At 17, singer/songwriter/guitarist Steve Wariner made his debut on the Grand Ole Opry as a member of Dottie West’s band. To put that timeline in perspective, it was 1973, the Ryman Auditorium was the Opry’s home, and Wariner was playing bass, a role he continued with Bob Luman and Chet Atkins.
Forty years later, Steve Wariner’s solo career, which officially began in 1980 when he charted his first Top 10 single, has become one of countless awards and hit records. He has been in the Top 10 of Billboard’s country charts almost thirty times and has reached No. 1 chart positions fourteen times. He has won four Grammy awards and received 11 nominations — so far. There are also awards from the CMA, ACM, BMI, TNN, Hall of Fame inductions and so many more.
This week, he debuts his new album, It Ain’t All Bad, on his SelecTone Records label. It’s his first non-instrumental disc in eight years. A few weeks prior to release, Wariner settled in for a lengthy, detailed interview, in which he discussed the state of the music industry, his recording career, and a track-by-track of the gear he used on the album. He highlighted his responses with many stories about his childhood, musical development, and the years he spent with his mentor and beloved friend Chet Atkins.
You recorded a vocal album for the first time in eight years. Why now? Was the instrumental route a conscious decision or a natural transition?
I think that’s been my dilemma all through the years. I’m a writer, a singer and I play guitar. I came here to be a guitar player and write a few songs when I was 17, and I was lucky that I got in and was known kind of as a singer and had some hits. What I call the hardcore fans come to the shows and want to hear those songs. Several years ago, when I was on Arista Records, I begged and pleaded and finally talked them into letting me do an instrumental album. Of course, the first thing the label says is, “There’ll be nothing for radio!” They were hesitant, for sure, but I talked them into doing an album called No More Mr. Nice Guy , which had about twenty-one guests on it — everyone from Richie Sambora to Larry Carlton. Nolan Ryan was on there speaking, for goodness sake! It was all over the place and a lot of fun to do. It was a cool album and we got some great ink on it, but the label didn’t know what to do with it.
Chet was my mentor and first record producer and we were great, great friends. He passed in 2001, and I always wanted to honor him, but what’s the point of playing his songs not as well as he does? No one can play like him. We did an album that was a tribute to him [Steve Wariner, c.g.p., My Tribute to Chet Atkins, 2009] and we were lucky to sneak in and win a Grammy for that album. After that, I just stayed in the mode. It was my fourth Grammy, and I decided to stay in the guitar world because we got a lot of nice press. I did another album, Guitar Laboratory , which was a very self-indulgent album that featured just me, but all kinds of styles. It was more diverse than anything I’d ever done, playing-wise. It was everything from swing to jazz to rock to Hawaiian. I played steel, lap steel, half the bass on that record. I went back to my roots and what I was raised playing, and it gave me a great opportunity to pull out all my guitars from my collection and play them.
After the success of that album, the push was over and it started going the other way. When I played shows, I would play a lot of guitar, but people made comments via e-mail, like, “We need more singing from you. When are you going to do another singing album?” I started hearing that quite a bit from those hardcore fans. During that eight-year period, I had been writing, as I always do. I write all the time, so I had a nice collection of about thirty songs that I loved. I took twenty of them into the studio, cut fifteen, took twelve out of the fifteen and made this record. I was doing an interview with Tom Roland, who did our bio for this new album, and he said, “Do you realize it’s been eight years since you had a singing album, a lyric album?” I didn’t know it had been that long. I was having so much fun being a guitar player that I forgot that I hadn’t done one in a while.
How did that affect you career-wise? You charted fourteen Number One songs and had a lot of airplay as a singer, but obviously no airplay instrumentally. Were you concerned about the fan base and not building your audience? At the same time, radio is a different world now, so did it matter?
