The spring of 2002 was a good one for Denny Mathis: The Texas Steel Guitar Association inducted the San Antonio legend into its Hall of Fame, an honor Mathis earned by spending the past 40 years in honky tonks and dance halls, lighting up audiences with the neon magic of his steel guitar. Now, at last, some of the magic is on record: Steelin' for a Livin' is Mathis' first record.
It's been a long time coming.
About 50 years ago, down in Atascosa County, Mathis' mother signed him up for music lessons. He became enamored with the steel guitar and spent hours practicing. "Eventually," Mathis recalls, "my dad asked the music teacher to tell me to spend a little more time doing homework and a little less time on steel." But by that time Mathis' course was already set.
Steelin' for a Livin' succeeds in several ways, but most importantly and most enjoyably it stands as a record of Mathis' musical journey over the past half-century, with songs ranging from big band to Western swing, blues, bossa nova, rock, and country western styles.
A highlight of the album is "How High the Moon," a show tune written in 1940 for the musical Two for the Show, and recorded by Mary Ford and Les Paul. When Mathis was rehearsing this song, and the band was getting familiar with it, drummer Stephen Hartwell influenced by old Stan Getz records suggested that they play the song to a bossa nova beat. The music came together with the Latin rhythm, and Mathis demonstrates how far beyond the confines of country music he can take the steel guitar a recurring theme throughout the album.
The icy-cool version of "All Blues" is a jazz classic from Miles Davis' 1959 album, Kind of Blue. "I had to do that Miles Davis tune," Mathis says. "I've always liked jazz. It's been my favorite kind of music since I was in high school." Mathis is known for sneaking bebop jazz lines into his solos on Western swing songs, so it is a rare treat to hear him finally get to dig into some real jazz. Val Cronk's backup keyboards have just enough taste of Hammond B3 from the Richard "Groove" Holmes/Brother Jack McDuff cool school to put a frost on this cut.
A wonderful version of Gershwin's big band swinger, "Lady Be Good," is performed in a simple trio arrangement with Cronk's bass and Hartwell's drums. The trio gives Mathis the space and freedom to show some of the pedal steel's ability for stacking complicated chord structures, as well as the the instrument's natural tendency to swing.
Other highlights include "Panhandle Rag" and "Steelin' Home," two steel guitar instrumental classics; a couple of originals from Two Tons of Steel's Kevin Geil, the rocker "Didn't Mean to Love You" and a tasty, laid-back version of "Playboy"; and a saccharine rendition of "Sugar Moon," an old-time Western swing number from the pen of legendary Texas songwriter Cindy Walker.
There is also more personal reason why Steelin' for a Livin' is a success. Mathis has a lot of friends in the San Antonio music community friends who admire the musician and the man and several of them worked together to make his first record. Producers Mike Taylor and Val Cronk at Bexar Nekkid Music, along with Steve Cureton and Wanda Seele, musicians Stephen Hartwell, Junior Mitchan, Sebastian Campesi, Dennis Fallon, Louie Cabasa, Geil, and the mysterious Mr. Higgins all offered a hand in this project. "I owe a lot to them," says Mathis, "because they stayed with me on it, and saw it through. I just did the playing, and they took care of everything else."
Mathis has spent his life as a backup musician earning his living by making other musicians sound good. On Steelin' for a Livin', Mathis is finally free to play the music he loves, and have the spotlight shine on the neon magic of his steel guitar.
STEELIN' FOR A LIVIN'
(CD, Bexar Nekkid Music)
Available at Hogwild, CD Exchange (San Pedro), and will soon be available online at bexarnekkid.com