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Heart and Steel

Steel guitar virtuoso Jon Rauhouse

"There's a very cool geezer element to this record," says Tempe-born Jon Rauhouse, referring to his new CD, Jon Rauhouse's Steel Guitar Air Show. "It isn't very much in keeping with what people necessarily think of when they hear the name Bloodshot."

There are plenty of other unique aspects to the CD as well. Among them is the fact that Rauhouse, who has become the in-house pedal-steel guitar player for a wide variety of artists on Chicago's Bloodshot imprint, has enlisted the services of many top performers who call that label home, as well as members of Giant Sand, Calexico and other Tucson edge-cutters. Neko Case, with whom Rauhouse is touring at the moment, Kelly Hogan, Sally Timms, Calexico's Joey Burns and John Convertino, and several other punk-alt-whatever-country luminaries all participated in the sessions.

And in spite of the funky-punky reputation of the label and the artists who dominate its roster, Rauhouse's album couldn't be sweeter.

"Compared to what Bloodshot is sort of about, it's a pretty cheerful record," says Rauhouse. "I mean, come on -- Accentuate the Positive,' The World Is Waiting for a Sunrise' -- could you ask for anything peppier?

"Some of the songs fall into that tiki bar-era of pop music. Some of it goes a little farther back to the big band music I was listening to in the '70s," he explains. "The thing is, when I was growing up, people looked at [artists like] Benny Goodman as grandpa's music, but I saw them as the freakish, bizarre heroin addicts of their time that really kicked ass and played amazing music. And when they started playing, they were not the punk rock of the time, but the bands . . . who changed what people wanted to hear. And I always wanted to go back to it."

Before we go on, a little background on Rauhouse's instrument of choice. Steel guitar, Hawaiian guitar and pedal-steel guitar all are variations on a theme, all guitar-based stringed instruments that are played, generally, in a horizontal position with a metal or glass bar gliding over the strings. That sliding sound heard at the very opening of every Warner Bros. cartoon? Yup, that's it. "Sleepwalk" by Santo and Johnny (Farina)? Same deal. Other applications of the same principle include bottleneck blues guitar, also known as slide guitar, played with a steel tube, bottleneck or butter knife. You get the picture.

Pedal steel has a very specific set of parameters. It's a misunderstood and underappreciated instrument for a number of reasons. For one thing, people often find it kitschy, schmaltzy and just plain cornball. Some respond to it in much the same way that they respond to country in general -- the way Bobby Dupree felt about Tammy Wynette in Five Easy Pieces.

As much as or more than any other instrument, pedal steel immediately identifies a song as country, so much so that when some pop-country artists take their music to the masses -- Shania Twain, for example -- the twang of the steel is all but shelved. Country elements often are downplayed while the rock and pop aspects are brought to the fore. In fact, in a time where country music seems to have lost many of its identifying characteristics, the sound of a pedal-steel guitar is sometimes the only thing that makes a song recognizable as country music.

The sound of pedal steel can be banal and beautiful, sometimes in the same song. But it also can be cool. Playful and jazzy and almost breezy, it can swing. In the hands of an artist like Buddy Emmons or Speedy West or Bob Wills or Leon McAuliffe, it was something like fire art painted on the fender of a '59 Caddy, like a gaudy Nudie jacket, like Porter Waggoner's hair, like Dolly Parton's tits.

"I started playin' banjo 25 years ago, and to tell you the truth, banjo is just about as silly as steel guitar, so it wasn't a very difficult decision to make," says Rauhouse, now 44 years old. "Not only that, I was playing the same stuff four nights a week, four hours a day, and it was getting very repetitious. I met this steel player in Austin named Mike Hardwick, who was playing in Tempe in a band called Yesterday's Wine. I would watch him all the time. The stuff he was doing was very cool and, musically, there was a lot going on with the instrument, as compared with a banjo. So I decided to pick it up. One thing for certain: If you're going to learn steel guitar and play it in a band, it won't be to meet girls."

Of course, none of this explains how a good-natured, down-home Tempe guy fell in with the Bloodshot bunch.

"It mostly had to do with the synchronicity of where I was at any given moment on the planet," Rauhouse says. "Really, it was one chance encounter after another -- a tour here, a gig there. I'd been playing this sort of thing for years, and then a local band called the Grievous Angels asked me in to do some studio work. I went down and [played] on some tracks that got them a deal at Bloodshot. We'd tour with similar bands on the label, like Old 97's and the Waco Brothers. I got to be friends with those guys, so I played on their sessions as well. When the Grievous Angels were melting down, Jon Langford from the Mekons and Waco Brothers asked me to do some touring with them. I played with Sally Timms on her CD and toured that record for a year. I went on to play Kelly Hogan's record and Neko Case's and anybody who'd ask me."

Nowadays, Rauhouse is finally in a position to ask those artists to return the favor. His own disc ships at the end of September, though it's not being distributed in the usual fashion. Because Rauhouse wanted to have the record available for audiences while he's touring with Neko Case, Bloodshot decided to make the album available through the Internet and a select number of independent stores, meaning everywhere except places like Tower, HMV and Virgin Megastores.

"I'm really happy with the record, though there are times I wonder who might want to listen to a number of mostly instrumental, pedal steel-driven songs," he says. "Still, I listen to records by Speedy West and guys like that. In a way, the album is really an homage to all these old pedal steel albums I love -- some really brutal albums like Buddy Emmons Does the Beatles. Weird stuff like that."

So far, Rauhouse says he's getting a good response to Jon Rauhouse's Steel Guitar Air Show. That's as it should be, since the disc is prime, ultra-hip, cruising-in-your-car, post-lounge material.

"It really came out exactly the way I wanted it," he says. "I got to pick the songs I wanted, and the guys from Calexico are so fun to work with. That part on the song Hula Blues' that sounds like a bunch of fat Hawaiian guys singing? That's Craig Schumacher, me and Tommy [Connell]."

Connell is Jimmy Bryant to Rauhouse's Speedy West, a fast-fingered jazz- and country-oriented guitarist with whom Rauhouse had lost contact for 18 years.

"I was with Neko, opening for the Jayhawks in California, and he was in the audience. I said, Fuck! Don't you dare move!' And we got back together for the album."

In spite of his connections with artists who are primarily centered in Chicago and Tucson, Rauhouse has remained in Phoenix. "I was born in Tempe, where my mom and dad moved in the late '40s from Ohio. I grew up right near the campus. Saw Reggie Jackson playing baseball at ASU.

"Tempe doesn't look much like the same town I grew up in anymore, though, that's for sure," he adds. "The mom-and-pop shops are gone, replaced by this franchise or that, Hooters, P.F. Chang's and what have you. I remember, as a student, living off Ramen noodles. I can't imagine how kids can afford to live here anymore. As a nod to my own personal geezerism, I miss the smell of the cookies when Cookies From Home was on Mill, the wood-floor post office. Changing Hands was down there. It was a neat little college town to grow up in, and safe. We were all over as little kids, barefoot on the hot pavement, and now you can't leave your kids alone for two seconds."

Rauhouse and his wife live in central Phoenix in what he describes as a barrio neighborhood.

"It can be a little unsafe at times, but my neighbors are great, and I'm near everything I need and everywhere I need to be. I nearly moved to Chicago, but it seems that every time I get ready to do something like that, everything falls into place, and staying here just makes more sense."

Considering the caliber of his playing, it also makes sense that a wider audience soon will be exposed to his artistry.

"I guess my best hope is that when I'm long dead, someone will come along and say, Hey, these songs are kinda cool,'" he says. "If that happens while I'm living, great."


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