Tuesday, March 29, 2011

"Show 'em the Boot That Made Merle Haggard Famous"

You can hear those words uttered by the late, great Waylon Jennings on the deluxe version of Waylon Live.  The boot Waylon refers to is covering the foot of his long-time pedal steel guitar player, Ralph Mooney.   “Moon”, one of the all-time greatest steel guitar players, passed away last week at the age of 82.

Ralph Mooney will be remembered as one of the most unique talents to grace the stage.  A co-writer of one of the top country songs in history, Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms”, Mooney went on to help craft the “Bakersfield Sound” with Merle Haggard, before becoming a cornerstone in the Waymore Blues band, backing up Waylon for the better part of 30 years.  Mooney was one of those rare musicians that was able to define an artists’ sound.  As you listen to Waylon’s material from the 1970’s, this is very evident.

Waylon had been in the midst of a lengthy battle with his record label, RCA Records, in an effort to gain creative freedom of his recordings.  It is a battle that he eventually won, which was to the benefit of the recording industry at large.  Waylon was now able to free to create the music as he wanted to.  With his other sidekick and long-time drummer Richie Albright, Waylon and his charges set out to create some of the most memorable music in history.  A key player in this sound, was Ralph Mooney.

When you have a talent like Ralph Mooney on your side, the songs become more like a duet, as opposed to a solo effort.  Nowhere is this more evident, in my mind, than in the Waylon classic “Rainy Day Woman.”  The scorching steel guitar throughout this song is as fluid, crisp and obvious as Waylon’s vocals.  Some musicians have that effect on a song.  As a comparison, listen to Conway Twitty’s classic “Lost in the Feeling,” featuring another master steel guitar player in John Hughie.  Or, listen to the live version of Bob Seger’s “Main Street,” led by sax-master Alto Reed.  All of these songs have such stark music solo’s by these great musicians that it makes it impossible, at least in my mind, to not consider these duets.  Mooney was gifted enough to complement Waylon’s vocals, while not drowning out Waylon’s vocal performance.

Marty Stuart recruited Ralph Mooney to play steel guitar on some tracks for his “Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions” album.  And folks let me tell you, Ralph still had it.  Playing on my personal favourite from the album “Little Heartbreaker,” he also performed an instrumental version of the song he co-wrote, “Crazy Arms.”  This would turn out to be Ralph Mooney’s final recordings.  God bless Marty Stuart for making the trip to Mooney’s Texas home to capture these historical moments.

The music world has lost one its all-time greats with the passing of Ralph Mooney.  He leaves behind an incredible legacy of noteworthy music.  He was able to define the sound of not one, but two of the biggest and greatest legends in music history.  I have no doubt that in very quick fashion, Ralph Mooney will also take his rightful place alongside of those legends in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee.

God Bless You, Moon.  Play “Crazy Arms” for them one time up there!  

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