Buddy Cages ride with the pedal steel
CARBONDALE The pedal steel guitar, a staple of the country music sound, is a staggeringly complex instrument. Although the numbers vary from instrument to instrument, the pedal steel generally features two necks, 12 to 20 strings, 10 foot pedals and 13 knee levers, which are used to alter the pitch. The strings are typically plucked with finger picks on one hand, while the other hand is occupied with maneuvering a slide across the strings. It is one of the most versatile instruments in popular music, and is often said to be the most difficult to master.So many people have tried it and said, What the f–k? said Buddy Cage, a master of the instrument. You sound like a 4-year-old kid learning to play Bach. Noting the number of strings and pedals, Cage added, It gets exponentially complex. And when I say exponentially, Im not kidding. It gets into that territory.Rarely does a musician dabble in the pedal steel. So when a guitarist and former banjoist named Jerry Garcia not only tried his hand at it, but also helped form a high-profile band, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, around the instrument, it sent at least one more accomplished pedal steel player reeling.Jerry wasnt doing anything that turned my head, said Cage, who, when he heard Garcia try his hand at the pedal steel, had put in more than a decade learning the instrument. Yeah, I could blow them all off the stage with my pants tied.Garcia had founded, with singer-songwriter John Marmaduke Dawson, the New Riders to satiate his enormous capacity for music-making. Formed in 1969, the New Riders featured two additional members of the Grateful Dead, bassist Phil Lesh and drummer Mickey Hart, and the band regularly played its psychedelicized take on country-rock as the opening act for the Dead. But after a year or so, other demands overwhelmed the trio of Lesh, Hart and Garcia, and the part-timers gave way to a new lineup of New Riders. Garcia hand-picked Cage to be his successor.Garcia said, There the ringer. Theres the guy you need, said Cage, who was, in turn, knocked out by Garcias guitar work in the Dead.Cage was happy to take the reins. Though he wasnt floored by the bands playing to be fair, Lesh and Hart were in over their heads playing country-rock he saw the possibilities. The lead guitarist, David Nelson, who had played in folk/bluegrass groups with Garcia in the early 60s, was an impressive instrumentalist. And Dawson was emerging as a unique and interesting songwriter, mixing traditional folk themes with tales of the hippie experience, especially adventures with drugs.Dawson had written all these exquisite tunes, said Cage. Hed written them in an attempt to copy all these country songs, people like Buck Owens, that was the new thing that was coming. His stuff, though, came out of his imagination, truly fragile and beautiful.With Dawson writing and singing, Nelson playing electric guitar, and Cage doing virtuosic, groundbreaking work on the pedal steel, the New Riders rounded out with bassist Dave Torbert and former Jefferson Airplane drummer Spencer Dryden finally became a proper band, and recorded a self-titled debut album in 1971. Two years later, they hit paydirt with The Adventures of Panama Red. Packed with drug references, and featuring inspired takes on two songs by bluegrass musician Peter Rowan Panama Red and Lonesome L.A. Cowboy the album went gold.Through much of the 70s, the New Riders were as busy as a band gets, averaging more than one album a year and touring often. Aspen played a prominent part in their schedule: After recording an album of new material, theyd come here for a week or so of gigs at the Gallery, a nightspot at the base of Aspen Mountain, and figure out how to turn the studio songs into live versions.The New Riders also helped put Cage himself on the map. One time in the mid-70s, the band was leaving a studio session in Cages hometown of Sausalito, Calif., when Cage was drawn aside by a record company executive working for Bob Dylan. Cage was notified that his services were requested in a New York studio to play on Dylans next album. The work would turn out to be Dylans forlorn masterpiece, Blood on the Tracks, and while Cage scoffs at the idea that it was a comeback for Dylan he maintains that Dylan even in a creative lull was a phenomenal talent it was hailed as a peak of Dylans career.
