There was a time when the pedal steel guitar was the hallmark sound of country music and Western Swing. Pedal Steel actually was a derivative of a six-string guitar from Hawaii in the later part of the 1900s. This was long before country music was in existence. The electric lap steel guitar came into existence in the United States in the 1930s. By 1940, necessity dictated the invention of pedals being added to the electric lap steel guitar. Since then there have been numerous alterations to the pedal guitar that has increased the possible variations to the sound, but has also increased the difficulty in playing the instrument. Playing a steel requires both hands, both feet, and often both knees, not to mention a fully functioning brain! For more information on this classic musical instrument, please click here.
The backbone and the sound of country music have always been delegated to multiple musicians who have backed up the singers in front of the band. They are the unsung heroes. Without their support and expertise, the music would not exist. They seldom get the recognition that they deserve. One such musician is 40-year veteran pedal steel guitar player, Buck Reid. He spent his early years playing pedal steel for John Anderson and the last 23 years playing and touring with Lyle Lovett and His Large Band. I had the privilege of catching up with Buck for a telephone interview.
After the initial ‘hellos’ and how are ‘yous,’ here are the highlights of our conversation:
Examiner: After being on the road for some 40-years, I’m sure you have some stories to tell.
Buck: Laughing, Yes. Some good. Some not so good.
Examiner: Let’s start at the beginning.
Buck: I grew up in Upstate New York, about an hour North of Syracuse.
Examiner: That’s not the place that comes to mind as a huge country music belt.
Buck: Believe it or not, they are still pretty excited about traditional country music. Swing and things from an era that has passed. Also my dad was a part-time musician. He played pedal steel. He never pursued it professionally. He got me started with the pedal steel guitar when I was 11 years old.
Examiner: Do you play any other instruments?
Buck: I play a six-string guitar because I try to write a little bit. I know enough just to be dangerous really. I’ll do arrangements and stuff like that.
Examiner: Anyone else in the family play music?
Buck: Well, no. When I was a kid, we would play around the house. Local dance halls, VFW, and things like that. The family interest was elsewhere and they didn’t pursue it as a career. I moved from there, a little town called Sandy Creek, NY to Detroit, MI for a couple of years after I got out of high school because I had met some musicians from out there. The time was the 1980s and the Urban Cowboy thing was big. There was a lot of work for musicians. I worked for a couple of years with a couple of bands. In the summer of 1982, I moved to Nashville after I met the lead guitar player for country artist, John Anderson. He encouraged me to call John. John was thinking of adding a steel guitar player to the group. So, I did. I asked John how he wanted to handle the audition? He said, “Just come out and ride the bus with us and we will see how it goes.” It sounds funny, but seeing how you get along with everybody is almost more important than being super talented. He wanted to see what the energy was like. After the second night he offered me the job.
Examiner: That was quick!
Buck: Yeah, it was a dream come true for me. So I actually moved to Nashville. It was extremely fortunate for me and Nashville seemed like the other side of the world.
Examiner: And Nashville had quite a reputation.
Buck: Yeah especially for someone like me from Upstate New York. My dad was such a country music fan. We would always listen to the Opry. On a clear night we could get (enough radio reception) the Opry, not always though. We would watch all the shows like “Hee-Haw.”
Examiner: Who were the major pedal steel guitarists that influenced you besides your dad?
Buck: My two biggest influences were Buddy Emmons and Lloyd Green. Both gentlemen were very busy, popular and the recorded here in Nashville.
Examiner: Buddy Emmons I am familiar with. He was legend.
Buck: Oh, yeah. We became friends when I moved here. Just to spend the afternoon with him at his house and recording studio. We’d just talk about music and swap ideas. It was great to be around somebody with that sort of passion and mentality about music was really inspiring. I also shared sessions with Buddy and it was just an honor for me to be on the same sessions with Buddy. Later on I became friends with him. He was my hero. Well he recently passed. I don’t know if you heard. Anyway, I lived in Mt. Juliet and he lived in Hermitage and so we lived ten minutes from each other. Whenever I could, I’d give him a call. I tried not to bother him too much. He always seemed receptive and always encouraging. He was really encouraging about being original and being yourself. It is okay to learn from other people, but you need to take that and make it your own. That kind of influence gives you a huge advantage.
Examiner: I’m not that familiar with Lloyd Green.
Buck: Oh, yes, he probably played on more Nashville sessions than Buddy. But, Lloyd had a really commercial sound. He played on a lot of early George Jones stuff, Tammy Wynette stuff. Stars of the day. Both befriended me when I came to town and it was a huge shot in the arm. Laughing they were nice to me and they seemed to like me. They were just influential and inspirational.
Examiner: Did they help you get recording sessions?
Buck: Well, no, it’s a pretty competitive world. With any player, you get involved with as many circles as you can. In Nashville, you have to do a lot of networking. The good thing about Nashville, there is always a lot of new people coming to town. You might do something they like. That’s how I got started. I met some pretty successful producers. Once you establish a relationship or repoire with producers and writers, that is when your chances go up that you will be called to do a session when the opportunity arises. Session musicians can be a closed group. . . .It is a team effort or a team sport, I always say.
Examiner: How long did you work with John Anderson?
Buck: I worked with him from 1982 to 1990. He was the kind of guy who would really go to bat for his band and the guys he would travel with when it came to do a record. That was really the first time I did sessions in Nashville was with John. I did three or four sessions during that time with John.