At that time, I was all over the radio and that’s why the label fought me so hard. I remember being in a meeting with them and I was angry. They were saying, “No, no, you can’t do an instrumental, there has to be vocals on something.” I said, “No, there doesn’t have to be.” I remember getting into it with them about it. I look back and I can understand their viewpoint. I explained to them that there are things in your career and in your life that you feel you must do, and this is one of those things. I feel like I must do this. I had so many cool people — Leo Kottke, Vince Gill, Lee Roy Parnell, Chet played on two tracks. I said, “This is what I am. I was a guitar player before I was anything. The writing and singing came way later than the guitar. This is important to me.” Once that album came out, I was on the cover of Vintage Guitar magazine and some big press things, then I heard some of the interviews that some of the big guys at the label were doing. They were praising their boldness for letting me do this record and they went along with it, “Oh yeah, we had this vision that it really took him back to his roots.” I was thinking, Are you serious? I had to fight you guys! I actually cut a deal. They gave me half the budget of a regular album and I said, “That’s fine.” That was the first record I ever produced by myself. It was really funny to see in an interview later that they were saying, “We had this vision of him. He’s really a player.” But I can understand it, and it’s a different world now. I have my own label and I’m not on radio so much. I am on Sirius and some of the classic stations, but as a whole, it’s not like it was then. It’s a whole new ballgame. So it makes perfect sense now to hop back and forth because it’s wide open. Caryn, my wife, and I are the captains of our own ship, so to speak, the publishing and record label, and it’s daunting in a lot of ways because you hope you make the right decisions. This business is not about music anymore. It’s about everything but music, and I hate that. It’s about social media, and about your press and your image and all that. Guitar Laboratory was all about music, guitars and tone. I didn’t care about anything else. I hope our distributors and our label people will help us find a way to sell this record, but that’s not my concern when I’m in the studio. I’m just trying to get the best tone out of that ’65 Deluxe, mic it correctly and make a great record. That’s all I have in my world at that moment.
How long have you had your studio?
I’ve had a studio at the house for probably 20 years, but we built a real deal studio about 13 years ago. Before that, I had some form of a studio in my bonus room. I’d record downtown and bring it back here to do vocals or guitar fixes. About 13 years ago, we built a studio. Chris Huston designed it. He’s a real interesting guy from Liverpool. He went to school with John Lennon and used to make speakers for John when they were in high school. He also engineered a lot of records for War and for Blood, Sweat and Tears in Los Angeles. He’s a really cool guy. The studio has some nice angles and features. I use it for three purposes: recording, writing, and as a great place to store my gear. I have a lot of guitars and amps out there. We have a guitar room. It’s wired so I can record in it. I call it my guitar store. One wall is hooks, like a music store, and some guitars are hanging. It has racks. It’s a room where I can get my hands on all my favorite stuff quickly. My Dobro is in there, my mandolin, I have a little ukulele, my guitars, and in another room I’ve got percussion stuff and my headphones and mics. It’s very convenient. My lap steels are in there and my basses.
What do you have for your recording needs? You’ve been adamant over the years about being old-school and old-fashioned when it comes to recording gear.
That’s the word I was just going to use. I haven’t kept up so much because the system I have right now, foremost, I like the way it sounds. I am really old-school. I’m like every old guy — I call myself old — I resist the change. Once I get stuff that I like and I know it really well, just doing it because so-and-so has the latest and greatest, I’m not into that. My consoles are getting long in the tooth, as we always say. Randy Gardner has made my records for 20 years, and when you see me live, he’s at the front of house. We laugh about some of my stuff, but it still works great and we like it. I have a Pro Tools rig, but I don’t use it a lot unless I bring in some outside people and they want to use it. I’m still using my two IZ Radar 24’s and my two Sony DMXR-100’s. People look at those sometimes, the hardcore guys who really know gear, and say, “You’re still using those things?” I think they sound fantastic, and the converters in them are nice. We mix to analog tape. I have a 1974 ATR Ampex half-inch machine that I mix to. We straddle both worlds and the combo is really nice. I did an A/B/C/D test a few years ago at Hank Williams’ mastering place. I mixed my album at the time in four different formats, one of them being analog tape, and we had Hank do the test. Randy and I were sitting there not knowing what’s what, and we picked analog tape on all ten songs. All ten in a row, both of us would go, “That one.” I’m a firm believer that there is a huge difference.
Let’s look at the gear that was used in making this album.
It’s fairly simple. I’ll preface all this by saying that I was really lucky to have my son Ryan come in and help me a lot, because he geeks out along with me. He’s all tone, tone, tone. He plays with Gretchen Wilson, he toured with Jewel and he played with LeAnn Rimes. His fastball is tone, what to use with what. He was my consultant on this record, more than anything I’ve ever done, and I loved it. We had so much fun playing with gear. He wears me out — and that’s hard to do! He’d bring this amp head and try that and two hours later we’ve tried ten heads. A lot of these ideas were his and I give him the credit.
“It Ain’t All Bad”: I wanted to play B-Bender on this. I used to play a lot of it on my early records, but I kind of got away from it, although I play it a lot on the road. So I went back to my roots that way. Joe Glaser made me the red Tele B-Bender that I play on the road. The first one that he made me was a Strat B-Bender, which is unusual. Ryan has a ’61 Fender Tremolux head that he keeps here. He got it out, we plugged it in through my Bassman cab and we miked the Eminence speaker side of my cabinet with an SM 57. Ryan loved the part, but he said, “Why don’t you get your Strat and add a second layer and see what it sounds like.” I loved it. It made it real thick, so it’s two tracks playing identical things. One track is a Tele B-Bender and the other track is a Strat B-Bender. When you solo them individually, they sound cool, but when you play them together and they’re panned, it’s a really neat effect. I used an Echoplex, a Fulltone — one of the new Fulltone tape delays. I used that on almost everything I did.
