It’s the source of the mournful whine that surges up behind the racked sob of your favorite country balladeer. It’s the sound of rock-bottom loneliness, of heart-stabbing isolation — the soundtrack of ecstatic self-pity: the pedal steel guitar.
Originally a regular acoustic guitar with a steel body, it was modified into the pedal steel in the ’40s: The player sits behind a narrow, stringed box that looks a little like something you’d put long-stemmed roses in. Chords are made by pressing down on the strings, usually with a steel bar; knee levers and foot pedals change the strings’ pitch. The result, if the player is incredibly well coordinated: a keening swell of sound perfect for country’s fulsome sentiments.
”It has that high, lonesome desert sound that either puts you in heaven or drives you up the wall,” says Steve Fishell, who should know: The 38-year-old musician has been playing heavenly pedal steel for 20 years, behind acts like Emmylou Harris and Reba McEntire. ”Pedal steel, when it’s introduced into a song the right way, becomes the musical glue that holds together all the emotions in a song,” says Fishell. He cites Buddy Emmons (who has pushed his pedals for acts from Ernest Tubb to Judy Collins) and Jimmy Day (who played behind Ray Price, Willie Nelson, and Webb Pierce) as among the greatest players — ”very subtle; (they) never laid it on too thick.”
Fishell is well aware of the pedal steel’s rocky history. ”In the ’60s, Nashville tried to make country records more pop. They took the pedal steel and fiddles out of records, trying to make them more appealing to big-city radio listeners.”
Then, just as pedal steel was making a small comeback in the late ’70s, Fishell says, ”Nashville discovered the synthesizer, and that replaced a lot of keyboard instruments for a while, including the pedal steel.” But now, ”you can’t turn on a country radio station without hearing a pedal steel,” he says. ”When someone like Garth Brooks puts it all over his music, you know it’s a boom time for pedal steel.”