Harold Lee "Curly" Chalker is a departed great of the pedal steel guitar, known as "Curls" to his friends and known surely by his sound, if not actually by his name, to mobs of country music fans. Chalker reached a huge audience playing steel guitar on the somewhat moronic Hee Haw television series for 18 years. This provided more security than a string of one-nighters or even the Nashville studios, his second home up until his death in the late '90s. He played on vintage recording sessions by Lefty Frizzell in the early '50s. Chalker is the pedal steel player on Hank Thompson's epic hit "Wild Side of Life." He took part in the snazzy country instrumental sessions of harmonica virtuoso Charlie McCoy, contributed hot licks to a wingding of a session fronted by fiddler Buddy Spicher, headed for the Bayou when crazy Cajun Doug Kershaw came a callin', and was even open-minded enough to contribute to the Country Porn album by the largely forgotten Chinga Chavin. All in all, not a bad track record.
Chalker is considered to be one of the absolute greatest of country music's pedal steel players, coming up with improvised passages with the skill of a master craftsman whose buffing wheel is primed and ready. Chalker has yet another nickname amongst pedal steel players, "the King of Chords." His mastery of various enhanced jazz chords is pretty much unrivaled among pedal steel players, few of whom have been able to figure out just how the man managed to insert these chords into backup licks as if he was using a headchopper's axe. Then, he would turn around and play a ballad with total sensitivity, not something one would expect from a player credited with introducing "gutting" to pedal steel guitar. No, this is not some kind of horrible execution of a session musician that has overstayed his welcome, it is something much more boring, perhaps: volume swells used to explosively deliver certain chord voicings.
Chalker was also in demand by the pop set, making largely uncredited appearances on some chart toppers. One such side is Marie Osmond's "Paper Roses," while mixed somewhere beneath the "lai-la-lai" tracks on Simon & Garfunkel's "The Boxer" is a trace of pedal steel. Good old Curls. He played live or in the studio with Willie Nelson, the Gap Band, Ray Price, Leon Russell, and even rocked around the clock with the original Bill Haley and the Comets. It all began out West, where Chalker began his professional career. Living and working out of Las Vegas, he became widely known as one of the best players in the West. In the '60s, the lure of Nashville was like a large industrial magnet. He was immediately hired for many recording sessions. Producers liked the percussive element of his sound and those nice, fat chords. It was all typical Nashville business, with producers getting sick of one type of pedal steel guitar sound after insisting on having nothing remotely different for months. He was in the right place at the right time, as the sound he had developed largely on his own was just the thing producers were looking for. One producer was so impressed that he mounted a project presenting Chalker as a soloist in front of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. Unfortunately, the resulting Counterpoint languished in the can for years, but was eventually released.
Chalker almost went to jail once for whacking a drunk over the head with the metal leg of his pedal steel guitar. Ironically, this breach of temper attracts pedal steel players to him even more, since he did it to stop the drunk from leaning on his pedal steel -- which is apparently the worst thing you can do to a pedal steel player besides pouring a cup of coffee on their fret board. Chalker died of a cancer-related brain tumor. ~ Eugene Chadbourne, Rovi