“Voodoo”: This is such a fun song to play. I used my ’51 Fender Nocaster. There’s a great story on this. There’s a lady that came to our shows, and her husband had passed about five years prior. It was his mission to get that guitar to me. He wanted me to have it. They’re a beautiful family, and the only thing they wanted was to stay anonymous. I’ve played that guitar on tons of records since. Three weeks after they gave it to me, I was playing the Grand Ole Opry. I brought them to Nashville and they got to watch me play it on the Opry stage. They wanted that guitar to live on, and he knew that I would appreciate it and love it. I played that Nocaster on “Voodoo” through Ryan’s ’64 Supro Supreme with an SM 57, a little bit of Tube-Tech CL1 compression and the Fulltone tape delay.
“Arrows at Airplanes”: That’s another B-Bender solo. I used my red Glaser Tele through my ’65 Deluxe and again through that Fulltone tape echo.
“Don’t Tell Her I’m Not”: That’s a power ballad. I wanted a non-Fender kind of sound. I wanted it to be more of a screaming kind of feel. I’ve got a 335, but Ryan’s got a ’64 Stoptail 335 that’s really nice and I’m more fond of his, so I borrowed that and played the solo. He brought a Suhr ML100 amp head and I played that through my Bassman cab. I wanted to get that real long sustain. Nobody plays like Steve Lukather, but I wanted that kind of approach, in the vein of what he would play. I love his playing.
“Bluebonnet Memories”: I have a little blue sparkle Tele that the Fender custom shop made for me years ago. It’s a Buck Owens-y Telecaster that I’ve played on a bunch of stuff. I plugged that into my Deluxe and I used an MXR Carbon Copy as my delay. I was playing along with the track and I was going to use a different guitar, but I had that one in my hands. I was messing around with the track and I thought it would work.
“What More Do You Want?”: That’s the one that Ryan played on. Years ago, he bought a Leslie cabinet from someone. I think he was channeling his early Cream days. We were playing guitar through it one day and he left it at the studio. I started playing with it by myself, playing this riff, and I wrote the song around that. On the record, I played that same Leslie cabinet and I asked Ryan to play. He plays really nice slide, and in the chorus I heard it breaking into a three-part slide thing, kind of like George Harrison. I always loved George Harrison’s slide playing. I think he was a great guitar player but really underrated as a slide player. Ryan loved that idea. He used my ’65 Firebird I, which I acquired a couple of years ago. A girl that works in my eye doctor’s office — it was her father’s guitar. He bought it brand new. I was there for an eye appointment and she told me that he had passed and her mother wanted to sell it. It was in great shape, in the case. I bought it from them, set it up and it plays great. Ryan played that, and the other parts he played on my ’60 Strat through his 1964 Supro Supreme. I want that amp from him so bad! I’m going to steal it from him someday. He left it in my studio and I wound up playing it on three or four songs. I kept using it because it sounded so great. He played this triple slide part and I played rhythm behind him with the Leslie cabinet. I think it has a British, Beatles-y feel to it, and it worked out great.
“Spokes in a Wheel”: I played a Kala ukulele on that track. I gave that ukulele to Garth Brooks’ daughter on her birthday. I also played a Guild Jumbo acoustic.
“I Want to Be Like You”: Randy Hart played piano on that track. It was Garth’s piano; we cut it at Allentown Studios, his place on Music Row.
“It’s Called a Brand New Day”: I played my Nocaster through the Supro Supreme, with my tape echo.
“Whenever I See You”: I played my Martin D35. The solo is my Takamine ec132s gut string. I’ve got three or four gut-string classical guitars, but that’s my favorite.
“’48 Ford”: There’s no electric on that one. I have an Authenticity Series Quad 21 Martin that they made out of antique Brazilian rosewood that’s grandfathered in. They did it with the hide glue style of old bracing. It’s a beautiful guitar. There are two acoustic guitars. The main guitar is the Martin. I used a Neumann U67 mic through a Universal Audio 610 mic pre. For the second guitar, I played my 1967 Martin vintage D35 through a U67 through a Focusrite Red mic pre. I played a ’51 Precision bass on that track. Jimmy Mattingly played fiddle. That’s all that’s on that record.
“A Thousand Winds”: That’s my Quad 21 Martin. I arranged the string quartet, which I’ve done a few times before. I arranged this song and “I Want To Be Like You,” and I also arranged the English horn on that one.
