One of the most influential and life-changing records I’ve ever purchased was Steel Guitar by the great Speedy West. I was lucky enough to find the Stetson re-release of this 1960 album at Jack’s Record Cellar in San Francisco’s Western Edition in the late ’80s. West, on pedal-steel, was the other half of a great duo with guitarist Jimmy Bryant. Both released fantastic instrumental sides, while sometimes taking turns being listed as leader. West also played with Tennessee Ernie Ford, Loretta Lynn, and others, and he is in the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame. He was also a beloved presence at steel-guitar conventions until his passing in 2003.
After hearing the album’s opening track, “Speedin’ West,” I knew I had finally found something I had been searching for—great instrumental tracks combining country swing, jazz, humor, and virtuosity. The compositions are excellent, and Bryant tears it up with jaw-dropping technique, while West employs bar slams, animated glissando slides, and wah effects that are reminiscent of a horn section.
During my West and Bryant obsession, I was lucky enough to speak on the phone with Speedy for more than an hour. Although I regret not recording the conversation, it was an info-filled joyride that exemplified his generosity and humor. He told me Steel Guitar was recorded with two Fender Twins set up in a V position with one mic placed in the middle. The players sat side-by-side on West’s steel-guitar case, and the tunes were usually hastily written in the studio and quickly titled. The informal atmosphere really captured the duo’s camaraderie. Steel Guitar was recorded brilliantly by the amazing Ken Nelson, and I challenge anybody to find a better-sounding record in this style. The drums are crispy and bright, the bass is full and supportive, and the guitar and steel-guitar sound otherworldly good.
My favorite tune from Steel Guitar is “This Ain’t the Blues,” which I recast on the Jim Campilongo and the 10 Gallon Cats first record as “Blue Hen.” Trying to be “Speedy,” I employed sweep picking on Johnny Smith-style sixth chords, and then I played 32nd notes on the B sections to emulate “Jimmy.” Another standout track is “Steelin Moonlight,” which sounds like a country-lounge tune written by Duke Ellington wearing a cowboy hat. Aside from being a great tune, it features a beautiful Bryant guitar solo that is refined and regal.
West and Bryant have inspired my playing through most of my guitar life. But one of their most valuable lessons was simply “getting the song done.” That philosophy helped me complete songs—instead of having bins of half-finished songs that I might have overthought to death.