As the sound of country music has shifted, the emotive whir of its classic instrument has often been sidelined. The complicated antique has found new life in surprising forms.
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When DaShawn Hickman was 4 years old, living just 32 steps from the tiny granite House of God church in Mount Airy, N.C., he picked up a lap steel his uncle had built for his mother. Stretching the electric guitar across his tiny knees for the first time, using a D-cell battery as his slide, he traced the hymns his mother sang.
Hickman soon graduated to the pedal steel, the lap steel’s byzantine successor, with as many as 24 strings controlled not only with two hands but also with both feet and knees. A quick study, Hickman was 13 when he began leading services at House of God with his steel/strings, the centerpiece of a century-old style of Black gospel called Sacred Steel.
“This instrument is a ministry, a tool to help someone overcome,” Hickman, now 40, said by phone from Mount Airy. “Where the human voice can’t fully reach, the pedal steel can.”
In June, Hickman released “Drums, Roots & Steel.” More restrained than many of its Sacred Steel predecessors, his solo debut is a showcase for the instrument’s emotional breadth, equally capable of prayers for the wounded and paeans for the joyous.
It is one of several recent recordings that suggest that the pedal steel — familiar mostly for the lachrymal textures it has long lent to country music — is finding renewal in unexpected places. As the sound of slick modern country shifts from this large and esoteric accessory, ambient and experimental musicians have tapped it for much the same reason as Hickman’s Sacred Steel lineage: its ability to harness and even rival the expressiveness of the voice itself.
“Since its existence, you had to learn how to play one way to get a backing role in some country band,” said Robert Randolph, the son of a New Jersey House of God deacon and minister who came to prominence more than two decades ago when he dared to take his 13-string purple behemoth out of the church. He was soon opening for the Dave Matthews Band at Madison Square Garden. “So it’s an instrument that’s never been fully explored.”
With his boisterous Family Band, Randolph expanded Sacred Steel’s reach by turbocharging its sound, strings screaming for three hours over soulful marches and Allman-sized jams. His sound and style have since mellowed, and he has collaborated with Carlos Santana and Ozzy Osbourne. “Guitar, trumpet, piano, keyboard — they’ve all had nine million babies,” he continued. “But the pedal steel is so new to so many people they don’t even know what it is. There are so many ways to evolve this instrument.”
That evolution is accelerating: The modern steel icon Greg Leisz played on half of Daft Punk’s final album, while the funk band Vulfpeck recently commissioned the Los Angeles whiz Rich Hinman to interpret a Bach chorale. The Texan Will Van Horn went viral in 2016 for covering Aphex Twin with pedal steel, while Dave Harrington, half of the haute electronic duo Darkside, used it as his compositional tool for Alanis Morissette’s recent meditation album. A new fleet of stirring steel players has emerged, and an 11th volume of the long-running guitar compilation “Imaginational Anthem,” out Friday, offers a snapshot of the evocative instrument’s intrigue.
“One reason it has taken so long to grow out of the genre it’s been pigeonholed in is because it’s so technically complex, and that complexity has kept a lot of people in the country world,” said Luke Schneider, the Nashville player who curated the new collection, by phone. He detailed how the knees push levers that bend strings, how the feet trigger pedals that stretch them, how the hands work in constant harmony. “It might be the most difficult instrument in the Western world to learn,” he concluded.
Schneider, 42, once thought he might have to stay in the country world, too. A longtime devotee of ambient music who knew of other Nashville players flirting with experimental sounds, he instead backed the singer-songwriter Margo Price in her early country years and later joined the masked musician Orville Peck’s band. Nashville sounds, Nashville paychecks.
But he then encountered Susan Alcorn, one of the instrument’s rare iconoclasts alongside the tinkerer Chas Smith and the famed producer Daniel Lanois. Her 2006 album, “And I Await the Resurrection of the Pedal Steel Guitar,” felt like a pioneer’s sketchbook of exotic places a young player might take the antique. Schneider followed her lead, trying to use the pedal steel’s stature to his advantage.
“You’re literally playing this instrument with your whole body. You have to conjure your feelings, then connect them to your toes, your knees, your fingers, your eyes, and your ears,” Schneider said. “All of that combined can express the voice of a musician in a way few other instruments can.”
Schneider recorded his solo debut, “Altar of Harmony,” which arrived early in 2020 lockdown, using only pedal steel, shaping sighing strings into hypnotic drones. “By its very nature, the sound the instrument produces is ethereal, so it’s calming for the player and listener,” he said. “That still comes through at the edges of modern music.”
Likewise, before he began collaborating with Morissette during the pandemic, Harrington discovered a postmodern poignancy inside the pedal steel’s mechanics. For years, he’d played a solo guitar rendition of “Pure Imagination” from “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” often as a soundcheck warm-up. When he added steel, he spotted the song’s bittersweet heart and cut it as an album finale.
“It unlocked a little trap door into the feeling of one of my favorite songs of all time, like the camera had been turned 45 degrees,” Harrington, 36, said via video chat. “It’s a happy song that’s just so sad.”
Despite the pedal steel’s manual demands, this rush of applications and ideas is a result, in many ways, of digital accessibility. The Danish guitarist Maggie Björklund, 57, stowed her pedal steel in a closet for two years when she first tried to learn around 2000 because its mechanics proved too difficult and she knew maybe three men in Denmark who played it. She ultimately flew to Nashville to study with Jeff Newman, a beloved instructor who informed her she’d been doing it all wrong.
“I thought I knew a little bit about pedal steel, but he said, ‘You sound like a German hausfrau,’” she recalled by phone from north of Copenhagen, laughing. “He ripped all that away from me and gave me the basis I still play.”
Just five years later, the New York guitarist Jonny Lam decided to pursue pedal steel as a way to differentiate himself in a city with a glut of guitarists. He stumbled upon The Steel Guitar Forum, where amateurs building instruments in garages argued with the likes of Buddy Emmons, who had revolutionized the instrument’s design, tuning and sound.
Those cranky older denizens (“No one ever knows how to post a picture,” Lam, 42, joked) became his gateway, offering a low-stakes way for a Chinese American neophyte to learn the lessons of Nashville. He devoured classic instructional texts and records, but the forums (and, now especially, YouTube) remain founts of inspiration for Lam and younger players, reducing barriers to entry for an expensive and isolating instrument.
“Twenty years ago, I didn’t know what a pedal steel was. There was this monoculture of white males,” Lam said. “But now people are doing quirky things with it online, and different kinds of people are being exposed. That representation matters.”
Still, for both Björklund and Lam, pushing past the pedal steel’s conventional territory took time. Lam played pristine honky-tonk fare with his band Honeyfingers and supplied old-school textures for Norah Jones and Miranda Lambert. Björklund cut two elegant folk-rock albums as a steel-wielding songwriter, then played in Jack White’s backing band.
Their tracks on “Imaginational Anthem XI,” however, feel like coming-out parties. During “Rainbows Across the Valley,” Lam’s high and low tones slowly curl around chattering birds. Björklund’s “Lysglimt” backs a sinister Spaghetti Western theme with unsettling noise and electronic throbs, like a storm cloud commandeering the horizon. Lam has composed a modern Chinese opera for the pedal steel, and Björklund is now finishing a series of solo pedal-steel abstractions. These are new starts for their old instrument.
“Traditional pedal steel is beautiful, but the notes have already been played. It would be such a shame for it to be a dusty instrument in country music,” Björklund said, sighing. “It is much more interesting to explore the outer edges, where it comes into contact with the modern world.”