Are there certain recording techniques you swear by? What was the process of figuring out what works best for you?
For vocals, it’s been trial and error over the years. I used to use an AKG C12 mic religiously. When Scott Hendricks produced me, he had a beautiful vintage C12. We used to play with mics a lot when I was on Arista, and I loved the sound of my voice on that mic. I got my own C12 after I left Arista. One year, a long time ago, Caryn got me a Neumann U67 for my birthday and Christmas, which are on the same day. It’s an old mic and it is just beautiful. Once I started doing vocals on it, I said, “I’m not even looking back. This is my new vocal mic.” Everything I’ve done vocal-wise since all my Capitol records, I bring that mic with me. I use it on guitars. Chet used 67s and 87s on a lot of his acoustic guitar stuff, on the Del Vecchios, the resonators, and Jerry Reed used the 67s too, so it’s kind of my go-to. It does everything. I have a Neumann KM54 that I also use on acoustic guitars sometimes. I’ve got a Vintek mic pre that I use for vocals. I usually don’t record with a lot of compression. Depending on the song, sometimes I use the CL1 Tube Tech for a light wash. I’ve got an LA2A and a couple of Distressors that I sometimes use. Guitar-wise, it depends on what it is. I’ve got some Royer mics that I use sometimes. When I did the tribute to Chet record, I used a lot of ribbon mics, because on some of those songs I was trying to emulate the way that he might have done it. Back in the day, he used a beautiful old RCA 77 ribbon mic, the one they used for television broadcasting. He had some beautiful ones at his place. I used one on almost all of that record, and I used a Royer 57. Depending on the amp, I’d mic the back and the front and use a 57 or a Royer. With that album, I used a ton of ribbon mics. It’s not so critical now. It varies with the song.
It used to astound me when I worked with Chet … I know I keep bringing his name up, but I worked with him for so long and I learned so much from him. I’d watch him take a mic and nonchalantly set it in front of his amp, and then he’d play. It took me a while to realize that he was putting it in a strategic place. As time went on I realized that he’d done it so much, and he was so great at it, that he knew exactly that sweet spot. That’s something I played with over the years. I’ve gotten better at it not being dead-on with the speaker, but just offsetting it a little bit and finding that real sweet spot. I play around with the mic placement and record, and then scoot it this way and record again. It’s time-consuming, but it’s really worth it to find that right spot. Most times I use a 57 or a Royer, and now and then a 414. I use that UA 610 mic pre more times than not. Sometimes I use the Vintech, and a lot of times I use the LA2A or the 1176 for compression.
Your father played Travis style, Chet had his style, and you spent years learning from both of them, as well as from other players. How did all of those picking styles come together to create Steve Wariner’s style?
I remember standing in a parking lot once in Hollywood, it was at Paramount or one of those movie lots, I was doing a television show, and Merle Travis was walking across the parking lot. I thought, I can’t waste this opportunity. He was getting older and it was not long before he passed. I walked over and said hi and he knew who I was, which thrilled me. I guess he knew me through Chet, because Chet and I had been doing a lot of stuff together. We stood and talked and it was so cool. I was looking at his hands and it was really awesome. I was standing there thinking how my dad would play his records, and I’d listen to him on the Hank Thompson records and all the stuff he’d play on. Then I was thinking Chet was so influenced by him. So a dash of my dad’s playing, and my Uncle Jimmy, who was really a good player; I played in some bands with him. He was more of a twangy, Bakersfield guy, a Merle Haggard and Buck Owens guy, which was awesome because I love that too. How lucky am I to have all of that? My Uncle Lowell was a bluegrass guy, so as long as you played a Martin flattop guitar with a capo and a fiddle guy, he was there. How lucky of a kid was I to have all of that, and later Chet? I have cassettes of me and him and Lenny Breau. I am so blessed and so lucky to have been able to do all that. Somebody recently sent me pictures of a session I did with Chet at RCA Studio A and Bill Harris was the engineer. We’re sitting at the console, I’m playing bass in Chet’s band, and he’s sitting there with a cigar. It was the first time I had ever seen that picture. I’m so grateful to have been able to do all the things I’ve done.
My influences come from just borrowing a little here and there. When I worked with Bob Luman, there was a guy in his band named Rip Wilson. He played a Tele with a B-Bender and he was a big fan of Albert Lee and James Burton, as I was. I was playing bass with this band with the aspiration of someday making records of my own. I had just finished three years playing with Dottie West, which was incredible. Rip played a B-Bender and that got my interest. I started honing that B-Bender stuff every chance I could get. When it came time one day, fast-forward down the road, Joe Glaser made me a B-Bender and I made a record called Midnight Fire  that had a B-Bender solo on it and it was a hit. Then a lot of people were asking me about B-Bender stuff and I put it on a lot of different records.
