Jon Rauhouse

“I don’t have the typical ‘crying’ country-steel guitar style,” explains Jon Rauhouse, whose steel stylings have graced a veritable Who’s Who of alt-country heavyweights from Neko Case to Calexico to the Waco Brothers and John Doe. “I use a ton of harmonics and double-stop harmonics—which is a different sound than you typically hear coming out of Nashville.”

Rauhouse’s fourth solo album, Steel Guitar Heart Attack [Bloodshot], shows a different side to his style, as the loping, moody tunes that he’s called upon to embellish with Case and Calexico give way to more buoyant, almost cartoonish numbers.

Why do you feel your style isn’t more traditionally country-based?
All of the classic country players from the ’50s and ’60s are brilliant, and I also idolized guys such as Lucky Oceans from Asleep at the Wheel and John David Call from the Pure Prairie League. However, there were no venues in Phoenix to play hardcore original country music in the late ’70s and early ’80s. In fact, I had to avoid sounding overtly country. It just wasn’t that popular. In order to perform original stuff, I had to play behind all sorts of singers and bands. And, like most players, the process of adapting to certain musical situations helped me find my own voice.

You coax textures from the steel without resorting to effects.
Yes—although many steel players go through a period where they get deep into the spacey, Daniel Lanois-type stuff. I know I did! I was plugging in Pro Co Rats and all sorts of phase shifters and things. But that was back when I was searching for something that would work. And the effect thing would work for a while, but the novelty quickly wore off. Eventually, I realized I just love the sound of the straight steel. To that end, a volume pedal, a Dunlop bar, and my MSA 10-string steel through a Fender 65 Twin Custom 15 combo are all I need.

Is there anything you do to get more textures from the steel?
I use a technique I call “pressure vibrato” that makes a Leslie-type sound. What I do is slightly press down on the strings, and then subtly move the bar around and slowly increase the speed. It kind of sounds like a Leslie ramping up. I do that a lot on Neko’s stuff.

Have you sensed a renewed interest in the steel guitar?
Yes and no. I have a lot of work, but I went to a steel convention a couple of years ago, and there was only one guy playing who was younger than me, and I’m almost 50! Also, I just played some shows with Neko where we shared the bill with Merle Haggard, and I got to be friends with his legendary steel player, Norm Hamlet. He’s an unbelievable musician, so that made me feel like I made the right career choice. Then again, Norm is well into his 70s, and he was actually driving one of Merle’s tour buses! I guess I need to learn to drive a bus to keep my resume growing.