Thursday, January 14, 2021


To say I am fond of pedal steel guitar would be an understatement; I bloody adore the instrument and how it sounds, whether as high lonesome shorthand for classic country, or, indeed, often more whenever it pops up in unexpected settings. This year we lost two or the best, two, even if I often confused the one with the other, with this piece probably now continuing to prolong the blurring of my Bucky with my Buddy.

So, in alphabetical, we got Mr Bucky Baxter, who left us in May. Born in Florida 65 years ahead of that, he was perhaps best known for his pivotal role in the bands of Steve Earle and of Bob Dylan. Indeed, he was a Duke for the three breakthrough albums of Earle's early career, Guitar Town through Copperhead Road, appearing sporadically thereafter. His was the steel in R.E.M.'s World Leader Pretend, and on Ryan Adam's Gold album, he featured on Joe Henry's Trampoline and, possibly surprisingly, played on and produced a record, Cockahoop, by the ex-Catatonia singer, husky welsh chanteuse, Cerys Matthews. But it was as a Bob Dylan regular on the Never Ending Tour throughout most of the 90s that his name became best known. Indeed, Dylan had come across him at a Steve Earle concert, asking him to teach him how to play the instrument. (History has not revealed how well that went.) In the studio, he also appeared on Dylan's Unplugged and Time Out of Mind, the latter, not without coincidence, one of my favourite Dylan's.

Fearless Heart/Steve Earle & the Dukes (1986)

World Leader Pretend/R.E.M. (1988)

Tryin' To Get To Heaven (live)/Bob Dylan (1999)

I have to mention Dylan some more, as Baxter was there for one of the two ever times I have caught the Bob live, when he headed a stormy Friday night in July at the Phoenix festival, near Stratford-on-Avon, in 1995. If Blackbushe a decade before had been sublime, this was ridiculous, all songs unidentifiable in the muddy sound, all party to tuneless new arrangements. All unidentifiable until Baxter's steel gave a hint of the original melodies, a highlight in an otherwise forgettable evening. O, had it been to the standard of the Vienna concert, above, four years later.
Baxter wasn't all that ambitious, it seems, happy to be a contributor rather than the focus of attention. But he did make one solo recording, Most Likely No Problem, an instrumental album which is worth the seeking out, with an astonishing who who's of participants.

The Big Difficult/Bucky Baxter (1999)

Here's a nice interview which gives an idea of the man. Finally, those with a finger on the pulse might know he is/was the father of the up and coming Rayland Baxter
R.I.P. Bucky. 

Buddy Cage, not to be confused either with another fellow deceased steel maestro Buddy Emmons, was a Canadian by birth, born a few years ahead of Baxter, in 1946. Another musician proficient in his instrument from an early age, he first drew attention in canadian country-rockers, Great Speckled Bird. However it was his longterm tenure in the steel seat for Grateful Dead offshoot band, New Riders of the Purple Sage, between 1971 and 1982, that he will be best remembered, taking the reins of the instrument from Jerry Garcia. Frankly, a much more adept player than Garcia. He also did a load of sessions, including, the ubiquitous Dylan reference, laying down some tracks on the many and varied Blood on the Tracks sessions, if only once on the actual studio release. 

Calgary/Great Speckled Bird (1970)

Gypsy Cowboy/NRPS (1972)

Peggy O/NRPS (2010)

Although the Riders continued for several more years, Cage had not been tempted to return to that fold until 2005, until after founder member, John Dawson had put the original band to bed in 1997. Their 2012 release, 17 Pine Avenue, I thought terrific and well up to the standards of their earlier work, better even, tighter without their notorious cannabinoid looseness of yore.

The intervening years had him back to guesting on innumerable projects, but he never made a solo record. Perhaps closest might have been if the music from a Dutch tour, in 2005, had been ever committed to posterity. In cahoots with Derek Trucks and Sonny Landreth, both accomplished legends on slide, it was called Steelin' and Slidin'. (I wonder if any clips are available?)

Steelin' and Slidin'/Trucks, Cage and Landreth (2005)

Here's an interview with him from his second spell with the band. Multiple myeloma took him in February.
R.I.P. Buddy.

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