Buddy Cage was surrounded by music as a kid; his parents radio was on constantly, dialed into Benny Goodman, Bing Crosby and Gershwin. In 1956, though, a new sound came over the air, and Cage, 10 years old at the time, knew this music would stir things up.When I first heard Presley, it was a scorcher, he said by phone from the Pocono Mountains, in Pennsylvania. My older cousin and my dad and I were sitting in the machine shop when I heard Dont Be Cruel, and I said, Well, life is about to get different. And a whole lot better. I saw the future. Id liked music, but this really got into me.Not all things got better immediately. When little Buddy was 11, his parents got him lessons on Hawaiian slide guitar, to keep him out of trouble. Cage was highly motivated to learn to play expertly; he noticed that the girls in the class paid particular attention to whoever absorbed the lessons best. But he also discovered that there were better means to keeping the girls interest than the Hawaiian guitar.You discover youre only playing Hawaiian music, from the 40s, said Cage. And that didnt scratch me at all.Cage tried Presleys instrument, but found his preteen hands too small to properly play the good ol six-string guitar. So he made his way to the pedal steel, a descendant of the Hawaiian slide guitar.There were two challenges with the pedal steel. One was that the instrument was damn hard. Theres all these techniques right hand, left hand; then the foot pedals; then knee levers added to that, said Cage. You look at the pedal steel players for the country stars theyre so busy. They look like theyre setting type for The New York Times.The other hurdle was that Cage had no stomach for country music. Johnny Cash that just irritated me, he said. But thats where the licks were. You had to listen to Ernest Tubbs band, or Ray Prices band, or George Jones band, because they were the only playing the licks that killed me. I wanted to play Presley. I was a punk with manners all dressed up with no place to go.But the San Francisco Bay area in the 60s was an ideal place for someone on the hunt for new ideas. I ran into other people in that new mindset. And they used me, said Cage. Theyd say, Can you play that sort of thing in raga music? Id say, Does it pay? OK! And I just played to serve the song, whatever minimal things would help the song.Cage found his way into singer Ronnie Hawkins band, which had a standing gig at Hawkins own club in Toronto. From there, he made his way into the Canadian folk group Ian and Sylvia, and the duos subsequent country-rock project, the Great Speckled Bird. As part of the Great Speckled Bird, Cage boarded the 1970 Festival Express, a rock circus that trekked across Canada by train. Among Cages fellow travelers were Janis Joplin, the Band, Buddy Guy, and the Grateful Dead.
Cages main gig until 1982 was with the New Riders of the Purple Sage. But with country-rock being pushed to the side, drugs taking their toll on the band, Cage included, and with the New Riders sound and image being so tied to the early 70s, their fortunes sank. Cage left, Nelson left, and Dawson stumbled along with replacement players. Weirdly, and horribly enough, they went out for 15 years, Cage said of that New Riders lineup. It wasnt all that neat.Cage took to playing pick-up gigs, session work and regularly turning down invitations to rejoin the New Riders. For 10 years, he played with a country-ish jam band called Stir Fried. On tour with the band in Ohio a couple of years ago, Cage ran into former Grateful Dead producer Bob Matthews, who was anxious to see the New Riders back in the saddle. Cage made a deal with Matthews: If Nelson could be persuaded to do a few dates, then Cage was in too. Matthews knew that Nelson was an easy mark; several members of Nelsons band had recently left to join Phil Leshs Phil & Friends, leaving Nelson without a group.The New Riders, with Hot Tuna guitarist Michael Falzarano, bassist Ronnie Penque and drummer Johnny Markowski joining Cage and Nelson, played a short run of East Coast dates in 2005. After it was all over, we were all smiling. It was too neat, playing those old tunes, said Cage, who has been sober for 19 years and lives in New Yorks East Village, his on-and-off home for the last 15 years.The newest version of the New Riders havent stopped; their latest tour brings them to a free show on Sunday, July 20, at 6:30 p.m. in Carbondales Sopris Park. They have added new songs to the old ones, including a handful that Nelson co-wrote with Robert Hunter, famed as the Grateful Deads primary lyricist.In addition to being one of the greats of the pedal steel, Cage also is a historian. He traces the instrument back to the orchestral harp, a distant relative. A key moment came in the 50s, when a Grand Ole Opry player named Bud Isaacs adapted banjoist Earl Scruggs technique for altering the pitch of a note after the string was plucked, leading to the signature pedal steel sound. I swear to God, heartaching, country-loving truck drivers were pulling off the side of the road, saying, What the f–k was that? It changed country music completely, said Cage. By the 60s, the pedal steel was the lifeblood of country music.Cage, who readily offers uncompromising opinions on most every topic, stopped short of calling the pedal steel the most difficult of instruments.I dont know. Have you ever spoken to any French horn players? he firstname.lastname@example.org
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