That goes back to my steel guitar days. As a kid, I used to play with my dad, and a guy named Larry McIntyre played steel. There weren’t a lot of steel players in Indiana, where I lived. Larry was really good. He had a push-pull Emmons double-neck and he let me play his steel. The only time I ever saw a steel was when he was around. My dad had an old Multi-Kord steel when I was a kid, and we played lap steel, but I never was around a pedal steel very much. I was always fascinated by steel and I think that’s part of my fascination with B-Benders, because it’s so steel-guitar-like. Larry was a great player and a great friend. He and a guy named Harry Davis played in a band with me before I had a license. They had to come and pick me up because I was so young. Larry had a ’64 Ford station wagon and he had his steel in there. I played bass, mostly, and that’s my roots of where all this stuff comes from, I think. I’m blessed to have it around me all the time. I was like a little sponge, trying to take this and that and make my own thing out of it. By the time I started making records with Chet and Tony Brown, we had so much fun making records.
Tony Brown should have a side gig as a comedian.
Oh my god, you got that right! People who don’t know him don’t know that. I’m so proud of the records we made. He made some great records on me, to brag for a minute, and I’m bragging on him. He would bring in some great players, and we would laugh and make great music at the same time. It doesn’t always happen that you have fun like that. A lot of times it’s more work and you’ve got to make it fun. I loved working with Tony. What a great experience.
You use a thumbpick. What do you use and why?
My favorite pick of choice is a Dunlop small. While I was in New York recently, I did a television show and someone said, “Wow, that’s a strange-looking pick.” They’re used to people coming in with flatpicks and they didn’t know. I said, “It’s all I’ve ever known.” My dad, my Uncle Jimmy and everyone I was ever around played with thumbpicks, so I thought that was a natural thing. I certainly knew Chet Atkins and Merle Travis used them, so I didn’t know there was anything but. I never did get along with flatpicks. As I got older, I watched Glen Campbell play with his fingers and a flatpick. He would roll his pick back under his finger and I always thought that was a cool thing. When I was around Glen later, we recorded together and played together and I was fascinated by his command of a flatpick. I stuck with my thumbpick.
How do you find that it gives you more control?
I use a thumbpick and I do rolls; I use my thumb and in some cases three fingers, mostly two. I can play fast stuff with my thumbpick and index finger or sometimes index and second finger. There are guys like Bryan Sutton who play as fast as you can with a flatpick, and I’m astounded at how they do it. I’ve been able to adapt and play fast in my own way with my thumbpick and first or second finger and do rolls. Jerry Reed would use his third finger on his right hand, the ring finger, a lot, and that’s why Jerry sounded like Jerry. He played chords and clusters and licks where he would throw an extra note in there because of that. It’s a matter of comfort and what you like.
You began your career as a bass player and you also play drums. How has that been advantageous, not only as a guitarist, but as a songwriter and a bandleader, giving you a better understanding of the rhythm section because you play those instruments?
That’s the best thing that came out of all that. I wasn’t a good drummer. My dad took me to Vic Zinn’s Music when I was in the fifth grade and bought me this little green sparkle kit. I still have it and I wouldn’t take a million bucks for it. I remember looking at an expensive, red Rogers kit. My dad looked at the price tag, and then he looked at the Trixon kit price tag, and he said, “Boy, these Trixons really look nice! How do you like the green?” I wanted the Rogers, but he talked me into, “Green is a really cool color. I think that’s going to be nice.” I remember playing drums with my dad and being aware that even though I wasn’t a good drummer, I understand it now and I understand more about the rhythm section, having played most of the parts. All of my early jobs were as a bass player. Dottie West had a guitar player and they needed a bass player that sang. Back then, the singing part was really important: “We need a singing bass player.” I jumped at the chance, although I looked at myself as a guitar player. I played bass with Chet. I learned so much just being in those bands, even playing drums as a kid, understanding the dynamics of how it all works. I never did play much keyboard, but all the other instruments, pretty much. I was at Chet’s studio one day and he wanted me to play a Wurlitzer part on something we were doing. I said, “I don’t play piano.” He said, “You can work it out.” He would push me and he would try anything. He was all about experimentation and I loved that. There was no undo button back then. Now there is and that really makes you brave.
It makes you brave, but it can make you so perfect.
