Interview: Spencer Cullum on the future of the pedal steel, folk and krautrock

Have you heard of Spencer Cullum? You may not have heard of him but if you have enjoyed the music of Miranda Lambert, Dylan LeBlanc, Deer Tick, Little Big Town, Charlie Worsham, Caitlin Rose and many more you will have heard his pedal steel playing because he is one of the most in-demand pedal steel players in Nashville.  You may not think that is too surprising but when you realise he was born in Romford, Essex, and was a key part of the UK americana scene you begin to realise he is not your average Nashville musician. This uniqueness is a characteristic of his new album ‘Coin Collection’ where he channels the spirit of Sandy Denny and ‘70s British folk-rock with that of the krautrock of Can and Neu! to move the sound of the pedal steel forward with support from some of the best young musicians in Nashville. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Spencer Cullum to discuss the influence fellow British pedal steel player B J Cole had on his early career, the challenges of being a Nashville and international session player during a pandemic, the ambient friendliness of the pedal steel guitar and the influence Eno had on his sound and his fond memories of the UK americana pub scene.

How are you, I hope you and your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of COVID?
Every day is a new day as they say. It is miserable weather but things are going alright here in Nashville. It is like wrapping up the year now, everything stops in Nashville around about November.

I heard you are coming back to the UK for a break or something, is that right?
Yes, I am. I’m pretty terrified about it with the North being shut down and a Tier 2 thing in London.

There is not a massive difference between Tier 2 and Tier 3 from a visitor’s perspective. Pubs and restaurants are shut under Tier 3 but not many people visit them under Tier 2 anyway. There may be a psychological difference though in terms of how the different tiers impact people. The way it is going the whole country is heading towards Tier 3.
I’m recording on the Isle of White, and I think there are only like eight cases there at the moment. I’m going to stay in my parent’s back garden shed until I get tested and get through the red tape, which is fine I understand why. Where are you based?

About twenty miles north of Liverpool on the coast, Formby. There are worse places to be confined.
Do you get to walk along the coast and what have you?

Yes, there is the Sefton Coastal Path in the sand dunes which is very popular. But you can’t go to the pub, restaurant or a gig, obviously.
Just bring the pub to your house.

Not quite the same though is it, particularly as you can only have people in your bubble in your house at any time?
2021 is going to be better.

Did you meet Trump when he was in Nashville?
I try to avoid him like the plague. It was really crazy, he was at Belmont University, and it was kind of terrible because that strip is really popular, and there is a really cool bagel shop which I go to, and those businesses on that strip were closed down for four days. This is at a time when things are tight anyway. Everyone was up in arms about it but I kind of stayed in. I have been watching the debates and hopefully, this will all turn out to be a bad dream. It is like the Soprano’s running the place. How is the americana scene back in the UK?

As you know it is niche and a lot of artists are struggling. People are using streaming and still deciding to release albums. Americana Music Association UK is doing a lot of seminars to help artists. A couple of artists have managed to break through despite all the challenges.
I always worry about the great venues that put on americana like The Betsey Trotwood (Farringdon Road, London EC1). Hopefully, they will keep going through it all.

Unfortunately, it is not guaranteed. The government has not been particularly generous to live music and live arts in general. What money that has been provided has to trickle down to where it is really needed.
I used to love going to places like the Green Note (Parkway, London NW1) and I can’t imagine those places not being around.

A pedal steel player in Nashville, no surprise there, but you are originally from the UK so fairly unique.
There aren’t a massive amount of pedal steel players in Nashville, but it is true there are more than in London.

I have heard a rumour that B J Cole has a contract out on you. Is that true?
HaHa. Seriously, B J did help me a lot when I first started getting into it. I actually hunted him down and begged him to teach me pedal steel, and he was absolutely brilliant.

I think he is 80 this year and there was talk of a celebration for him until COVID hit.
He has been keeping busy with stuff, he has his home recording place. He sent me a link recently to the new Matt Berry record that he is on. It is great, it is like ‘60s psychedelic pop stuff. I chat with him now and then to see how he is keeping, and he is still B J Cole.

How old were you when you were first attracted to the pedal steel guitar?
It was a while ago, I think I must have been about 22.

Why? It is a heavy instrument very difficult to carry.
That is true and then all the pedal steel players want really big fender twin amps. I guess I was really into British music that had pedal steel.

There is not a massive amount of that.
You are right, there isn’t a lot of it. It was like Elton John, Humble Pie and a few others including Gerry Rafferty. It was a lot of the stuff that B J played on.

