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You wouldn't think a guy who dusted off Artie Shaw's arrangement of Cole Porter's classic "Begin the Beguine" on pedal steel, no less would say his third release for Bloodshot Records was inspired by the advent of the iPod age.
But that's exactly how Phoenix native Jon Rauhouse came to sequence the music on Steel Guitar Heart Attack, where Sally Timms of the Mekons, performing a smoky arrangement of '30s torch song "I'll Be Seeing You," is followed by a banjo-driven bluegrass romp, not long before you hit the Mannixtheme reinvented as bachelor pad music.
His wife, he says, has an iPod, and it's set on shuffle all the time. "So it was getting to the point where no matter what style of music was playing, when it ended, you could never tell what kind of song was coming next," Rauhouse says. "You might hear Billie Holiday and then an AC/DC song. And I was like, 'How cool is that?' Everybody's doing iPods nowadays, so I thought, 'Why not make the record feel like listening to an iPod?'"
To be fair, there are no AC/DC covers on Rauhouse's album. But it is a disarmingly diverse collection whose carefree sense of "anything can happen next" is reinforced by a rotating cast of guest vocalists, including Timms, Kelly Hogan, Rachel Flotard of Visqueen, and the No Depression poster girl whom the local steel guitarist tends to call by one of two names: Case or dude.
His explanation for how Neko Case came to turn in a stunning rendition of "East of the Sun (And West of the Moon)" on his album, for instance, is, "She had been singing that at sound check, and I was, like, 'Dude, why don't we do that one?'"
When Rauhouse talks with nostalgic affection about some of his earliest touring experiences as part of Case's band, he says, "When I first started playing with Case, it was 15 bucks a day and we were all sleeping on floors."
Seven years later, they're up off the floors and the pay's better. But an even bigger break for Rauhouse came when he opened the most recent round of tour dates with Case with a set of his own. "It was awesome," he says. "I've been playing with her for a long time, and they were, like, 'Dude, you've got a record coming out. You want to open some shows?' It was kind of exhausting. I would do my cartoon music for 45 minutes, then I'd have a 15-minute changeover and come back out and play her set."
Asked what he means by cartoon music, the man whose pedal steel and Hawaiian guitar work has graced recordings by such indie darlings as Calexico, the Waco Brothers, Giant Sand, and Case, points to a cover he and longtime co-conspirator Tommy Connell do of "Powerhouse," a Warner Bros. cartoon staple. Beyond that, Rauhouse says, the music they do in their set is "a lot more upbeat and fun than most of the other stuff I do, because I can. I know what to do with Case, but in my own stuff, I like more of an old-timey feel. I mean, c'mon, I'm covering Mannix and 'Holiday for Strings.'"
Rauhouse's first exposure to the instrument that changed his life was growing up on country station KNIX in Phoenix. "They played all the great country standards back then; anybody you could think of Faron Young, George Jones and there was always steel guitar in there."
He picked up banjo 30 years ago and started focusing on pedal steel two years later. He learned how to play it by watching another local pedal steel guitarist, Mike Hardwick, and borrowing licks from the popular acts of the days The Marshall Tucker Band, Commander Cody, Pure Prairie League, and the band that introduced him to a brave new world of possibilities, Asleep at the Wheel.
"They had a guy named Lucky Oceans," Rauhouse says. "He was and still is one of the greatest steel guitar players ever. And they used a bunch of Louis Jordan arrangements, stuff like that, so I kind of got introduced to big band music through the back door. Then, I started listening to Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw and stuff like that. It's all just been a process."
It's all informed a style that led Paste magazine to rave, "Jon Rauhouse plays pedal steel guitar the way John Zorn plays the saxophone."
Asked to respond to that quote, Rauhouse laughs and replies, "That was sweet of him. I've heard a little bit of Zorn and it was kind of odd. But I'm an odd player, I think. I'm definitely not a Nashville guy. And I definitely am in the realm of 'try anything.' I've been playing in Phoenix for 30 years and I've been in a thrash band and plenty of country bands and bluegrass bands."
But as a much-sought-after session player, he also can play a more traditional (or tired) pedal steel lick if that's all the artist wants. "Every time you go into a session, you play those same country-type licks," he says. "And people go, 'Yeah, that's what I want.' Eight million records have those same old passes on them, but people still want that. It's frustrating, but if you're paying me to play those passes on a steel guitar song, I'll do it."
After all, if Rauhouse wants to get creative, he can do that on his own time, making records as full of surprises as Steel Guitar Heart Attack. The album takes its title from a heart attack he narrowly avoided while cutting The Tigers Have Spoken with Case in Toronto.
"The last night of the live recording, I started getting these weird, bizarro chest pains," he recalls. They stopped off in Chicago on the way home, where a doctor friend performed an EKG and sent him packing to the hospital to have a stent inserted in his heart after finding a 98 percent blockage in one of his arteries.
"I missed having a heart attack by about two seconds," Rauhouse says. "So I was really lucky. But I had to change my eating habits and all that crap. I'm doing good, but it was scary for a while because I was just plugging along like always and, all of a sudden, it was, like, 'Hey, something's really wrong."
That health scare changed the way he looks at life. "I definitely feel like I don't need to waste any time doing a bunch of stuff I don't want to do," he says. "It helped me figure that out, that oh, yeah, this could all go away. I don't want to be morbid and stupid, but you could die any second and if there is a pearly gates and someone asks me, 'What were you doing when you died?' I wouldn't want to tell them, 'Well, jeez, I was watching a Richard Gere movie' or something. I want to be able to tell them, 'I was playing music, having a blast.'"