An anchor of the classic mid-century Nashville sound, the pedal steel guitar has been a trusted part of the broader pop palette at least since Jerry Garcia added affable, if primitive, pedal steel to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's "Teach Your Children" in 1969 and B.J. Cole provided atmosphere on Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" in 1971. But over the past decade and change, a vibrant new generation of players have taken up the unusual instrument, directing its microtonal bends and aching cries towards more modern expressions.
"I think it's an instrument that begs to be used texturally, and outside the way it was originally designed to be used," says the California-based Chuck Johnson, whose 2017 album Balsams and subsequent live releases have used pedal steel as a tool to generate glowing, complex ambient music. "You can pluck a chord and use the pedals and levers to move some of those voices in different directions, which is something no other instrument can do," he says of its ability to limitlessly bend notes. "Without even moving the bar, you can do really interesting counterpoint. Add to that all the microtonal possibilities. Whether you're moving the bar or using the [knee] levers, it's always a glide to wherever you end up."
An often misunderstood mechanical artifact from another time, the pedal steel remains odd in nearly every way. Its high lonesome moan can float over, or inside, pretty much anything; it can bend notes and blend chords in ways no other analog instrument can; and it sounds like nothing else — even the pedal-less steel guitar, for which it's frequently confused. But for much of its life, it's been synonymous with the wailing cries of country music, to the point of being virtually trapped by the genre.
"When somebody takes the stage [at a pedal steel convention] and plays something other than country, people get up and walk out," says Tom Bradshaw, perhaps the world's leading authority on the instrument. The founder of the now-defunct Steel Guitarist magazine, he has played and repaired pedal steels for nearly a half-century, selling parts through his Bay Area-based Pedal Steel Guitar Products. But Bradshaw worries about the instrument's future. "It's so often that kids are the ones who cause things to really get started and go, but the cost of the instrument is so much that it's prohibitive for kids to get into it," he says. Indeed — outside of classical, and despite its roots in working-class pop music, it is one of the most expensive instruments around, with the cheapest used models going for around $1,000.