Jay Dee Maness is an acclaimed pedal steel guitar player who played on the Byrds’ 1968 Sweetheart of the Rodeo (Columbia). Lloyd Green was the second steel guitar player on that album, and as a 50th anniversary commemoration, together the two of them have created an instrumental tribute to that album: Journey to the Beginning: a Steel Guitar Tribute to the Byrds ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’, due out today on Coastal Bend Records.
Americana Highways had the good fortune of being able to talk to Jay Dee Maness last week about this and some of the other spectacular people and enterprises Maness has worked with.
Maness and Green recorded with the Byrds during the period when the band members were Gram Parsons, Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn. Parsons was notorious for his manic talent and his pivotal role in functioning at the intersection of country and rock ‘n roll, befriending Keith Richards and then passing away at only 26 years old. Maness worked together on two albums with Gram Parsons, so I asked him for some of the history behind that. “I first met Gram in Los Angeles on the jam circuit, he wasn’t with the Byrds yet. We would have jam sessions at that time that, believe it or not, sometimes would last a whole weekend. We’d get through at a club on Friday night and then we’d go to another club and jam all weekend and then just go home on Monday. We did that repeatedly, I mean, for years and years. That just doesn’t happen anymore. In those days there were clubs like that all over the Los Angeles area, so I got to know Gram, he’d come into the Palomino Club where I worked. One day he just asked me to play on the International Submarine Band album, and that led into the Byrd’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo album a couple years later. ”
“How has the technical process of recording a record changed from 1968?” I asked him. “I’ve been playing the steel guitar for 64 years. I first started recording sessions with a guy named Cliffy Stone, whom you probably don’t know. He worked for Capitol, he did a lot of the early records: Hank Thompson and Merle Travis. He produced a lot of those records. When we first started recording it was ½ inch tape to 2 track. We would do Cliffy’s records. There was a woman we called Mrs. Miller, her husband was the famous Mitch Miller who had a tv show where people would sing along. She was an opera singer but she did a country record and I got to play on that because of Cliffy. That was one of my first sessions, that was at Capitol Records. That was the beginning of my career as a session musician. A couple years later and by the time of Sweetheart of the Rodeo, we were recording with 2 inch tape, to 8 track. Everybody had a track, we were all in the studio together. We’d fix things in the moment, as we went.”
The list is pages long of the star studded gigs on Maness’ resume. “I did the Dukes of Hazzard television show for seven seasons. There were two steel players on most of that. My friend Doug Livingston played the written parts – when they wanted a certain melody, and he also doubled on piano — on all of that. So I played the chase scenes! At one time we had a big band, we had a horn section, harmonica, and Larry McNeely playing 5-string banjo; people don’t do that so much anymore as a live group. For movies, they do still bring in orchestras now, but there’s a lot of overdubbing for other things now, so you don’t see your friends anymore. You can mail it in if you have to. People are recording at home and they send you the tracks and you put your part in and send it back. But with film they still have musicians in live.”
“To record the Sweetheart reinterpretation, we got together to do it. We were sitting shoulder-to-shoulder the whole time, thinking “wow I’d better step my game up, this guy’s good.” (laughs) The band was there: bass, drums, rhythm guitar, and then we brought in a fiddle player, so we got it done that way. The music on the original album was a small band and we played together then too back in 1968.”
As a fan of the television series Murder She Wrote, I asked him to tell us more about recording for that series. “I just saw one of those episodes the other night. Watching television I was falling asleep and Murder She Wrote came on and I raised up and said “Hey’ that’s me!” That’s another example of how in those days we played live as an orchestra, that music that you hear live behind the dialogue, that’s called source music. That was all source, as in if they were in a bar in the episode, there was music, we’d go in and live record that music for the scene. That stuff could be used over and over, like for a completely different film.”
“Every year I get a check from movies I did sometimes 30-40 years ago—like The Longest Yard, I played on that, I still get a few dollars every year for that film. Or maybe the music we made for that film. We’re in the SAG union & they keep track of it. They send the itemized list each year and I get to see the films my music was on, it’s really kind of neat.”
Another time, Maness worked with Tom Petty. “Tom Petty was a really, really nice guy. His office called me one time and said, “Tom wants you to play on this record.” It was a Hank Williams tribute record Timeless. Tom was contributing the song “You’re Gonna Change Your Mind.” “He wants you to play , and wants you to come to his house,” his manager told me. Well, I didn’t know Tom, and you know, I was so busy. I had done a lot of sessions where you’d go to their home and they’re still in their housecoat & slippers and I just blurted out: “When I get there, you tell Tom when I get there I’m ready to work.” (laughs) “Well it wasn’t the nicest thing to say, but I just said it the way it was.”
