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It's a small, stripped-down EP, but Songs from the Stratton Sessions encapsulates just about everything Jon Rauhouse stands for musically.
And oddly enough, there isn't one lick of steel guitar, the instrument he's made his name with. There's the joy and spontaneity of creating: Rather than stick to the few unrecorded songs he'd intended to play, Rauhouse added another song he and Megyn Neff of Dry River Yacht Club had written. There's the fortuitous collaboration: Neff played violin on the EP just because she happened to be visiting. There's the sense of sharing, both music and good fortune: Half the proceeds from the EP go to providing free Suzuki violin lessons and half go to child abuse prevention.
So when Rauhouse brings his Stratton Sessions to Crescent Ballroom on Thursday, October 11 (with Neff, Tommy Connell, Robin Vining, Source Victoria's Brendan Murphy, and 300 CDs printed just for the show), it may be with a slightly different sound, but it's all part of the pedal-steel guitar master's essence.
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"The first thing I started playing was a banjo. I started learning with some boys in Tempe back in 1977," he says. "It was so much fun that we would just get together and get a case of beer and sit down, and even if we knew just three songs at the start, we'd play them over and over and over, and it was a complete blast. It's always been something that was a positive camaraderie thing."
Camaraderie is right. The Stratton Sessions release comes in the midst several projects for Rauhouse: recording for Neko Case's next album, working on songs with Visqueen's Rachel Flotard, and recording his next "solo" album, which will feature Case, Flotard, Calexico, Kevin O'Donnel, Tommy Connell, Billy Bob Thornton, Steve Berlin, and Sergio Mendoza.
"My records are like giant collaborations," Rauhouse says. "I get Joey [Burns] and John [Convertino] from Calexico a lot to play the rhythm section for me, and they love it because it's not the usual things they get to do. One of the best things about music is it gets to brings people together."
Coming together with guitar maker Stephen Stratton led Rauhouse to this stripped-down acoustic EP featuring violins, banjo, and guitar. Stratton wanted to record video clips of musicians performing on his instruments.
Contacting Rauhouse, who already had one Stratton guitar, he brought along two more. Neff was visiting, so she joined on guitar. They performed three songs for video: "Old School" and "January 5," two guitar songs Rauhouse had knocking around but never recorded, and an instrumental version of "Hammered Light," a song he wrote and recorded with Flotard that appeared on last year's Luz de Vida compilation album.
After the videos went online, Rauhouse got the idea to record an EP inspired by the Stratton session. "We got a really good response to all that," he says, "so we decided [to]put out a little EP of those and do it for charity."
All proceeds from the EP will be split between Peer Solutions, the Phoenix nonprofit his wife, Jennifer, founded in 1996, and providing free Suzuki violin lessons for local families in need. Call it a "saving the world though music" mentality.
"What I'm trying to do, and what my wife is trying to do, has been to infuse music back into gatherings, playing with people in settings where anybody can pick up anything," he says. "Maybe I'm dreaming, but it brings it back into gatherings of people and everyone joining in and contributing a part to the song or whatever's going on that makes it more of a community thing."
Music is fun, he says, and it should be fun for everybody.
"I just try to convince people that they need to join in. It's hard sometimes because people can be afraid or worry about their level of confidence, but that's not the point. My dad was a trombone player in the town band when he was a kid. It's gotten so far away from being that," he says. "Even with people I don't know, or people who are at different levels, I always tend to learn something. Then it becomes part of what you do whenever you get together."
If it hadn't been for getting together with friends, getting out on the road playing, Rauhouse might never have had a career outside the Valley. And though that was never part of the plan when he first picked up the steel guitar, it's been a guiding principle for him since.
"I did it because I loved what the instrument sounded like. Back when I was first learning to play, there weren't many people playing it. You had to listen off the records and try to figure it out. I got really lucky that people liked what I was doing," he says.
Playing with alt-country combo The Grievous Angels in the mid-1990s, Rauhouse says, he caught people's attention only because nobody else was doing what he was doing on the steel guitar. Bloodshot Records, in particular, took notice, not only releasing his three solo albums, but putting him up as the label's go-to pedal-steel player. Rauhouse has recorded with Sally Timms, Kelly Hogan, Jon Langford, John Doe, Jakob Dylan, the Old 97's, Calexico, Giant Sand, KT Tunstall, and many others.
"For me, I did what I did, and if people liked it, they would hire me. I just kept adding instruments to my repertoire to play. They could hire me, and I could carry four different instruments," he says. "That helps with keeping working, and keeping your ability to play a bunch of different things makes you more marketable."
Being marketable and in-demand for studio work is quite different than being a touring musician, and Rauhouse has seen many who couldn't hang in there.
"Another thing that's really hard is you have to sleep on those couches and eat those ramen noodles. But unless somebody can see you and see you're willing to do it, they're not going to know you're even there," he says.
"It ends up being a big extended family," he says. "I have friend all over the country who I enjoy playing with. It ends up being this big group conglomerate, and you learn something different from each one. I do anyway, and I want to pass that on. I think it just brings more people together if you engage them."
Next year will be a big one for Rauhouse. In addition to a new solo record, Local 638 Records will release a boxed set of his entire catalog, including: Steel Guitar Rodeo, Steel Guitar Heart Attack, Hawaiian Guitar Expedition, and Steel Guitar Air Show.
"The hardest thing about it is, I use a lot of really good musicians, and everybody is really busy because they're so good," Rauhouse says. "I keep running into people who want to do stuff, and then it's the logistics of lining up the time. I'm way overdue, but I'm not going to leave something out."