From Within Marin
As far back as Foamfoot, a 1994 ensemble thrown together for one show at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, singer Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes has shown a penchant for covering classic rock songs.
After slide guitarist Luther Dickinson joined the Crowes in 2007, the percentage and quality of cover songs in their shows really took off, perhaps best exemplified during the group’s December 2010 run at the Fillmore in San Francisco.
In 2011, after two hiatuses and four years prior to the Crowes’ breakup (thankfully a third reunion is in the wings for this summer), Robinson began busying himself with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood—a Grateful Dead-inspired band that issued six studio albums. In 2018 and 2019, he mostly stuck close to his Marin County home with the Green Leaf Rustlers: a “cosmic American” jamband supergroup formed to cover old-school country rock standards.
As did many of the genre’s pioneers, the Rustlers emphasized the value of maverick pedal steel guitar playing, and Barry Sless (Moonalice, David Nelson Band) was more than up to the task. The Rustlers’ inaugural release, “From Within Marin,” is a live album of highlights from three nights at the Sweetwater Inn in March 2018 (before a keyboardist was added); its 10 tracks were recorded and culled by legendary Grateful Dead engineer Betty Cantor-Jackson.
Robinson and Sless are joined on “Marin” by bassist Pete Sears (Jefferson Starship, Moonalice), drummer John Molo (Bruce Hornsby and the Range) and guitarist Greg Loiacono (Mother Hips). Good New Music emailed Sless to ask him a few questions.
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GNM: You must be in heaven when you get to play those long solos during these really cool old-school country rock tunes. Do you get to just play what you feel, or does Chris Robinson tell you which songs, where and how long?
SLESS: Well, being a player that has made most of my living improvising, it’s always nice to be part of a project with like-minded players where we have the flexibility to do that. Chris decides which songs we stretch out on and generally where, but never tells us what to play or for how long. If he hears that one of us is developing a solo and continuing to build it, he’ll let it go as long as it needs and sometimes even gives the nod to take it around one more time and push it a little farther along. And then there’s a few jams on the record that I play guitar on that are completely open-ended and not restricted by a chord progression, and they’re free to go anywhere the muse leads them.
GNM: Were you a regular-guitar player first, and then at some point decided to take a stab at pedal steel? If so, was there a defining moment of inspiration that you can cite?
SLESS: The first pedal steel I was aware of hearing was on CSNY’s “Teach Your Children.” The sound really caught my ear, and I was wondering what the instrument was that made that sound. That was Jerry Garcia playing it and was before I was familiar with who he was. At some point I got turned on to Poco, who had the great pedal steel player Rusty Young; the Flying Burrito Brothers, who had Sneaky Pete Kleinow and later Al Perkins; and Pure Prairie League, who had John David Call and Al Brisco on steel. I had been playing guitar for a few years and starting trying to emulate the steel stuff those guys were playing on guitar until I had the opportunity to get a pedal steel. One night on the way to one of my first regular gigs, I was surfing the AM radio stations in my car and discovered I could pick up the Grand Old Opry from WSM in Nashville on the weekends. At that point I started listening to old-school country and trying to pick up ideas from those cats. That opened me up to a whole new world of pedal steel.
GNM: Have you ever thought of making your own solo album, possibly an instrumental pedal steel (and/or regular-guitar) one?
SLESS: The thought has crossed my mind to do a pedal steel album that I also play guitar on. Maybe some day …
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Robinson, Sless & Co. have done a real service in the cause of preserving a nearly forgotten musical genre, while putting their own twist on it via extended improvisation. Here’s hoping others are inspired to carry the torch, and that the Green Leaf Rustlers stage their own reunion in the future—or at least release more live recordings that undoubtedly are in the can somewhere.
1. Big Mouth Blues (Gram Parsons)
2. Just Groove Me (Doug Sahm)
3. No Expectations (Rolling Stones)
5. Folsom Prison Blues (Johnny Cash)>
6. That’s All Right (Elvis Presley)
7. Standin’ (Townes Van Zandt)
8. Positively 4th Street (Bob Dylan)
9. I’m A Ramblin’ Man (Waylon Jennings)>
10. Ride Me High (J.J. Cale)
Total time: 1:04:28