NASHVILLE SKYLINE: He Was the Sound Behind Waylon Jennings, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard

R.I.P. Ralph Mooney -- the Greatest Steel Guitar Player Ever

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

He was the greatest musician you probably never heard of.

But in terms of musical innovation and impact and influence, I consider Ralph Mooney to be the finest steel guitar player who ever graced a stage or a recording studio. His original, free-form, fluid musical style made him a rock star in country music for decades.

Mooney died after a long and full life and career on March 20 at the age of 82.

To just thumbnail his biography, he played pivotal roles in the careers of and played on the biggest hits of many of country music's greatest stars: Wynn Stewart, Buck Owens, Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard, to name a few. In California, when Mooney played with Stewart and Owens, he created the steel backbone of the Bakersfield Sound, which was stronger and much more rock-propelled than anything coming out of Nashville.

With Jennings' band, the Waylors, Mooney's powerful but lyrical sound developed and defined what became the distinctive Outlaw sound.

And he co-wrote one of country music's greatest songs ever, "Crazy Arms," which was an enormous hit for Ray Price and has been recorded countless times.

Along the way, he was also one of the finest men you could ever know.

I first met Moon in the early 1970s when I went out on tour for a week or so with Waylon and the Waylors to do a magazine story. This was in the pre-Outlaw days and Waylon's career was given a low priority by his record label, RCA. He had just released the Ladies Love Outlaws album (which included "Crazy Arms"), which was a bit of a preview of what was to come. I had given that album a bad review, saying it sounded vague and unfinished. Waylon called me at home and said, "This is Waylon Jennings. I just wanted to tell you that I read what you wrote -- and, hoss, you were right! RCA took that record away from me and put it out before I was ready. C'mon out and ride the bus with us." How could I say no?

I met up with their tour bus at a bus stop in Lubbock, in West Texas, just before they embarked on a tour of honky-tonks and Indian reservations in El Paso and throughout New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado. About the Indian reservations: Jennings felt a special love and respect for Native Americans and loved to perform for them and help out in any way he could.

By "tour bus," I use the word very loosely. This was before the big, luxurious Prevost land cruisers of today with their pop-out sides and satellite dishes and giant flat-screen TVs and full kitchens.

Waylon's bus was a small, old, black "Flxible" bus with a bunch of small, cramped bunks built in and not much else. It was about the size of a mid-range school bus. It made for very Spartan living and travel. But it was an incredible experience for me. It was hard traveling -- long drives between gigs, with Cokes and cigarettes and Snickers candy bars for a late breakfast/lunch and with weed and beer and baloney sandwiches for dinner -- if there was dinner. But there was always music. And storytelling.

I knew Mooney's history but had no idea what he looked like and was more or less amazed to find him an amiable, soft-spoken man who looked perhaps more like a bank teller than a star sideman. But sit him down him at his steel, and he's totally in charge. He was no prima donna, and he flourished in any environment. He undertook only one solo project, a 1968 instrumental collaboration (titled Corn Pickin' and Slick Slidin') with the great Telecaster guitar pioneer James Burton. The album mainly showed why great sidemen should remain sidemen.

On that tour, I received a true lesson of what honky-tonk music really was and is -- out in the distant reaches of a hardcore country existence.

In those crowded, smoky, drunken, raucous honky-tonks, Moon's "Moon shots" of clear and piercing steel guitar notes shot through the heavy air like swift steel-tipped arrows. He was the perfect foil to Waylon's own fierce Telecaster twang style of picking, and their blend of sound together rode clean and clear above the intense crowd noise. What a perfect honky-tonk sound that was. That was true metal rock 'n' roll, as only the best country musicians can play it and experience it.

I still treasure an afternoon spent with Moon, just listening to him talk about some of the things he had done and seen. About playing the steel guitar, he was very modest in talking about his own success. About everyone he had worked with. And he described -- in very graphic terms -- exactly how to clean vomit out of a steel guitar, which, as it turns out, is a very laborious process. It was a skill he had learned very early in his drinking days, and it was, he said, a skill he hoped he never had to use again.

Marty Stuart's current album Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions contains a very fitting tribute to Moon. Ralph played an instrumental version of "Crazy Arms" (which he co-wrote with Charles P. Seals) for the record. The album also includes "Little Heartbreaker (The Likes of You)," which Stuart and Mooney co-wrote.

Stuart told me, "He's my favorite country musician of all time. I went down [to Texas] and just spent the day. We went out to the garage. I was singing through, like, a Peavey amp for the reverb. I took some songs to feel him out and see if he was up for it, for playing ... and, to me, he really helped define this record."

Stuart said he decided he wanted to turn "Crazy Arms" into an instrumental for one specific reason.

"'Crazy Arms' is one of those songs that can get crushed beneath its own weight," Stuart said. "It's kind of like 'Orange Blossom Special' or 'Rocky Top' or 'Crazy.' But when you go back to the original interpretation, you hear it in a new way. When I heard it played instrumentally in that garage, I felt, 'Ooh, that is a completely different take.' He didn't want to play it! And I said, 'Come on, play it! Play it the way you wrote it. If we don't like it, we don't have to use it.' But it turned out to be like a postcard from the Old Testament."

CORRECTION: In last week's column, I wrote that Cricket's Muve Music service did not have access to indie music labels. I have since been advised by the friendly folk there that, in fact, they do have licensing agreements with many indie labels and that songs by Taylor Swift and Mumford & Sons and many others are indeed available on Muve. I regret the error.

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