Who else was there on pedal steel, Gerry Hogan?
Yes, Gerry Hogan. The Hollies had some pedal steel. With a lot of the British studios, there would be a dodgy pedal steel in the corner of  the studio and the British guys would be like “I can play this”. I guess when Jimmy Page was doing session work he would play pedal steel. There was a lot of that going on, on the records. I guess I learnt pedal steel from all those records.

Why did it capture your imagination?
Because it never seemed intrusive and never got in the way. It always just floated around everything. It is the only instrument where you can put the bar on one fret and move chords in one position. You know like with a lap steel you are moving left and right, but with a pedal steel you can change the sound, you can move the chords in one position, so it is just naturally the only instrument that can do that. I think on any kind of music you can use it, and it never gets in the way. It is almost like a Hammond that circles around it. I like the idea of being in the background, moving around the singer instead of being this like loud guitarist. All my favourite guitarists sound like pedal steel, people like Bill Frisell, and I love that. I like being in the background, it is a nice feeling, I look like I am taking a test.

What is the mental and physical coordination that is required to be a good pedal steel player?
Haha. You have knee leavers, use your feet and hands as well. I lost a significant part of my life to it. I really hunkered down, it is a commitment I think.

When did you go to Nashville?
About 10 years ago now, I think. I was playing with Caitlin Rose in the States and in Europe, I was recording on her records and then I started getting more work over in Nashville. There was a little bit of work I got over in England, but it wasn’t that great.

B J wouldn’t let you.
Haha. There was a little scene going in Nashville and they were supportive of musicians. People like Caitlan, Andrew Combs, Raylond Baxter and all these people were like kind of hanging out and everyone was playing their stuff and I was going I can do this. I moved in with Andrew Combs in East Nashville when East Nashville was dirt cheap. I was living in Whitechapel before and paying so much money and then I moved there and it was like costing me $300  per month. It was a little house where we could rehearse. I was playing on more records and I thought wow, I can get work here. Also, I could drive and put my pedal steel in a car and drive it down the road instead of trying to put my pedal steel on a sack barrow on the tube. So I just started playing here in Nashville.

Were the local studio players sympathetic to this English guy who had appeared?
There were obviously steel players in Nashville, but there weren’t as many as I thought there would be. I think they liked the fact I played like I was heavily influenced by B J Cole, and a lot of that sort of pedal steel. Not quite country, it was more like a British person tackling it. I think British people attack stuff in a different way than Americans. I did have to learn to play country in Nashville because in London I played sessions and when I was in Nashville it was like can you play like Pete Drake and Lloyd Greene. I really got my arse kicked here.

If you mention pedal steel to most people it is country music. Do you think that country music has limited the pedal steel so it is not seen as a general instrument? It has become ubiquitous with country music.
Buddy Emmons and Shot Jackson were the leading lights with the pedal steel in Nashville in the ‘50s. It came from the lap steel and I think Webb Pierce’s ‘Slowly ’was the first pedal steel track. I think it could be the instrument’s time. I’m not saying I don’t like the country stuff, I really love that early stuff with country pedal steel playing. With artists like B J Cole and Greg Leisz who you will hear on a Daft Punk record, it is slowly, slowly creeping in.

You mentioned Bill Frisell earlier, and his guitar playing is playing with sound.
Like ethereal

Is it jazz, is it ambient, what is it?
It is like Eno was a guitar player with jazz overtones.

He knows his roots music as well doesn’t he?
He does and I kind of love that.

You have three paying jobs don’t you? You play sessions, you have your own instrumental band Steelism and you are in Miranda Lambert’s backing band.
I keep busy for now. I have to hustle now. I was touring a lot with Miranda Lambert who is a big star over here.

That must have been nice.
It was. I was used to playing in the Ruskin Arms (East Ham, London EC12) and I went from that to Madison Square Garden. It was crazy stuff, like a whirlwind. She is great, she really lets me play, she loves country music and I can play what I want so it is great.

I assume she could have had any pedal steel player she wanted?
It was a similar thing. I think Americans like that different sound, oh it is not traditional. I was also heavily influenced by that west coast steel, Sneaky Pete and Red Rhodes.

I heard they played like they did because they were still learning to play pedal steel.
Yes, yes always learning. There is even now a sort of steel community and B J will tell you the same, and I get together with a lot of steel players from over here on Zoom and we talk and bitch about certain stuff and it is like “you can’t change the sound of the pedal steel, that is just sacrilege, you can’t put distortion and fuzz on a pedal steel”. There is that like group of pedal steel players who are like keep it country, and that is just going to kill it. You have to keep developing it.

