’s not as simple as it seems. The steel guitarists in country were expanding their horizons, as any musician will—‘Can I do this?’—but they did it by learning licks. They would sit at home, invent jazzy licks, and string them together. That’s fine if you’re going to improvise for 12 bars, but if you’re in a jazz band that improvises for 96 bars, you’re going to run out of licks. Jazz players and country players live in their own worlds; to be good at either one, you have to live and breathe it.”

At the same time she’d fallen in love with Muddy Waters and Poco, Alcorn had also fallen in love with John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. By the time she’d been in Houston a while, she was spending most of her offstage time listening to free jazz. She remembers driving to a country gig listening to Albert Ayler in the car. When she got to the bar, she played the kickoff to Ray Price’s “The Other Woman.” She got the notes right, but at the intermission, the other musicians said, “There’s something not right about your phrasing tonight.” The walls in her head between jazz and country were breaking down.

“As Duke Ellington said, ‘There are only two kinds of music, good and bad,’” Alcorn says. “Or, as I would say, ‘It’s all vibrations to elicit emotions.’ In that sense, there’s little difference between Maybelle Carter and Albert Ayler. A lot of jazz makes demands on the listener; you have to pay attention and be willing to go places. But all music makes demands. Someone who grew up on a farm in rural Mississippi might hear Umm Kulthum, the Egyptian singer, and think that’s the weirdest thing. Whereas for someone who’s grown up in Cairo, it would seem perfectly normal.”

She joined a jazz band in Houston, but they balked when she wanted to add a Coleman tune to the book. So she turned her attention to solo steel-guitar performances of jazz compositions such as Coltrane’s “Naima” and her own improvisations. She attended a workshop with Houston’s Pauline Oliveros, the postmodern art-music legend, and the two women became friends. Alcorn began touring her solo jazz show to alternative arts spaces around the country. She especially liked the scene in Baltimore and moved there in 2007.

There she was embraced by local jazz musicians such as Michael Formanek, Dave Ballou, and Lafayette Gilchrist—and they provided a link to the New York scene. Soon she was collaborating on recordings with Nate Wooley, Ken Vandermark, Ingrid Laubrock, Eugene Chadbourne, and Joe McPhee. Her solo work could be as wildly squealing as Ayler or as understatedly elegant as her transcriptions of Astor Piazzolla compositions for solo pedal steel on the album Soledad.

“Certain people are restless souls,” she suggests, “and maybe I’m one of them. I have friends who are still playing country music and are happy to do that. They’ve never felt the pressure to do anything else, but I’ve always had that. What fascinates one person leaves another person dry. What fascinated me was avant-garde jazz, far-out classical music, South American folk music, nueva cancion, and Bulgarian choral music.”

Geoffrey Himes

Geoffrey Himes has written about jazz and other genres of music on a regular basis for the Washington Post since 1977 and has also written for JazzTimes, Paste, Rolling Stone, New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, National Public Radio, and others. His book on Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A., was published by Continuum Books in 2005 and he’s currently working on a major book for the Country Music Hall of Fame. He has been honored for Music Feature Writing by the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Awards (2003, 2005, 2014 and 2015), the New Orleans Press Awards, the Abell Foundation Awards and the Music Journalism Awards.