I say that all the time. I think the musicianship in the early, early days, in the 1940s and 1950s, was so much higher because they didn’t have undo buttons. You’d be in a session, and for a while they were even doing the direct to disc, when everybody went at the same time. If you messed up, everybody had to go again. It was actually being printed pretty much as it was being recorded. The technology was not to where you can slow things down to hear it. You had to use your ears. You listened to the radio and you had to figure it out yourself or wait until that song came back on. Ear training was phenomenal back then. Hank Garland, Grady Martin, Chet, Jerry Reed — that’s serious musicians, their ear training. It’s different now. You can slow anything down and learn it. The technology is incredible.
How many guitars and amps do you own?
About 125 guitars. The amps, I don’t even know. I got into this thing of collecting cool little amps. I found a Masco amp, which was made in Long Island back in the 1940s, at the Dallas Guitar Show. It looks like an old radio. I’d guess forty or fifty amps. I’ve got some stored too. They’re not all here.
How do you decide what to use on each song? Does the song determine that decision? Do you ever change your mind?
For me, the song probably determines, but having said that, I know my arsenal and what I can go to when the song’s playing. On “Don’t Tell Her I’m Not,” I wanted a more smooth, sustaining kind of thing. When I was going to cut “Voodoo,” I was already thinking, I want it to be a biting, aggressive, in-your-face tone. My first thought was, I want it to be my Nocaster. I have a ’63 Esquire that’s really nice, so I thought it might be one of those two guitars. The Nocaster fit the bill. I’d been playing along with Ryan’s Supro and I thought, Let me try that; it’s an aggressive sound. I plugged it in, found my tape delay, and between that and the echo and that amp, I played with the settings a little bit, found the sweet spot where it was distorting just enough, and it was exactly what I wanted. It’s also knowing your equipment. I have forty or fifty amps, but there are four or five that I would walk out right now and use on a session. I’ve got my Princeton, two ’65 Deluxes, and this is so geeky … this is so bad that I’m almost embarrassed! Having two is crazy. One of them is totally original. It even has the original Utah speaker. Nothing has been done to it. The other one has been tweaked a little bit. It has an Eminence speaker. Todd Sharp in Nashville [Nashville Amplifier Service] hot-rodded it for me. It’s still very Fender and very vintage-sounding, but tone-wise it’s a little bit different. So I’ll use one or the other, but I think the song is going to decide. I go that route. When I hear the song or think about recording, I think about the chain I’m going to use to do it, this amp or that amp, this mic or that mic, and it’s trial and error from there. Sometimes it’s not what I thought. I did that a couple of times on this record. I thought I wanted the Supro a couple of times. I fell in love with that amp all over again, and then a couple of times it wasn’t quite what I wanted. I’d go back to my Princeton and it was more what I wanted on a particular song.
Are there certain characteristics you look for, or rather listen for, that make a guitar or an amp right for you?
I think they all just make sense. They’re so different guitar-wise. This neck might be real thin, I’ve got some Fenders that have a V kind of neck, that feel, and I just know going from one to the next. That’s why I loved it in the first place, and why I got it, probably more than not, was the sound of it or the pickup or whatever. It’s just a feel. I think when it’s all said and done, at the end of the day, most of it comes from your hands. When you talk all that gear and stuff, a big part of it is in the way you play, but there is a lot to it, too. You’re playing between a Gibson or Fender or Gretsch, the sound is going to be different, but most cases it’s more about feel and comfort. When I pick up a Gretsch, I want to play a certain style. It takes me somewhere. It makes me want to play a real pretty thing and use the tremolo. If I pick up a Tele, I want to play a chicken-picking thing, a Buck Owens-y kind of thing. If I pick up my Paul Reed Smith, I play more of a jazzy, fusion kind of thing. They all take you to a different place and make you feel different and they inspire you. Even amps do that, different speakers. I can plug into a Marshall and I play differently than I would play through my little Deluxe. You hear that crunchy sound and you go, “Oh yeah, I’ve got to play these power chords!” It’s almost like the palette of an artist, when you think, What if I mix these colors?
Which guitars do you take on the road?
When I travel, I’ve always got my ’65 Deluxe, and usually I take my Fulltone, my Echoplex, and I don’t take a ton past that. I’ve got nice road cases and people that understand that we have to keep an eye on the stuff. I’ve lost stuff through the years; you look around and somebody picked it up and took off with it. That’s happened several times on the road, so you’ve got to pay attention. I always take my red Tele B-Bender. I don’t know how valuable that would be to somebody, but it certainly is to me. I could never replace that guitar. I’ve played it on a zillion records. Every now and then, if it’s a special thing, I take my Nocasters. I don’t do it often. I take my Gretsch. It’s a ’58 reissue, but it’s a nice guitar. I have an old vintage Tele that Jeff Senn made for me, a white guard, late ’50s or early ’60s Tele. Sometimes I take my blue sparkle Tele too. I play the red B-Bender most of the time, but occasionally I swap out and play the secondary electric too. It’s fun to grab another guitar and go, “Ooh, yeah, I’ve got another tool to use.” It’s something different in the show. When you’ve got great guitars, you should use them, and I do to a degree. The joy of having cool stuff is playing it.
