RSS Feed

A Tribute To JayDee Maness

Posted on Wednesday, May 20, 2009 in Columns

Those of you who’ve been reading my stuff long enough know that I rarely, if ever, do “hype” columns. Having said that this week’s entry is a straight out,  head-over-heels, balls-to-the-wall hype column for which I make absolutely no apologies whatsoever.

The subject of this column is a man by the name of JayDee Maness. Perhaps you’ve never heard of JayDee. Well, I’m not going to go into a big spiel here. Because all that you really need to know about JayDee is that he is the hands-down, undisputed, heavyweight king of an instrument called the pedal steel guitar.

Come to think of it, there are probably a lot of you who don’t even know what a pedal steel guitar is. For reference sake—pedal steel is the instrument that produces that sweet bell-like sound which you’ll find floating above the rest of the band in just about every single country song worth mentioning.

However, to relegate pedal steel strictly to country music is doing it a great disservice, In point of fact, it’s actually been utilized on a good deal of blues, rock and—to a lesser degree—jazz sessions. And for the life of me, I don’t understand why there isn’t a pedal steel guitar in the L.A., or the Boston (name your favorite town) Philharmonic Orchestra. Such is the magnitude of the instrument.

But this isn’t a column about the pedal steel guitar. If you want to find out more about this remarkable instrument get your butts on Google and do some homework. While you’re at it, check out lap steel and dobro as well.

OK, now lemme tell you a little story. After my mom passed away in 2000,  I fell into a major depression. Mentally, I was in about as dark a place as one can be. I’ll never forget the day—I was living in Palm Springs at the time—it was about 5:00 in the evening—the sun was just setting, and I was driving through a long, empty stretch of desert. I flipped on the radio and a song came on by a group named Desert Rose. The song was called “The Story Of Love.” The tune has a decidedly uplifting (Christian) message—but on this day I wasn’t listening to the words. I was listing to the sound of JayDee’s pedal steel playing. It was absolutely ethereal—otherworldly. I don’t know why, but on this particular day, that sound went straight into my heart—my soul. And suddenly, that lack cloud of depression lifted—and sound of the steel guitar took me to a place I’ve only experienced on rare occasions in my life. For lack of more descriptive terminology, I’ll call that place Heaven.

The plain and simple fact is, JayDee’s playing saved my life on that day—because my plan was, when I got home…I was gonna cash in my chips. So, if I seem a little fervent here—now you know why. The man saved my life—no ifs-ands-or-buts about it.

From one standpoint, playing an instrument well—any instrument—is about technique. I could carry on here about JayDee’s technique—the absolute precision of the notes …the chordal voicings he employs… his gorgeous vibrato. But in the end, it’s not about any of that. It’s about that mysterious thing that come from inside the player—transfers itself through his fingers, then through the instrument that he’s playing … and eventually finds its home in your ears (and, if the playing has that magic) into your heart. When the music you’re listening is on that level—there’s a word to describe it. It’s a very appropriate word—soul.

Soul isn’t necessarily relegated to “soul music,” or to the blues. You can hear find it in all forms of music—classical, country, folk, jazz, be-bop, Flamenco, Big Band—you name it.

Now it’s weird, because when you meet JayDee, he’s doesn’t reek of soul, the way a guy like, say, Ray Charles does. You know—he’s not cool. In fact, one of my favorite things about JayDee is that he’s so damn square. From his Elvis hairdo (sans sideburns), to his “awww-shucks” country-boy smile, to his decidedly unhip clothing—he seems like something straight out of the fifties. As for his personality—JayDee is, well—absolutely, one hundred percent “normal” (which is actually “weird” these days). For the record he’s sweet, low-key, soft spoken and humble (also very weird these days).

Now “normalcy” usually means that the person in question doesn’t have a major dose of what we call “vibe.”  And in person, that’s probably true. But just put JayDee behind a pedal steel guitar and you’ll get “vibe” up the yin-yang, brother …’cause this is one soulful cat.

It’s because of this quality that JayDee’s guitar work has been heard on records by countless artists—both in country rock and pop music. I won’t bother to start dropping names. Then again—why the hell not? The list of artists who’ve used JayDee their recording sessions or live gigs include: Anne Murray, Elton John, Bonnie Raitt, Merle Haggard, Ringo Starr, Chris Hillman, Tom Petty, Mel Tillis, Charlie Daniels, Dwight Yoakam, Clint Back, Vince Gill, Waylon Jennings, Marty Robbins, Neil Diamond, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, Sting, Merle Travis, Buck Owens, Roy Clark, Graham Nash, Steve Stills, Earl Scruggs, Charlie Rich, Jose Feliciano, The Byrds, Desert Rose, Mickey Gilley, Hank Williams, Jr. Carlene Carter, Fats Domino and Ray Charles. And I’m just getting started.

