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Speedy West - Steel Guitar

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Artist: Speedy West

Album: Steel Guitar

Label: Sundazed

Review date: Jun. 7, 2005

Southern California, in the post-Word War II and pre-Rock n’roll era, was home to a cultural upheaval that eventually produced a shiny, streamlined, automobile-centric suburban lifestyle for thousands of Americans who had migrated from rural places. In the 1950s, disparate aspects of this new culture coalesced into a consumer-friendly musical genre that blended hometown country roots, slick western swing, progressive jazz, and Hollywood soundtrack music into a high-octane style designed for dancing and socializing. Steel guitar pioneer Speedy West’s music, with its enthusiastic energy and sense of uncurbed optimism, might well be the zenith for this eclectic musical synthesis. More to the point, Speedy, with his trick-bag steel guitar glossalia – skittering chromatic runs, explosive sonic crashes, plangent vibrato, and wah-wah mute effects – should take his rightful place in the lineage of inventive, ground-breaking electric guitarists who have celebrated and exploited the creative and technological alchemy between instrumental technique and electronics. (Les Paul, Jimi Hendrix, Pete Cosey, Adrian Belew, Tom Morello, to name a few.)

Steel Guitar has long been a sought-after and closely-studied album for students and fans of country steel guitar and pre-rock n’ roll exotica. Made up of material from sessions recorded in the early and mid-1950s, it was actually a re-issue of sorts when it was first released in 1960. Capitol Records’ strategy for the album seemed to be that of mining the material Speedy had cut previously with telecaster guitar giant Jimmy Bryant, selecting West originals that showcased the pedal steel.

The tracks fall into one of two wide categories: zippy, swing-to-bop burners – titles like “Caffeine Patrol” or “Speedin’ West” should give you a sense of what’s going on here – or slow, lush Hawaiian-influenced mood pieces. (For the latter, check out “West Of Samoa ,” in which Speedy’s unbelievable evocation, with steel bar on strings, of the mysterious sounds of tropical fauna, nearly puts Augie Colon’s legendary birdcalls on Martin Denny’s “Quiet Village” to shame!)

Bob Irwin, the re-mastering wizard at Sundazed, has done a superb job of highlighting the clean, mellow mono sound that was a hallmark of Capitol’s LA studios in the 1950s, thus making it easy for us to hear the individual contributions of the West Coast Capitol Records country and western session guys, including guitarist Billy Strange, fiddler Harold Hensley, and the ubiquitous Cliffie Stone on stand-up bass. There are also a few nice tastes of Jimmy Bryant’s vivid, stunning guitar work. But, of course, this one is really all about Speedy West’s inventive and always surprising steel, with its sensuous slides and neuron-tingling electricity conjuring up sounds and images of fast, streamlined trains and big-finned cars moving in style through a world of desert highways, cowboy sunsets, and languid Pacific shorelines.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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