For decades, there has been one musical instrument that, when you hear it, causes you to think, “Ah, a country & western song.” That instrument is the pedal steel guitar (hereafter simply referred to as the steel guitar). There is truly nothing else that sounds like it. There’s no other instrument quite so closely associated with one particular genre of popular music. The steel guitar can cry like no other instrument, and that cry has emphasized the sorrow of countless sad country songs, even more than the fiddle.
In the last decade or so, there has been a paradigm shift in country music. The traditional “sad song” is becoming less and less common while the fun, upbeat, “positive” song is on the rise. As the sad songs have faded away, so has the steel guitar. That trademark weeping sound is being heard less and less.
It also seems that fewer and fewer musicians are learning to play the steel guitar. Watch country singers performing live, and look at the members of the band. In almost every case, it seems that the steel guitar is being played by the oldest member of the band, if there even is a steel guitar in the band. Why? My best guess is that, as country music is being influenced more and more by rock, there is more and more demand for showmanship. A steel guitar, because of the fact that it’s played sitting down, prevents the player from strutting about the stage or interacting directly with the audience. There is very little body movement involved in playing the instrument. You can’t pick up the steel guitar and wave it around while you play it. And so the steel guitar position in a country band now seems to be reserved for players who are left over from a generation of performers who simply stood on the stage and sang their songs, letting the music speak for itself without the need for flashy theatrics and pyrotechnics.
So I ask you, Doper country fans: Is the steel guitar on its way out? Will we even be hearing its cry ten years from now? Or will there be a resurgence of interest as a future generation of country musicians dust off the old records and say to themselves, “Hey, that sounds really cool. What is it?”