Profile: Joel Ferguson, Pedal steel guitarist
Weeer weeer weeer! Wuuurrrgg wuurrg wuuurg! The sounds coming from Joel Ferguson’s pedal steel guitar are banshee moans and wolf growls, flaming jets of sex, venom and blood. And that’s just him noodling around on a recent afternoon in his home studio. “When I first heard the slide guitar — it was on an Allman Brothers album in 1970 — I was like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa!’” he says. “I never heard anything like that. I don’t know, man. It just seemed like it was howlin’ or something. It just sounds like somebody’s yelling at you.” That moment sparked Ferguson’s lifelong affair with the pedal steel guitar, the love child of a six-string and a keyboard. He spent a healthy chunk of his young life both on the road and in the studio. Today, the 59-year-old brings his weeer weeer! to a handful of one-off and regular local shows, including an ongoing gig with Scotty Alexander at Gilley’s Las Vegas in Treasure Island.
The pedal steel guitar is technically a sit-down instrument, but Ferguson is rarely sitting still behind his Desert Rose Vintage Pro rig. At shows, you’ll see him rocking it, dipping it and pounding it to draw out that sweet sound. But don’t be fooled. Those electrified howls, wails and moans require nearly surgical precision. “It’s sort of like a violin. Playing this is not that hard. But playing it perfectly in tune is really hard,” he says. “You’ve got one place to be in tune. Everything else is out of tune. Then you’ve got two or three or four strings you’re hitting at the same time. Then the pedals have to be tuned as well. If you’re out of tune, just a tiny bit, then everybody in the band is out of tune. It’s a lot of pressure!”
Here’s a little rock ’n’ roll road-not-taken story. In the ’70s, Ferguson played the Myrtle Beach, S.C., scene in a band called Steamboat Springs. Their musical rival was an act named Wild Country. “Wild Country was playing in a little dump called the Bowery a few blocks away from us, and they’d have like four or five people in there every night,” Ferguson recalls. Ferguson’s electric bluegrass band, on the other hand, was packing the Pickin’ Parlor nightly — and, after the show, blowing the night’s pay on beer and pot. “We were partying and drawing big crowds, but we had nothing to show for it. Wild Country took the money they made, and in the off-season they would go to record and take their records to Nashville.” A few years later, when RCA Records had to decide whom to sign — Ferguson’s outfit or Wild Country — the suits offered the contract to Wild Country. “They became the band Alabama,” Ferguson says. “When an Alabama song comes on the radio, even if it’s good, I have to turn it off.” (But don’t cry too hard for him: Today, Ferguson is a successful businessman who oversees several retail kiosks at the airport.)
Today, he plays for pleasure, happy to not have to grind out nightly bar gigs for whatever’s in the tip jar. But when you see the smiling Ferguson teasing sweet licks from his pedal steel guitar, realize that he’s also paying serious tribute. “Every note I play, I look at Duane Allman as my mentor, even though I never met him. This is my dedication to him. I want people to think, ‘Wow, if Duane Allman had played pedal steel guitar, that’s what it would have sounded like.’ To me, the sound that he got, the energy and the passion he played it with, is what I try to emulate. The notes are the notes, but people relate to the energy and passion. That’s my mission when I play. I want people to get excited. Like, ‘Holy shit, did you hear that?’”