How did you break into the Nashville session scene? Someone must have helped open the door for you.
Yeah. I think that was Caitlin really. There is also a producer guy call Jordan Lehning and Scarlett Wilson who also put my name around and that helped me. I do it now where it is a lot easier, when I first started doing it they put a number chart in front of me and I was “Hey here mate, what’s this?”. They go “That’s the Nashville number chart, you never heard of it?”.

What are you doing here?
Exactly. Now though, at the moment because of COVID and I’ve been doing lots of demos. The number chart is really quick, and they want so many tunes an hour and you just have to read the chart. It isn’t all my cup of tea musically but it is great practice for thinking quickly and coming up with new ideas. We didn’t get those sort of charts in Romford though.

Steelism is your instrumental band. Why go solo?
We still do Steelism and we are working on another record now. I grew up listening to stuff like Fairport Convention from my parents, I love Richard Thompson and I also loved prog rock like King Crimson, Genesis and Eno.

That wasn’t your generation
I know, I know but it was on in my home. I was going that is my favourite type of British music why can’t I do a record like that with, you know, Nashville people.

Did the Nashville musicians understand it? Did they care, I’m just trying to think how they would approach it.
What you need to know is that there is a great scene in Nashville, which kind of pushed me to make this record. There are a lot of people doing a British folk-influenced style music. There is a girl called Erin Rae, who is a singer-songwriter in Nashville,  and she sounds like California era Sandy Denny, there is another guy call Shawn Thompson, who can do John Martyn guitar stuff. There is a little scene where people are really influenced by British folk music and as Nashville musicians, they do it really well. If they are influenced by something, they do it to a really high quality, and I thought I have got to make a record using these players. Using me writing songs was an excuse to move everyone around. I’ve got this bass and a starting line and let’s work around that.

You have your folk-rock which is not too much of a stretch. How did you get your ambient influence?
I was such a Soft Machine fan, the Kevin Ayers stuff as well, and a lot of the players are into that here and they play it like that. They play it so well, Nashville has this big Music Row thing of “Can you sound like….?” Whatever and then there is this little scene where the question is “Can you do Frippertronics?”. I had trouble finding stuff like that in London, and as soon as I stumbled upon it in Nashville it was this has got to happen.

You must have had to search that music scene out?
There was a really cool record store called Fond Objects, which you may have heard of because AmericanaFest would put shows on there. I saw a lot of those artists play there. Lambchop’s Will Tyler grew out of that scene.

Where do the electronics fit? A lot of the prog and ambient stuff was heavily processed. Do you mix both sounds?
I think Eno, Richard Thompson and Fairport Convention weren’t that far apart. All that prog world and folk world weren’t that far apart so it is easy to manipulate the sounds. I will then throw some krautrock in there and we are rolling. It is all roots music at the end of the day I think.

In my mind, you have picked up the way the pedal steel is a three, or conceptually even a four-dimensional instrument, and you have managed to apply that to something that sounds similar. You have the record and you are pleased with it?
Yes I am. I’m still a sideman really, I don’t like being a singer-songwriter. With this whole thing, I have wanted it to be a collective, not like “This is my record”. I want it to sound like a collective of musicians and I am still unsure about getting up and out front.

You can’t when you are sitting down playing your pedal steel.
I know. I am still the guy in the background studying for a test hahaha.

What are you going to do with the record? How are you going to get it to its potential audience and promote it?
We have done a Grimey’s COVID style no audience show, just filmed a few days ago. We are putting that out, and I’ve managed to get Caitlin and a girl called Annie Williams who sang on the record, then the band and Erin. I would like to see what happens in 2021 and do shows where this collective will be able to play music where we don’t just play my songs but also other people’s songs who come in and out of it. I like that idea.

So you have an overall sound and approach but the material and actual tunes on the night reflect the individuals there on the night.
Yeah. I’m just going to see how everything goes but hopefully, we will do something in 2021.

Do you see the album as a single piece of music or are there a couple of tracks that you are particularly fond of?
The first song and single ‘Jack of Fools’ is kind of poppy and more straight folk type stuff and less experimental than the stranger type stuff but I guess I see it as a whole piece of music.

You are young enough and baggage free to be able to try and re-establish the pedal steel as a more widely used instrument?
I’m just trying to keep busy, trying to make the pedal steel move in a direction I like listening to.

That is how music actually moves on.
I guess so. I will see how this record goes.