Now to be fair, there are a lot of great steel players—guys like Jimmy Day, Hal Rugg, Weldon Myrick, John Hughey and Buddy Emmons. Emmons is a stone cold jazz monster—and to be fair, he might have few more chops than JayDee in that department. But we’re still talking about chops, man. And in the end, it ain’t about chops.

What I want to get across here is that JayDee is not just a guitarist—he’s an artist. He sits right up there in the pantheon alongside Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein, Picasso, Renoir, Dali, Yeats, Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Lenny Bruce,  Billy Wilder, John Ford, Louis Bunel, Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Thealonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis, Yo Yo Ma, B.B. King, Lightin’ Hopkins, Gary Cooper, Charlie Chaplin, Kobe Bryant and Muhammad Ali. He’s a heavyweight—big time.

One of the reasons it might seem difficult to think of a steel guitarist alongside the great artists of the word, is because pedal steel is an instrument that’s been relegated to the background. That’s why people who play the instrument are typically referred to as “sidemen.” There’s no spotlight on the pedal steel player when he goes to take a solo.

When a piece of art effects you—whether you’re standing in awe while gazing the Mona Lisa, experiencing chills going up your spine as Leonard Bernstein conducts a Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, or wiping tears from your eyes after listing to a James Taylor or Paul Simon song—you’ve had a spiritual experience.

Great spirit equals great art.

Now I don’t happen to like the word art. Because the world of art is a prissy, highbrow, holier-than-thou world. It’s a world filled with ass-kissers, bores and snobs. Thus, you might find art critics—a decidedly anal bunch (I know—I used to be one)—raising their eyebrows at the notion of talking about a steel guitarist in the same breath as a great painter.

Well, there’s only one reply to that. Those people are full of shit.

Enough said.

I’ve been lucky enough to know JayDee personally for a good number of years now. Back in the late 70’s, he was a fan of my weekly country column in the Daily News. At that time I was just beginning to pick up pedal steel guitar —an instrument on which I’d make my living (if one could call it that) during a short period of my life.

The very first time the country music bug struck me (I’d absolutely hated it up until then) was when I heard an album by the Byrds called “Sweetheart Of The Rodeo.” I don’t know why, but when I played that LP, all of the other instruments faded into the background, and the only thing I heard was the steel guitar. Shortly thereafter, I went out and bought my first steel—a Fender 2000. To be completely factual, the steel bug had gotten to me much earlier—when I heard “Sleepwalk,” by Santo and Johnny. I was in junior high school at the time and I and I can still remember slow-dancing with Lee Ann Qualls (boy, did I ever have a crush on her!) to that song. Talk about some sweet steel—oh, man!

But back to “Sweetheart Of The Rodeo”—the LP that changed my life forever. JayDee shared the pedal steel duties on that record with Lloyd Green—but it was JayDee’s album all the way. I listened to that record over and over, until I wore out one copy and had to buy another. I spent hours and hours practicing along with it—stealing every single lick I could.

When I found out that JayDee was playing in the house band at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood—just a few miles from my house—I hopped in my car and made a B-line for the famed country nightspot. I was working fulltime for the newspaper at the time—but every night you’d find me down at the Pal. I immediately staked out what would become my regular spot—at the foot of the stage, where I plunked myself down smackdab  under JayDee’s amp. All night long I watched him intently. Frankly it didn’t help all that much, because unlike guitar, with pedal steel, it’s not all that easy to figure out what the player is doing.

One night I got the courage up to talk to JayDee between sets. He’d seemed kind of aloof to me—but I’ll be damned if he wasn’t friendly as all get out. We sat down over coffee, and he was more than willing to fill me in on the ins-and-outs of his style. Later on, I was lucky enough to go over to his house, sit in that big comfortable den of his—and take some private lessons. (I still have them on tape, and I still practice with them).

I hung up my  “professional” pedal steel spurs in the early 80’s. I’d gotten good enough to land gigs and do recording sessions with a number of well-known artists including Tanya Tucker, Doug Kershaw, Linda Ronstadt, John Stewart, Jerry Jeff Walker, Leon Russell, and my favorite Jewboy—Kinky Friedman. I even played one night as a member of the “Tonight Show” Band (I was on the show, backing up Bobby Vinton).

Though I sometimes think, “Damn—I should’ve finished my Master’s Degree and become a doctor”—the fact is, I wouldn’t trade those years on the road as a pedal steel player for anything.

Sorry, I got off track here.

