One of the most recognizable sounds of country music comes from an instrument that’s often overlooked: the pedal steel guitar. And one of the nation’s top pedal steel players lives - no, not in Nashville - but in Connecticut.
John Widgren has performed with recording artists including Jonathan Coulton, Patty Loveless, Martina McBride, Toby Keith and others. He’s played on Broadway, done hundreds of commercials and been a guest instrumentalist with the Boston Pops Orchestra.
He joined Connecticut Public Radio’s Diane Orson for music and conversation in our New Haven studio. Here are some highlights.
On The History Of The Steel Guitar
“It’s the most modern iteration of what we call the old Hawaiian guitars. Hawaiian music was based on being able to take a moveable bar up and down across the strings. The more modern instruments have a series of levers on the underside that are attached to rods, so that when I hit a pedal or a knee lever, it stretches the string.”
On Hearing The Instrument For The First Time
“The first time I heard pedal steel that I noticed was the great Buddy Emmons playing on a Judy Collins tune called ‘Someday Soon’. Hearing that music and that tune in that context hit my heart like an arrow.”
On Why The Instrument Fits So Well With Country Music
“The way it moves, it emulates the human voice.”
On The Next Generation Of Players
“A lot of people bemoan what is happening to the tradition of using pedal steel in country music. They say modern country music has become essentially rock n’ roll, and pedal steel doesn’t have the same kind of voice. But I see a blossoming of pedal steel being used in other genres. I’m seeing young players everywhere, and they are on fire about the instrument and taking it to new places. And I’m glad to be a part of it.”