Lucky Oceans

You might think that being a pedal-steel guitarist in Perth, Australia—“the most isolated city on earth”—would be a Maytag repairman-like existence. Lucky Oceans, however, has built a successful career not only as a musician, but also as an influential radio host. A recent month found Oceans playing at the Broken Spoke in his former hometown of Austin, Texas; performing with sacred-steel group the Campbell Brothers at their church in Rochester, New York; and improvising over African, Irish, country, blues, reggae, and jazz grooves with his own band down under—all in addition to hosting The Planet, a popular world music program on ABC Radio National.

Oceans grew up in Philadelphia, where his music-loving parents’ album collection centered on early jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Jelly Roll
Morton. Although he took a single lesson with pedal-steel legend Buddy Emmons, Oceans is primarily self-taught.

“In the early days, I mostly used Jeff Newman’s instructional materials, and copped the licks of any steel player I could find—especially the early swing players,” he says. “I also copied lines from other instrumentalists, and I adapted them to the pedal-steel.”

In the 1970s, Oceans was a founding member of Asleep at the Wheel, a group he describes as, “hippies who played country music at local clubs.” But after hearing Merle Haggard’s Bob Wills tribute—A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World—the band switched to Western swing.

“That put the ’30s-style jazz I grew up with together with the country sounds of steel guitars and fiddles,” he explains.

Asleep at the Wheel became known as pioneers of the New Country music movement, eventually earning nine Grammy Awards. But, after moving to Perth in 1981, Oceans soon realized he couldn’t sustain a career as a Western swing pedal-steel guitarist in remote Western Australia. So he diversified. He played pedal-steel in jazz and rock groups, did some teaching, and wrote music for film and television. But there was also an advantage to being on the outskirts of nearly everything.

“Because of Perth’s isolation, I no longer heard other steel guitarists as much,” he says. “So my style began mutating and becoming truer to my own personality.”

One aspect of Oceans’ personality can be heard on the Elliott Sharp-produced compilation, Secular Steel, where he freely improvises on “Stars Fell on Al’s Banana.”

“Elliott advised me to play more outside,” explains Oceans, “so I used Velcro to scrape the strings, and I stomped on the pedals to vibrate the strings without directly plucking them. Now that’s ‘outside’ swing!”

On his recent solo album, Secret Steel [Head], Oceans mostly plays a ’79 Franklin doubleneck (serial number 008) through a Fender Vibrasonic amp. Oceans’ other favorite instruments include his ’40s Rickenbacker Bakelite 7-string and ’50s Fender Stringmaster doubleneck lap steels, a ’30s Dobro, and a new National Tricone made by OMI. His volume pedal of choice is a vintage Goodrich, and he occasionally reaches for an old CryBaby wah and an original Ibanez Tube Screamer.

“I’m not sure where Secret Steel fits in the musical scenes of today,” says Oceans. “But I think people are curious about the pedal-steel guitar—especially since [sacred-steel star] Robert Randolph has become so popular. It’s a truly unique, and highly expressive American instrument, and my goal is to break it into as many new musical forms as I can.”