Recently, when after years of people begging him to do so, JayDee made his first instructional tape and book (“Get Inside”), he sent me a copy. He signed the book, “To my old friend, Stuart.” I can’t tell you what it meant to me to have JayDee call me “friend.” And I’m proud to say that it’s a friendship that’s lasted some thirty years. Not that we hang out, or see one another regularly—but whenever we do hook up, it’s as if no time has passed. JayDee is exactly the same cat I met back at the Palomino in 1979.

Thirty years later—sadly—pedal steel has pretty much disappeared from the scene. Aside from Nashville—where it’s still used on lot of country sessions—you’ll rarely see a band with a pedal steel player. Today, the instrument is mostly relegated to jingles, or TV and movie soundtracks.

I asked JayDee about the mysterious disappearance of he steel when we spoke recently, and he was philosophical about it. “Everything happens in cycles,” he said. “It’ll be back again.”

JayDee recently followed up his first instructional book and DVD with a second one (“Further Inside”). Even if you’re not a steel player, I’d recommend getting those tapes, because it’s such a rare occurrence to hear solo pedal steel guitar—especially when it’s played by a master.

At the end of the first tape of “Get Inside”—while the credits area rolling—JayDee plays a completely instrumental version of Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven,” (as far as I’m concerned, it was JayDee’s playing on the original cut that made that song a hit). Every time I listen to that song, it brings tears in my eyes. And I challenge you to listen to it and then tell me that JayDee doesn’t sit alongside the great artists we mentioned earlier.

Whenever I write a column about music, I realize how inadequate words are in trying to describe something is—in fact—it’s own language. The fact is, you can’t really talk about music. I guess that’s why I quit being a music critic.

Having said that, I’d encourage you to experience the instrument called pedal steel guitar. And while you’re at it, check out players of non pedal steel (lap steel, and dobro). Start with Hawaiian music (slack key guitar). Pick up anything by Sol Hopi, Joseph Kekuku or Jerry Byrd. If you want to hear great dobro, check out Jerry Douglas. For straight rock ‘n’ roll slide guitar, listen to David Lindley. And if you want something a bit more “ethnic,” go for Ry Cooder. For Western Swing, listen to Leon  McAuliffe, steel player for Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys.

Like I said, when it comes to pedal steel—there are a lot of great players. But if you’re gonna go for the gusto—why not listen to the best. My recommendation is to go out and get any of the albums (yeah, I still call them albums) by Desert Rose. Chris Hillman might be the front man, and John Jorgenson might play some cool guitar riffs…but for my money, Desert Rose is all about JayDee Maness. His pedal steel playing provides the backbone—the nerve center—of that band.

If six-string guitar can have a God (and it ain’t Eric Clapton)  then so can pedal steel—and JayDee Maness is the God Of The Pedal Steel Guitar. His playing is at once simple, elegant, and gorgeous beyond belief. He can pay so fast and clan it’ll curl your hair. When he’s playing pads (that’s when a player plays “underneath” the rest of the band…more like a keyboard player might do) his paying is so full and rich that he sounds like an entire orchestra. And when he steps up and take a solo—if you aren’t on the floor by the end of it—well then brother, you ain’t got no soul.

I rest my case.

OK—so I’ve done my bit. I wrote my “hype” column. And if I sound like a groupie—hey—I’m PROUD to call myself a JayDee Maness groupie!

JayDee—if you’re reading this and say “Awwww shucks”— well, I’m sorry brother, but you need to know the role you’ve played—not just in my life—but no doubt in thousands of other people’s lives.

For the record—I’ve suffered from manic-depression all my life. It’s a horrible, debilitating illness. There are days when things are so black that I can barely make it out of bed. But my therapist (who’s somewhat of an artist himself), said to me the other day, “I know you’re taking your meds—but you’re forgetting the most powerful medication in the world. I asked him what he meant, and he answered simply—“music.”

Of course, he was right. Music can soothe the savage beast. How or why I don’t know (nor do I care)—but music has the mysterious power to cut though all the bullshit that your mind does to you, and speak straight to your heart.

Since the old Depression Monster has been on my back of late, I’ve been listening to  a lot of music. For some reason, my ears seem to be craving lots of blues and classical music. But when I come down with a real bad case of blues—I’ll put on Desert Rose or “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” and I’m immediately transported to that magical, heavenly world where the demon of depression isn’t allowed to stalk you. And the man behind those sounds—the man whose own heart has traveled through his fingers, then through that crazy instrument (whoever invented pedal steel guitar had to be one weird cat!), and into my soul is named JayDee Maness.

JayDee—you’re the man. And I’m just grateful that the Lord gave you the gift which has spoken to me with such grace and eloquence for these many years.

God Bless you, brother.

©Stuart Goldman

Bring on the comments

  1. […] Tribute To JayDee Maness at Stuart Goldman Stories unknown wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptHowever, to relegate pedal steel […]

Leave a Reply