Winnie Winston

Wanted for Steeling

Richard Weize Archives (ACD 12570)

Unlike most pedal steel players, the late great Winnie (aka Julian) Winston’s background was in folk music rather than country: As an award-winning banjoist in the 1960s, he formed the New York City Ramblers with David Grisman, a group that shared the stage with Bob Dylan at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival.

In the ’70s Winston switched gears. He designed and built his own pedal steel guitar, and later co-wrote a self-teaching manual called “Pedal Steel Guitar” with Bill Keith. Session work followed — as both banjoist and pedal steel guitarist — for Steve Goodman, David Bromberg, Rosalie Sorrels and Mary McCaslin, among others.

His “solo” pedal-steel albums from that period largely consisted of three obscure, long-out-of-print LPs made with friend and guitarist Hank Davis — the first two of which were issued under the nom de plume “Raunch Radley” (a fictitious country-music legend dreamed up by Davis); the third release bore their real names.

“Wanted for Steeling” is a collection curated by Davis that draws from the above-mentioned three albums as well as from previously unreleased recordings. It’s also another excellent release commissioned by reissue meister Richard Weize for the RWA label, his post-Bear Family Records endeavor.

Though they attended the same New York high school in the late ’50s, Winston and Davis moved in different circles socially and musically, with the former inclined toward folk and the latter preferring rockabilly. Upon graduating, Winston studied industrial design and Davis pursued psychology, and both became teachers. Winston kept up his musical pursuits playing pedal steel in a country band, whereas Davis — who’d wound up at the University of Guelph in Ontario — put recording/performing on the back burner. But then things changed.

The following excerpt from an archival newspaper article in the Kitchener-Waterloo (Ontario) Record tells what happened next:

“(I got a phone call from high school friend) Winnie Winston, a guy I hadn’t seen for 16 years. He played pedal steel guitar in a country band, and he called to say that he had dreamed of me three nights running, and thought he’d better look me up.”

Hank invited Winston to his farm near Puslinch, and Winston brought his pedal steel along.

“We sat around the house playing, and we got real good real fast,” says Hank. “We decided to do a recording session and see what happened.”

Davis and Winston booked time in the Mercey Brothers Studio in Elmira. They recorded 10 songs in 10 takes.

Later, they visited a second studio. Everything about the sessions pleased Hank … except the cost.

“I said to myself, ‘If we’re going to keep making records, I might as well build my own studio at the farm.’ I just went out and bought the equipment and now we record at my place.”

“Wanted for Steeling” documents a telepathic interplay between the visually oriented and psychologically oriented minds, respectively, of Winston and Davis.

This is not flashy hillbilly jazz modeled after 1950s pedal-steel/electric-guitar duo Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant. Davis wears his rock ’n’ roll heart on his sleeve, sometimes enhancing the bed tracks of guitar and pedal steel with his own overdubbed bass, drums, piano or additional guitar. Winston often solos into uncharted territory, using his mind’s eye as a sextant and Davis’ guitar as his North Star.

Davis uses finesse in sequencing the compilation’s tracks, choosing to blend the Raunch Radley selections with the cuts from “Cloud Dancing.”

“With (the) Raunch Radley (material), we were looking to create the feel of vintage ’50s rock ’n’ roll and kind of painted ourselves into a corner,” Davis told Good New Music recently in a telephone interview. “ ‘Cloud Dancing’ (which followed the two Raunch Radley LPs) allowed Winnie to stretch out on pedal steel.”

“Winnie would play the Steel Guitar Convention in St. Louis and come here on his way back,” Davis added. “I got used to the fact that he would come in and put his steel guitar on the floor and be ready to go. I remember one year I had everything ready for him in the studio so he could get it done in Take 1.”

When asked who initiated the idea for the compilation, Davis said it was mutual.

“Richard Weize had put out a Jerry Byrd album,” he told GNM. “I said, ‘If you can put out a Byrd album, you can put out a Winston album.’ He asked if I had the tapes, and I said yes. He wanted to know if I could supply archival photos, and I told him I thought so. ‘Let’s do it!’ he said.”

Among the collection’s previously unissued tracks is “Spider Trap,” at once a groovy and laid-back number. “It’s basically blues,” Davis said. “We did that in one take. It was after ‘Cloud Dancing’ and we never did anything with the tape. I had at least 50 tunes recorded with Winnie and I thought, ‘This is it — it has to come out.’ ”

Another song to see its first light of day is the bouncy “Right Out the Door,” which sounds a lot like “Green Green Grass of Home” but with a Luther Perkins-style chug-along rhythm guitar.

“Dancing Steel” is a previously unreleased instrumental reworking of a Davis vocal song, “I Just Don’t Feel Like Dancing.” Davis explained, “I recorded the vocal version with Winnie in the studio in 1974, the first year we got together. I didn’t have a studio at my house yet. I sang and played piano and Winnie played steel. Years later we tried it as instrumental, and I overdubbed drums and bass.”

In fact, Davis incorporates five songs recorded for his own vocal albums on this otherwise instrumental collection. “But I Do,” “What Went Wrong,” “Conversation” and “Mongoose” have remained in the can for nearly 40 years before seeing release here. “Old New Orleans R&B” came out on Davis’ “One Way Track” album.

The vocal songs were included to show that Winston — besides being a great soloist — was also an excellent sideman, Davis told GNM. “(I knew) those songs … wouldn’t go down well with people who buy my albums today. Otherwise, they were just going to sit in the vault.”

Other standout offerings from among the field of 27 songs (all of which are first-rate) are “Steady as She Goes,” aka “Christmas Train” from the “Cloud Dancing” LP; the previously unissued “Thanksgiving Blessing,” one of three such showpiece tunes recorded immediately after one of Winston’s Pedal Steel Guitar Convention gigs (the other two being “Waltzing Matilda” and the Eagles’ “Desperado”); “Drivin’ and Jivin’ ”; “Misty Morn,” which appeared in a different version on Winston’s 1978 solo album “Steel Wool”; “Big Black Machine”; “Bouncing off the Trees”; and “Dreaming at the Bar.”

Tracks
1. Right Out The Door
2. Almost Home
3. Steady As She Goes
4. Downhill Blues
5. Old New Orleans R&B
6. Dancing Steel
7. Truckstop
8. Snowballs In June
9. Cajun Potatoes
10. The Eagle
11. But I Do
12. The Frog Invasion
13. Lonely Boys Like Me
14. Winding Down
15. Thanksgiving Blessing
16. What Went Wrong
17. Drivin’ And Jivin’
18. Misty Morn
19. Spider Trap
20. Waltzing Matilda
21. Conversation
22. Desperado
23. Big Black Machine
24. Old Time Friend
25. Bouncing Off The Trees
26. Dreaming At The Bar
27. Mongoose

Total time: 1:18:19

External links
artist’s site
amazon.com
Bear Family Records

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