You have already mentioned some of your influences, obviously B J and Bill Frisell and folk-rock and prog-rock of the ‘70s. Are there any other significant influences on your music in general, not simply your steel playing ,such as Eno who you have mentioned?
I really love Sneaky Pete and he was just playing on so much like Frank Zappa, Stevie Wonder. He is a great influence. I am also a huge krautrock fan, bands like Can, Neu! and all those sorts of ‘70s bands. There is one track on the record that is a complete rip-off of a Can song because I thought I need a krautrock song. I love the sound of a pedal steel with that sort of music because it is just so hypnotic and the steel can be the same, hypnotic and ambient at the same time. Orchestral as well, and I just love merging all those strands.

Sneaky Pete also worked in the film industry, as well as his music, didn’t he?
He was wise to have another gig because the pedal steel can be limiting. He was a clever dude hahaha.

Have you thought about scoring soundtracks with your pedal steel sound?
Jeremy, the guitarist with Steelism, formed that band to play soundtrack type music, Ennio Morricone and what have you. We were always working on stuff, even for films that haven’t been made, soundtracks for films that were only in our heads.

The pedal steel is a very evocative sound and you can adapt it to various musical situations if you want to.
I was watching an HBO film with Mark Ruffalo, and I was like what is that noise? The soundtrack had almost a Philip Glass sound and it was a pedal steel they were using. I was like yeah this could be something. I was thinking, no that can’t be B J Cole, can it? He gets everywhere.

How long are you going to spend in the UK?
I’ve booked for three weeks. I thought if I need to stay in quarantine for two weeks and then a week in the Isle of White recording. There is a studio on the island. I’m going to get tested regularly and I am a bit nervous about it. I will have my masks and I will shield as appropriate and watch my hygiene. That is what I have been doing here, and all the studios and restaurants seem to be taking it seriously. I did an album with Charlie Worsham recently and it was like a one week record and we all got tested. If you are doing anything for a week then you must get a test. It is just what you have to do.

At AUK, we like to share new music with our readers, so can you share who is currently top 3 on your playlist?
I have been really listening to a guy called Duncan Browne, an English folk singer, on his self-titled 1973 album and a particular track ‘In The Mist’. He sounds like Paul McCartney, but folk. I have been obsessed with Moondog, and I feel like that has been really cheering me up. I like his vibe and I put it on in the morning and walk out the door with a spring in my step. I’ve also been burning out ‘Clear Spot’ by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. It has been nice while the pandemic has been going in that I have been going back to records I used to wear out. I also really like Brent Cobb’s new one which is a really cool record. He reminds me of Leon Russell and Jerry Jeff Walker and stuff.

Jerry Jeff just died recently didn’t he, unfortunately.
I got this Vanguard release of his recently and I think he is a bit different. He was like folk, country but tough. He and John Hartford wore their hearts on their sleeves. I love that, I’m not really a tough guy as you have probably guessed.

What is good about tough guys. You have one in the White House and look where that has lead. You mentioned Leon Russell, he died about four years ago, and is he still well remembered in Nashville?
There is this guy who I really like who is a producer in town, he is from Memphis, and he is called Skylar Wilson and he has done Justin Townes Earle’s records, and he is a beautiful piano player. He can play Leon Russell just to the T. He is a young kid, a Memphis boy, and he just does it. Everyone loves Leon Russell around here.

The piano is a bit like pedal steel, it is very hard to play well and the musical personality of the player comes through the strings.
Yeah. You can hear Oklahoma in Leon’s playing, it is just coming out of him. I am from Romford, Essex, and I can’t hide that so I need to embrace it a bit. I’ve been trying to think of famous musician’s from Romford, Graham Bond was one I think, Procol Harum as well.

Finally, is there anything you want to say to our readers in the UK?
Be safe, and I miss old Blighty. I will be sinking a pint of Doombar back home when I’m in England. I do miss it, they will probably all be shut when I get there, but I do miss a quiet pub and the English sense of humour and the people. I miss the americana crowd particularly.

Spencer Cullum’s ‘Coin Collection’ is out now on YK  records

Photo credits: Angelina Castillo

About Martin Johnson 96 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

3 Comments

  1. Amazing that two minor musical talents, limey pub crawlers in fact, deign to criticize Trump–a guy so much more intelligent and accomplished than they. Play your instruments, blokes, write your articles, leave politics to smarter people. And fix your own country . . . it needs work.

    • Mark, freedom of speech which includes all media, is probably the greatest freedom that western society has developed. It goes back to Athens in Ancient Greece, picks up England’s Bill Of Rights, the French Revolution and America’s First Amendment. All this history means that I can write about Spencer’s views and you can give your views on said views. A right to be cherished I am sure you will agree.

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