Which acoustics do you travel with?
Usually, I’ll take two acoustic guitars. I have a gut string guitar that Kirk Sand [The Guitar Shoppe, Laguna Beach] made for me. I have my own model Takamine [SW341SC]. Those are my workhorse guitars on the road. I’ve been playing my Martin some lately on the road, but I’m not flipping out over the pickup on that. It’s OK. I’m still on the search for the right pickup, to be quite frank about it. I love the guitar, but I’ve got to work on the pickup. The Takamine has the preamp. I prefer the earlier version of it, the module that they call the older model. They’re replicating the older style, the simpler system that they had before. Those are the best, in my opinion. That’s what I like to use.
You had mentors in the early stages of your career — Chet Atkins, Bob Luman, Dottie West, and of course your father, who launched your career in his band. They were older mentors, not a group of teenage boys going crazy. Does that type of mentorship still exist? How does a young player learn the ropes now?
I don’t think those systems are in place like they used to be. Guys would play in clubs, and you don’t even see that so much anymore. By the time you got on the road or were with somebody, you’d played six or eight years in nightclubs with different bands and you already cut your teeth and paid your dues in a lot of ways. I learned so much playing in little nightclubs, lying and telling them I was 21. You think I looked 21 at 15, getting rides to some of these places? I can’t believe they would even let me play. Every band I played in, I was always the kid.
One summer, particularly, I remember I had just gotten my driver’s license and I played a place called the Blue Flame in Indianapolis. I learned a ton that summer. I played bass and sang in a three-piece. The guitar player, Glen Scott, was much older than me and I learned so much from him. I sang five sets a night, and I only knew about three songs when I took that gig. I played the whole summer months, six nights a week, and I had to drive twenty-five or thirty miles to get there from where I lived. By the end of three nights, my voice was shot. I really grew up on that gig. I had to learn every old country song. Luckily, I knew a lot of them already because of my dad, but I never did sing much, and all of a sudden I was thrown into it.
I was lucky that all the bands I played in, there were always older gentlemen. For example, there was a guy named Jim Davis who played in my dad’s band. He played really good thumb-style guitar and he was a music teacher in a music store in my hometown. I never took formal lessons, but I sure learned a lot from him. He would teach me licks and a little bit of theory on the side. Every chance during our breaks, I’d learn something from him. Later, I was in a band with a guy named Harry Davis, who was older than I was, certainly, and played a 355 Gibson. Again, he played thumb-style and did great finger rolls and I learned a ton from him. I was aware that I was lucky to be with these guys and learn from them. I took something from everybody I played with. I think the difference now is you ask young people, “What’s your aspiration?” and I actually hear people on television, young singers, they’ll flat-out say, “I want to be a star.” That’s your aspiration? To be a star? When I was a kid and people would ask me, I’d say, “I want to play guitar.” I never once said, “I want to be a star.” That’s the world we’re in: kids want to be stars. They don’t want to be talented for any reason; they just want to be stars.
I guess there are still mentors around, but I don’t know how it could be any better than my situation. I’m so blessed. I was always in a band with an older, great guitar player who taught me a lot of cool stuff. By the time I got to Chet Atkins, he took me into the studio and said, “I heard you play good guitar.” Paul Yandell had told him that I played a lot of his stuff. He said, “Play something of mine.” I thought, Are you kidding me? He’s recording me in the studio playing one of his songs and I was 20-something years old and thinking, What is wrong with this picture? Luckily, I was prepared. I stumbled through something of his and he signed me to RCA. I had that training. I had been with my dad and these great players who taught me this stuff. I was ready. I played a classical-style theme from Mahogany. I had my own arrangement of it, and he said, “Yeah, that’s cool.” I look back now and it was probably really crappy, but I knew enough that I could do it.
But I think you’re right — in a lot of cases, people don’t cut their teeth the same way, coming up playing. I’m not saying they don’t pay dues. It’s just different. By the time I got to Chet, I had years under my belt of playing clubs in front of audiences and traveling. I had a couple of offers from smaller labels to make records before I got to him, but I knew I wasn’t ready, and I wanted to wait for the right opportunity to come. About a year ago, Caryn was looking through some old papers and we found my original contract with RCA that Chet signed me. It was executed June 30, 1977, and I was thinking, Oh my gosh, he died June 30, 2001. I thought that was really odd, of all the days.
