Steel Guitar World Magazine, Issue #21
by Robbie Bossert
I gotta’ be honest here folks. I didn’t know a whole lot about Tommy Morrell other than the fact that his name represented the “M” in”MSA.” Then it happened. A tape arrived in my mailbox entitled, “How The West Was Swung” by Tommy Morrell and the Time-Warp Tophands. I tore into that tape much like a child tears into a Christmas present. I just could not wait to hear this Tommy Morrell guy. If you are a Tommy Morrell fan, you’re probably already assuming that I was immediately sold on Tommy’s playing. YOU’RE RIGHT! I was truly impressed with the whole tape. From his humorous liner notes, to the excellent selection of musicians and vocalists he chose to work with.
I’ve obtained every Tophand release since and I’m of the opinion that this ongoing series of Tophand recordings is to Western Swing Music what the Buddy Emmons and the Swing Shift band series has been to the preservation of the Big Band era. Keep ‘em comin’!!!!
Let’s get on with the interview. Enjoy.
Do you come from a musical family? Where were you raised?
I was born and raised in Dallas. My mother played a little bit of piano but my parents’ main musical contribution to my life were the recordings that they used to listen to when I was a child. They also loved to go dancing and, fortunately, in those days what you listened to and danced to was Big band Music! My dad was very diverse in his listening habits, so I was exposed to a very wide spectrum of that great stuff. Ah, or should I say, Ahhh-haaa for the good old days.
When was the first time you heard a steel guitar being played? Do you remember who was doing the playing?
My first conscious recollection of steel music was the nightly theme song of radio station KRLD’s “Hillbilly Hit Parade”. It was Spade Cooley’s version of “Steel Guitar Rag” which, of course, featured Joaquin Murphey.
When did you receive your first steel guitar?
I took lessons for about a month from Trick Brothers National Institute For Accordion And Guitar. They would rent you an old flat top with the nut raised. After a few weeks, they would try to sell you a single neck electric steel. I think it was a Magnatone, but I’m too not sure about that. At any rate, I went out and bought a beautiful solid wood, natural finish Alamo steel guitar (the Magnatone had a plastic molding) that was a whole lot more instrument than the Magnatone. The Alamo was also less expensive. I’ll always remember the day that I proudly took it to class. The teacher took me outside and informed me that I wouldn’t be allowed to use that guitar in Trick Brothers classes. So, I took my business elsewhere. It was really one of the best things that ever happened to me.
So, then you’re a self-taught player? I know that Maurice Anderson mentioned in his recent series of articles (MSA The Untold Story) that you were already somewhat of a steel guitar wizard at the ripe old age of eighteen. Did you ever locate an instructor that could keep up with you?
After Trick Brothers (what a name!), I took lessons from Don McCord, who was the teacher at McCord Music. Maurice Anderson, who worked at the store, would occasionally sub for Don as a teacher. So, I took a few lessons from him. I was only 12 or 13 years old at that time.
What was the most difficult thing for you to learn about playing the steel guitar?
Everything! I was a slow learner. About five or six of us guys from my school started taking lessons from Trick Brothers. They all learned how to tickle the strings just like Little Roy Wiggins, a lot quicker than I did. It made me mad but not for long. I was the only one who “stuck” with it. All you beginners remember that….
Do you remember your first public performance? How did it go?
My first public performance was on a flatbed truck in front of a store. I remember that we played “San Antonio Rose” and the band changed keys right in the middle of the song. I didn’t know what in the hell was going on! My first paid performance was at the Dallas Athletic Club, where a guitar player named Joe Smith and I played a Hawaiian gig. We received $5.00 each. I played all of the Hawaiian songs that I knew and suddenly realized that there were 3 more hours to go until quitting time! Crafty professionals that we were, we started doing songs like “Texas Playboy Rag” and calling them something like “Koahhamoalukalikki Stomp”, or something like that. The manager never knew the difference. I still get a good feeling about that one.
What is your opinion about some of the steel courses on the market today? Have you had a chance to examine any particular one thoroughly?