Examiner: How many days back then would you say you were on the road?
Buck: Oh, my gosh, when I first started with John, his first major hit was “Swingin’ ” got hot. I would say for the first two years, we were gone 250 days a year. I was 22 years old and I just could not get enough. I thought it was great.
Examiner: At that age, you usually do!
Buck: That maybe has changed a little bit, nowadays. It was a lot back then. John sort of ran into a dry spell though. It went into the late eighties and he had a hard time signing to a record deal. Work went down and I had two small girls at home and I had to support the family. It was a hard decision and John was such a great guy. He’s just one of those good ole boys. He later had a resurgence. I was so happy because I always thought the world of him.
Examiner: Did you fall into the drug scene on the road? The uppers were very popular back then.
Buck: No, I didn’t do any stuff like that. I did smoke some marijuana in those early days. That’s as heavy as it ever got for me. It was kind of like a tool and of course it was everywhere. I did fall into that a little bit. I’m not really proud of that, but yes. None of the other stuff interested me.
Examiner: When you parted ways with John, how did you make a living after that?
Buck: There was a couple of old friends that I worked with. One was Rob Crosby who played with a group called Bailey and the Boys. I traveled with them and worked on a couple of records with them. By that time I had built up session clients, so I had some work around town. There was another guy by the name of Martin DelRay. Between the two years before I met Lyle, those were the main people I traveled with. It was the spring of 1993 when I met Lyle (Lovett).
Examiner: You guys have been playing together for a long time now.
Buck: Yes, he has kept me around for 23 years and I’m proud of that! He’s amazing. So, I met Lyle through a mutual friend, Steve Fishell who plays pedal steel with Emmylou Harris’ band. He produced a couple of demo sessions when I played with John. He had a friend who was a part of the management company that Lyle was with at the time. He got word that Lyle was going to add a steel guitar to the band. He called and said I don’t know if you are interested, but Lyle is looking for a steel player and I would like to see you get a higher profile gig. So I did. I went to the audition in Nashville. It was great though I was a little intimidated because it’s a large band. The rehearsals we did were full production rehearsals with catering and the whole works. The lights, the stage, everything! So, I was a little intimidated when I walked in because I had never been apart of anything of that magnitude. That professional. So, I was a little nervous and I don’t even remember how I played. But as soon as the rehearsal was over, Lyle came to me and said, “Man, we love you and you’ve got the gig if you want it.”
Buck: Yeah, so that was a big one for me. In my book, Lyle is upper echeon. He’s professional about everything.
Examiner: Everyone in the band is terrific.
Buck: Yes, that is the other thing. He hires great musicians! Yes, so that’s when I met Lyle and started working with him. I guess he likes me a little bit. He’s kept me around. Laughing.
Examiner: Yes, it is a relationship that has lasted longer than marriage!
Buck: Laughing yes, right! Exactly! That is in a nutshell an overview.
Examiner: How many days out of the year are you on the road with Lyle?
Buck: These days, about 50 or 60 days. We are always gone July and August. When I first started working with Lyle, some of our tours were three months. He was a little more popular back then. He was doing a lot of writing back then, too. He had a lot of new material.
Examiner: What do you think of the evolution of country music?
Buck: Laughing he said, “Oh, boy That’s a loaded question! I sort of miss some of the traditional sounds that I grew up with, but at the same time everything changes. If you want to be a working musician, you have to keep an open mind. We all have our favorite styles and types of music. My very favorite music is traditional country music, swing, and jazz. It’s a little concerning at times because today’s country music doesn’t feature pedal steel like it once did. Country music is driven by demographics, the age group that buys cds. I’m not opposed to change as long as it doesn’t change the integrity of the music.
There was more time spent on the interview, but time constraints prevent the article from going further. Mr. Reid has not gotten any formal awards. The awards tend to go to the session men mostly. He enjoys the energy of the road more so than in the studio. His time off the road is spent writing music, giving one on one private lessons, and going to the big steel guitar conventions and concerts. He has a solo cd, A Work In Progress, and is currently working on another cd. Buck Reid is a humble master of the pedal steel guitar. For more information on Buck Reid, please click here to learn more about one of the living legends of country music’s pedal steel guitar.
Examiner: Finally, any stories that you would like to divulge that would be fun for our readers?
Buck: Well one comes to mind, sort of funny I think. We were in Hyannis Port, MA two summers ago with Lyle. We were at the Cape Cod Melody Tent up there. My eighth grade English teacher had a girl friend in Boston and we had gotten in contact on Facebook a few months earlier. He contacted me and said, ‘I see you are going to be in Hyannis. I’m going to be in town that weekend and I’d love to come see you and see the show.’ It was great. I hadn’t seen my eighth grade teacher in so many years. Thirty plus. We were backstage after the show. I introduced him to Lyle. He felt he needed to share an eighth grade English class story with Lyle for some reason. (Chuckles) It was about an assignment that I was to write a poem. I was one of those people who didn’t want to be in school. At that point, I already knew what I wanted to do with my life. My given name is Richard. A lot of my friends called me Dick. So, all I wrote was “My name is Dick and I like to pick.” My eighth grade teacher remembered that and he felt the need to share that with Lyle. Lyle, who is so quick, without any hesitation whatsoever, looked at my former teacher and he said, “Well it’s a good thing he hadn’t changed his name to Buck.”