“So I roll up to this place down by the beach, and this is Malibu so you know, everybody’s hiding from something, so I have to go through 2 security gates. I roll up and one gate opens, I went to the next one, and I roll through into this beautiful manicured courtyard with the red brick, and the whole thing. I thought this was a parking lot, but this was his driveway! And there he is, waiting in the driveway, he helped me unload my equipment, he was absolutely the nicest, most polite guy ever. He says, “I know you’re in a hurry, let’s get in there and get this done.” And then I worked with him a few other times, one with Chris Hillman’s new record Bidin’ My Time, (Rounder Records) Tom Petty produced that one, that just came out, I did a song on that.”
And you played the famous lick on Eric Clapton’s Tears in Heaven? How did that come about, I wondered. “Eric Clapton is another long story. I went to the studio, got all my stuff loaded in, got inside and somebody told me “Eric isn’t feeling well and isn’t going to show up today. Can you come back tomorrow?” So tomorrow comes, and Eric is there, feeling better. We took all day to do that one song. When he finally got the take that he wanted, I thought I was finished, I was unloading and putting stuff away. Eric says “Wait, wait, I want you to do the solo on this record,” and we stayed, just the two of us, and finished. And the rest is history! It really became a good record for him. And I got a platinum record of that one on my wall, Eric signed it and gave it to me.”
How did you come to work with Vince Gill? “I played on his first two albums on RCA records, he was 19 years old. A friend of mine, a fiddle player named Byron Berline, brought Gill with him from Oklahoma; Byron was living here in Los Angeles and he just said ‘I want you to come over and listen to this guy sing,’ and the rest was history. I spent 2000-2004 on the road with Vince Gill that was a great experience, a great band.”
If you had to pick a favorite experience, a favorite band, which would it be? “Oh it would have to be the “Desert Rose” band. That band started in 1986 and Chris Hillmann, the bass player on Sweetheart of the Rodeo, just out of the blue said one day “I want to start a band, call it Desert Rose.” That was the beginning of probably the best band I have ever worked in. I loved the music. Even a couple years ago we had a reunion and we went to Norway and we did one gig. We had a rehearsal and we looked at each other, like, why are we rehearsing, we already know this? My fondest memories are from working in that band.”
Noting that pedal steel involves the entire body to play it, I asked him to tell us more about the instrument itself. “It can be a mechanical nightmare. Everything has to work in unison. Nothing is more sour than an out of tune pedal steel… or a fiddle! (laughs) Part of being a steel guitar player is knowing how to work on it if something goes wrong. You have to know where to go to find the problems and solve them. They can be a handful. They’re heavy and a lot to carry around, with its own amp. I play an Emmons and Lloyd plays a Sho-Bud, those are the best guitars.”
All these years, you’ve worked with bands, television, movies, et cetera. And now, are solo albums going to be your new frontier? “All through the years, I have never done one of my own. Peter Freiberger and Skip Edwards, who played for years with Dwight Yoakum, they both would say to me over and over again: “Let’s do a solo album!” and I’d always say “Nah, I don’t want to do one, I don’t want to work that hard.” (laughs) But then one day they caught me in an off moment, and I just relented, saying “yeah, okay, let’s try one!” And we did one and released it in 2016, called it From Where I Sit (Picks & Bar Music). It’s my idea of how the steel guitar ought to be from where I’m sitting. (laughs) And this reinterpretation of Sweetheart of the Rodeo has been a joy. I am looking to have fun. If something is fun, I’ll do it. I just want to have fun, be with my friends and family. For instance, I do steel guitar shows with the Texas Steel Guitar Association, we just did one last month, Lloyd Green and I do them, we just did one, we had 2,000 people at the show. Those are wonderful.”
Let’s sum up the release of Journey to the Beginning! “The new album is the same songs in the same order as the old, but Lloyd and I played the songs instrumentally, and we played them different than we played them back 50 years ago. While we were recording, we’d look at each other and say “I can’t play them the way I did back then” so we played them the way we feel today. And we had such a great time being together, I’ve known him for over 50 years, he’s a good friend, he’s been undercover for some time, and he’s coming out of the woodwork now. He did the Dallas show steel guitar show this spring, he hadn’t done a show since 2003! The album was a blessing in disguise. It was my idea but John Macy of Macy Sound Studios produced it and made it all work.”
What’s coming up this spring? “We’re going to be in Nashville on the week of the 16th , playing the album down live on the 22nd with the same band that recorded it with us.” https://www.nowplayingnashville.com/event/lloyd-green-jay-dee-maness/
“We have all kinds of stuff going on.” The band will be at Grimey’s in Nashville tomorrow for Record Store Day, signing copies. For more information, check here.