First of all, since this is the 90s and not the 40s, I think that the current steel guitar courses offer the most efficient way to gather information about the steel guitar. No, I haven’t checked any of them out very closely. I’m afraid that I’ll find out just how ignorant I really am! Here’s a question for you: How do you think Bobby Koefer would play and sound if he had taken a steel course instead of learning the way he did? I’ll bet that he would say that he would be a lot better. I actually sit around and think about stuff like that.
Is there any one particular tuning that you prefer to play over others?
I’m currently playing a C6 and an E13. The E13 is probably a little more versatile.
Tell me about your Time-Warp Tophands series of great Western Swing music. How did the whole concept come about?
I’m glad that you asked. It gives me a chance to express my appreciation to a great pianist, Johnny Case (who, incidentally, has a very fine record label that puts out a lot of albums featuring steel guitar in a jazz setting). Johnny put up most of the money for our first “Time-Warp” album. He said to me, “Hire who you want and play whatever you want.” Also, Bert Winston, who has kept the same philosophy and has footed the bill for the rest of the Time Warp albums. We need more people like these guys.
Did you ever get a chance to work with Bob Wills? It’s quite apparent after listening to the Tophands series that you have studied his music closely.
I joined the Texas Playboys around 1964 and played with him up until 1966. That’s why I live in the southwest. It’s where Western Swing was born and where the real feeling for the music comes from.
Who are your main influences on the steel guitar?
I hope that I don’t leave anyone out. In no particular order, I listened to many, many, many hours of either live or recorded: Joaquin Murphey, Noel Boggs, Leon McAuliffe, Jerry Byrd, Bobby Koefer (who I also had the pleasure of working with), Billy Bowman, Speedy West, Bob White, Pee Wee Whitewing (when they played twin Bigsbys in the the Hank Thompson band), Herb Remington, Alvino Rey, Rico Turchetti, and a guy in New Orleans, Jonny Bonavillian. I hope that I spelled his name right. He played like Joaquin. Somehow I found out that he was on radio station WWL at around 6:00AM. I would set my alarm, wake up, and record him (on a wire recorder) every morning before school. I saw him a couple of years ago and he took me into his music store and showed me a letter that I had written to him in 1951 asking about his tunings, etc. Wow!
Have you had a chance to read Maurice Anderson’s 3-part article, entitled: MSA: The Untold Story? If so, what is your opinion?
Yeah, I read it. I don’t have anything to say about the last half as I had left MSA by that time. However, since your magazine is one of the few publications that in a few years historians are going to be able to look back in time for steel guitar information, I’ll add a few things for the sake of historical accuracy. I’ve talked with Danny Shields and Bobbe Seymour. We all agreed that a little additional information about the beginnings of MSA are in order.
The roots of MSA go back, roughly, to the 1959-60 era. At that time, I was in Hobbs, New Mexico, and had started building Morrell Steel Guitars. The first one went to a guy in Carlsbad, NM. By the way, his name was Johnny Francis. I wasn’t a very good craftsman but I had a lot of good ideas (roller ball bearing nuts, etc.). I also didn’t have much in the way of machinery. Bobbe Seymour sent me a big box of drill bits, taps and dies, etc. Bobbe was in Duncan, Oklahoma at the time. I hired a man (Jim Booth) to do most of the mechanical work. Jim was the kind of guy that would have his transmission soaking in his bathtub filled with kerosene and his car engine field stripped in his living room, much to his wife’s horror!
At any rate, somehow or other, I met Danny shields. he was building a steel guitar called Shields custom in Wichita, KS. I had the better known name but Danny was the better craftsman. He was building a pretty darn good steel guitar for its day and time. We joined forces and started putting out a “Morrell-Shields Custom”.
Between my company, Danny’s company, and our combined company, we built 20 guitars. In the meantime, Maurice (Anderson) had talked to me about building him a new guitar. Before we ever got around to building him one, I had decided to move back to Dallas. Then, Maurice and Bobbe decided they would start building steels. Now, the plot thickens. Since I was coming from Hobbs to Dallas, Danny moved to Big “D” from Wichita. Seymour came from Duncan and we all met in Oak Cliff, which was across the river from Dallas. We started building in an old wooden garage on Winnettka Street. The garage was part of the house that Seymour rented. While we were there, Morrell-Shields guitars were built because there wasn’t enough money to buy new fret boards, decals, etc. Maurice got us a loan from his bank and we all lived happily ever after (or at least for a while).
