Somewhere, deep in the art of Texas, there is a special place for the steel guitar. It can cut into a Texas swing number with all the force of a horn section, or drift over a country ballad like a haunting sad angel. The steel is a purely American instrument, invented by country musicians and defined by country music. Texas musicians have a history of great influence on the way both country music and the steel guitar are played.
For more than 40 years, Denny Mathis has been one of San Antonio's finest steel guitarists, and last month the Texas Steel Guitar Association recognized Mathis' career by inducting him into the Texas Steel Guitar Hall of Fame.
"All I ever wanted," says Mathis, "was to play music."
In the early 1950s, Texas seemed a lot bigger than it is today. People lived far apart, and it took a lot longer to get from one place to another. In those days, radio bridged the long distances across the Lone Star state. Radio had a big influence on Mathis, who grew up in Christine, Texas, about 45 miles south of San Antonio. "I got interested in steel guitar from hearing it everyday on the live radio shows that originated in downtown San Antonio back in the 1950's," Mathis recalls, adding that one of the radio bands was the Texas Top Hands, with steel player W.W. "Rusty" Locke. "That's where I really got the idea to play steel."
With 20 strings, two necks, up to nine pedals, and as many knee levers, the steel guitar is notorious for being a difficult instrument to master. "When I was 11, my mother signed me up for lessons. After the second one I was hooked." Mathis was dedicated to building his musical skills, and in 10 years, at age 21, he moved to San Antonio and earned a spot playing steel with the band he'd heard on the radio when he was a kid down in Atascosa County — the Texas Top Hands.
"I remember first hearing Denny play steel, back around 1960 or '61," recalls Junior Mitchan. "At that time I was playing in Adolph Hofner's band, and Denny was playing with the Top Hands. We played alternate Sundays for a dance they had up on the roof of the Hermann Sons building down on South St. Mary's. He's always been one of the best steel men around San Antonio."
After a couple of years with the Texas Top Hands, Mathis joined Billy Gray and toured the country for about four years. Gray had previously spent 12 years as the bandleader of Hank Thompson's Brazos Valley Boys, a group that has boasted several steel players who are Texas Steel Guitar Hall of Fame members including Pee Wee Whitewing, Bert Rivera, and the late Bobby Garrett.
In 1966, Mathis moved back to San Antonio and began a 25-year stretch of working with Bubba Littrell and Mitchan in the Melody Mustangs. "Denny has a very appealing style on the steel," says Littrell. "He's a musician's musician. People really enjoy his playing."
For the last decade, part of Mathis' work has come from playing in a show band at the Sundance Theatre at Six Flags Fiesta Texas. Mathis also played steel at the Empire Theatre for the show Always, Patsy Cline.
Six years ago, Mathis joined a lineup of solid players in Richard Hailey's Neon Stars. The Stars play a bit of Top-40 country, but are most at home when Mathis and fiddler James Atwood are driving the band through some classic country and Western Swing. "Denny's a humble, soft-spoken guy," says Hailey, who sings for the Neon Stars. "He's a great friend and a great musician. I feel very lucky to be in a band with Denny, and he really deserves the honor he's getting from the Hall of Fame."
In 1999, in addition to the Sundance Theatre band and the Neon Stars, Mathis started playing with San Antonio's popular rockabilly band Two Tons Of Steel. His reputation has reached cult status with the many Two Tons fans, who watch Mathis turn up the heat, whipping through licks during the swinging numbers and blocking out lilting chords on the ballads. On the day that Mathis was to be inducted into the Texas Steel Guitar Hall of Fame, Two Tons was scheduled to be in Amsterdam to start a three-week European tour. "When we heard that Denny was going into the Hall of Fame we cancelled the tour," remarks singer Kevin Geil. "We can always go to Europe, but this is a once in a lifetime moment for Denny."
The hallowed Hall of Fame
In 1984, Charlie Norris and Junior Knight founded the Texas Steel Guitar Association (TSGA). Norris owns a music store, and Knight has played steel for LeAnn Rimes, Ray Price, and Wynn Stewart. The association has always been based around the Dallas area, with Norris as the leader. Norris will resign his position this year and Wayne Smith will be the association's new president. The TSGA has about 375 members, about 250 from Texas, and most of the rest from the United States. It also has members from Canada, England, Australia, Japan, and Sweden.
Since the beginning, Norris and Knight have had a clear vision of the TSGA's purpose. "There are three things we try to accomplish," says Knight. "First we promote the steel guitar. Then we also try to preserve Western Swing and classic country music. And finally we provide a fellowship for steel guitarists and fans of steel guitar music." That fellowship can cut across decades of country music. "I saw guys at this year's convention that I hadn't seen in more than 30 years," says Mathis, "since I was playing with Billy Gray in the '60s."
This year was the 18th TSGA Jamboree, which is held annually in March. Now held in Irving at the Harvey Hotel Ballroom, the Jamboree stands as one of the premier events for country music in Texas. TSGA member Bill McCumber, from Corpus Christi, has attended all 18 Jamborees.
"The quality of the music has been steadily high, from the very first year," McCumber says. "What's changed is that the first year we had about 600 people, and now we get around 1,500."
Every year some of the best steel players in the country come to the Texas Jamboree. Several Nashville steel players attend, including John Hughey, who played with Conway Twitty and Vince Gill; and Hal Rugg, who worked with the Grand Ole Opry stage band for almost 30 years. But many of the best come from Texas, such as Junior Knight, Herb Remington, and Bert Rivera.
While there is a concern for playing and preserving Western Swing and classic country music, there is also a commitment to expanding the steel's repertoire. At the Jamboree, you are just as likely to hear the music of Count Basie and Duke Ellington as you are the music of Bob Wills and Milton Brown. A player named Buck Grantham got a standing ovation for a beautiful rendition of the old gospel song, "Sweet Beulah Land," and Rivera, who plays around Austin, provided one of the Jamboree's highlights with a steel guitar arrangement of the theme from The Godfather.
The TSGA Hall of Fame honors some of the most important Texas players in the history of the steel guitar: Bob Dunn, who played steel guitar with Milton Brown, is credited as being the first player to amplify the instrument. Leon McAuliffe and Herb Remington became steel guitar legends by playing with Bob Wills' Texas Playboys, and another group of players worked with Hank Thompson's Brazos Valley Boys, including Garrett, Whitewing, and Rivera. All these musicians have written their pages into the history of country music.
Mathis looked a little uncomfortable at the Jamboree on the afternoon of March 23, as Charlie Norris called the Hall of Fame members to the stage to begin the TSGA Hall of Fame induction ceremony. The audience rose to a standing ovation as Norris introduced Mathis as the newest member of the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame. Mathis thanked Norris, the TSGA, the Hall of Fame members, friends, and his family. After a few photographs, Mathis went over and sat down in the one spot where he is most comfortable — behind his steel guitar — and ripped into a set of hot licks, showing the crowd how he had made the 50-year journey from Christine, Texas, to the Texas Steel Guitar Hall of Fame.
"People need to come out and hear Denny and other musicians like him," says Hailey, "because these are guys who have worked all their lives in music. They've built their life around their talents, and these individuals don't come around very often. I think everyone is enriched when they get to hear a great musician like Denny Mathis."
For your information
Texas Steel Guitar Association
500 N. Galloway,
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Mesquite, TX 75149