Looking back, I think in a lot of ways I didn’t have a childhood. I don’t mean that in a bad way. My family moved a lot, and when I was in sixth grade I was traveling to Kentucky with my uncle’s band to play on television in Bowling Green. Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley were there as kids, too. They were playing in different bands. I didn’t know them at the time, but years later we talked about it. My childhood was short and I look at that as a good thing, because I was having musical training. While other kids were riding bikes, or when they were at the Forest Park pool, I was home practicing with my dad, so I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I was always doing the music stuff somewhere. When I was in sixth or seventh grade, we used to play this little VFW in my hometown on Fridays and Saturdays. There was a big bay window and the drums sat against it. My back was against the glass, but it was painted green from the outside. I took my plastic-tipped drumsticks and I scratched a little place in the corner about the size of a dime. On Friday nights, my buddies that I went to school with would go to the movies, and then they’d ride their bikes down to where I was playing and listen to me through the glass. They’d tap on the window between songs and I’d look out through that little place and see them. This was in 1968 or 1969, right around the time that the world started changing.
You mentioned George Harrison earlier. Was he your favorite Beatle? What made him a great guitarist and how did he influence your playing?
I would have a hard time saying which one was my favorite. Listening to their records and those beautiful melodies, I love all four of those guys for different reasons. I remember watching them as a kid and thinking that George was playing a Chet Atkins model Gretsch. That connection was evident right from the start, that he revered Chet. I really idolize Paul McCartney. The singer and songwriter in me loves him. I was with Chet once in London and Paul McCartney called. They were supposed to come to our show at Royal Albert Hall. We were in the Swiss Cottage area of London, the phone rang in Chet’s room and he knew I loved Paul, so Chet goes, “It’s Paul McCartney.” He saw my eyes light up, so he motioned like, "Come over here.” I walked over and leaned down and he let me listen in to the conversation. Paul said, “Linda and I are coming to your show,” and Chet said, “That’s great. I’m looking forward to seeing you,” and I’m listening. As it turned out, he didn’t come. Laurence Juber from Wings came to the show and he brought a note from Paul. It was handwritten in ballpoint pen and it said, “Chet, sorry we couldn’t come. We got called out of the country. I’ll be back in a few days. If you’re still here, give me a call,” and he wrote his home phone number down. I remember because it was on the back of a popcorn box that looked like a box you would buy at a movie theater. I gave it to my brother and he still has it! Laurence is fantastic. I love him. He’s a great guy and a fantastic player. I have a song that we wrote and recorded that’s never been released. It’s really cool. He came in and we wrote and recorded it together. I should put it out sometime. No one has ever heard it.
When did you begin to see the industry circling the drain?
I think I started noticing it when I was on Capitol, around 2001 or 2002. I started feeling it. It’s hard to judge, though, because I was at the point where my career had changed. I was starting to not be on radio so much and I could feel it shifting. There’s a point, I guess, where an artist gets older and you feel that you’re not at the place that you once were. I thought my shows were still good and I still made good records, but radio and the industry had started to change. They were talking about the pay for play and all that stuff and how the labels were as close to an unethical kind of line as you could probably get: “If you send this program director and his family on a trip to Hawaii, they might take a record to Number One.” When it became like that, I started feeling like it should stay about the music and not about buying it out, and I hate to say it, but that’s what it was. When you have to do that to get records played, it’s really not right. They found a way around it, another way to skirt under the law and the radar, and there was a big thing about it not long after. People would do whatever they had to do to get the records played, and for me … I even hate talking about it. That’s the ugly part of this business, and it’s not about music. My son Ross, who lives in New York, is into classical music and orchestration, and it’s all about performance with him. I love that. He teaches me so much.
What is the difference between playing guitar and being a guitarist?
It cracks me up when you look at some of these television shows. They hold a guitar and strum it and they think they’re guitarists. Just because you have Pro Tools in your bedroom doesn’t mean you’re a producer. You can play the guitar all you want, but that doesn’t mean you’re a guitarist. One of the things that drives me crazy is when they call singers musicians. “She’s a musician from Iowa,” and she holds a microphone and sings. No, you’re not. You’re not playing an instrument. A musician has studied music. They honed their craft and they play an instrument. Maybe the definition and the lines have blurred over the years, but just because you hold a guitar doesn’t mean you’re a guitarist. It’s all those years you put in studying; as Chet used to say, “Hunker over a guitar.” Garrison Keillor had a great line at Chet’s funeral, and Chet was this way. He said, “Chet had a hollow place in his chest where his guitar fit.” He’d done it so long that his body shaped around it, and that’s really true. So yes, I think there’s a vast difference between somebody who plays a guitar and a true guitarist.