What is your opinion about some of the new players out there today? Do you feel many of them have traded tastefulness for speed and flash?
The answer is YES. What I listen for in a steel player, besides his taste, is his ability to transcend the mechanics of the instrument. When a player can do that, he transforms himself (or herself) from a technician into a musician.
Did you ever make such a huge mistake on stage that you felt like the whole audience noticed?
Sorry that you asked. Probably the best, or should I say worst, example of that very rare phenomenon (Right!) happened a couple of months ago. I was sitting in with Asleep At The Wheel. We were promoting their new Tribute To Bob Wills album. Cindy Cashdollar, steel player with the Wheel said to me, “You’ve got the first solo on Faded Love.” Well, here we were at the Longhorn Ballroom, in front of about 4,000 screaming fans, with this giant PA set on “KILL!” I proceeded to take this very loud, full chord solo in the key of D. Yeah, you guessed it: the band stayed in A.
What do you consider to be some of the greatest highlights of your career to date?
Being inducted into the Texas Steel Guitar Hall of Fame would be one. Working with the Texas Playboys, Tommy Duncan, Tex Williams, Wade Ray, Ray Price, and Leon Rausch, would be some others. One time, I remember playing at the Golden Nugget in Vegas. I took (what I thought to be) a pretty darn good solo. The audience applause sounded like the end of the TV show Laugh In. Curly Chalker was in the crowd. He jumped up and yelled at the top of his voice, “Hey, you idiots, give that man a big hand. That was a helluva solo!”
What recordings have you done that you would consider examples of your finest playing?
Oh, I don’t know. Probably the Pterodactyl Ptales. It was a very spontaneous session, plus I had just started back on playing without pedals, so I was having to do a lot new bar movement. Also, I had recently changed voicings on my E13 tuning, so I was pretty much flying by the seat of my pants. I looked over at Clint Strong (guitarist) and he looked like a race horse at the starting gate. Lightning was shooting out of his eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. He was pawing the floor, waiting for the starting gun to go off. The mere fact that I survived that session is something that I’m proud of.
What is your current studio and live performance set-up?
I’m playing a non-pedal triple neck, 10 string Bigsby, made in 1954. As of this interview, I’m only stringing up two necks. My amp is a Norlin L-7Lab series. The volume pedal is a low impedence Goodrich. Since the Bigsby pickups are only rated at 2,000 ohms (most steel pickups are rated at 15-20,000 ohms), I use a small foot operated pre-amp. Incidentally, this is the only triple neck 10 string Bigsby that I have ever seen or heard of. If anyone knows who it was originally built for, I would like to know about it. Just curious.
What, in your opinion, should be going through a player’s mind while on the bandstand backing a vocalist?
That depends on whether the vocalist is male or female.
Do you still practice? If so, is it a structured thing in which you set goals and try to accomplish them in a certain amount of time, or is it more of a situation where you just pick and listen for something new that might come out?
After playing for about 40 years, I find that I still practice a lot, but it’s more mental than physical. I would probably be a better player if I did a lot more of both.
Do you feel that the steel guitar is still gaining in popularity? Where do you see the steel guitar’s place in music in five years?
The answer to the first part is yes. About the second part, the only thing I know for sure is that it ain’t gonna be where it is now!
Do you have any inspiring words for the new steel players out there that might get them through the potentially frustrating times of practicing?
Yeah. The more you do it, the better you’ll be. It’s like a savings account: put in $10.00 a week and you’ll save $520 at the end of the year. Put in $100 a week and you’ll have $5,200 at the end of the year. It’s as simple as that. One other thing: if you start off learning on a pedal guitar and you tune up to an electronic tuner, you can become a very good steel player. But, if you can first discipline yourself to learn without the benefits of pedals and learn to tune up to sound rather than sight, you will become an even better player…Count on it!