Or what my wife calls slidy steel. Too obvious, too literal? Well maybe, but I cannot let this pass, the instrument being my favourite musical sound, as well as being a great way to pep up lack-lustre material: go ask Dylan*! But who or what to feature, as there are way too many wonderful players to give each a shout.
Born and bred in the UK it was never something I had knowingly heard until my teens, until a sideways lurch from my love of the Byrds led me to the Flying Burrito Brothers. I was hooked by those searing, sweeping shards of glissando, melancholia on max. For a while, the mere presence of steel was enough to draw me in, my understanding of the instrument leading me away from Kleinow to Perkins, from Rhodes back to Maness, taking in the heights of Emmons and Leisz along the way. Seemingly a near impossible instrument to play, needing co-ordination of fingers, hands, knees and feet, all working against each other, it has escaped an exclusively country music manifestation and has infiltrated other genres. Which is, eventually, where I get to the titular player.
Cole is english. That alone used to be remarkable in its own right, but his list of sessions reveal the degree with which he is held in international acclaim. Put off by the ubiquity of "plain" guitar, and intrigued by the 'Sleepwalk' of Santo and Johnny, he sold all his toy trains to buy, first, a lap steel, then retrading up to the full pedal steel experience. Initially orthodox, applying country tropes to a standard heavy rock framework, in the band Cochise, it was really after their demise that he found his feet (knees, hands and fingers.) Big breakthrough, arguably, was his appearance on Elton Johns's equivalently breakthrough album, 'Madman Across the Water', on standout track, 'Tiny Dancer'.
But it is his more exotic excursions into ambient, jazz and electronica that really crystallise for me the enormity of his talent. Here are examples of each:
These are but tasters for the horizons he expands, alone and in collaboration, yet still as likely to turn up, in a tiny club, playing still alongside old chums like Terry Reid or Hank Wangford. I have certainly travelled cross-country for the opportunity to see the sidesman, not the singer. But pride of place in the Cole canon has to be this performance, with R.E.M., as part of a british TV special. Never has Country Feedback fed so far back into emotion. Listen and weep.
Spoilt for choice? Go here for more information.
*P.S. Dylan's current go-to steelman? Charlie Herron.