Wire and Hinges: How Pedal Steel Guitar Legend Bud Isaacs Changed the Course of Country Music

Bud Isaacs was and is the driving force behind the development of the way musicians play pedal steel guitar today. His mechanical tinkering – using a door hinge and wires to modify his lap steel into something completely unique — created a legendary sound and spawned a legion of imitators.

He was born March 26, 1928, in Bedford, Indiana. In his early teens, he took up the steel guitar. At 14, he hopped a train for Nashville and scored a gig on the Opry with Pee Wee King, but he was sent home after they discovered his age. About a decade later, on November 29, 1953, he would change music history forever with his playing on Webb Pierce’s “Slowly.” The guitar that he had altered with simple equipment from a hardware store created a pitch-changing sound that had never been heard before.

“Slowly” became the most-played song of 1954 and was at No. 1 on the charts for 17 weeks. The next year, Bud played on 11 No. 1 country songs. Over time, he would also compose and record several classic steel-guitar instrumentals such as “Buds Bounce” and “Hot Mockingbird.”

Bud now resides in Yuma, Arizona, with his wife, Geri Mapes Isaacs, and continues to be active in the steel-guitar world. I caught up with Bud at the Southwestern Steel Guitar Association’s Steel Guitar Convention, where he and Geri were performing. One of the first things he said to me as I turned on the recorder was, “You’ll learn a lot while you’re sitting here.” I couldn’t agree more.

I would like to thank Bud, Geri, Billy Easton, and my wife, Jennifer Rauhouse. This couldn’t have happened without them.

Jon Rauhouse: What was the first steel guitar you played? Was that the Bigsby?

Bud Isaacs: No, the first one I played was a Rickenbacker. And then I worked my way up to a Gibson. I got that Gibson and I had it all wired together, trying to get pedals on it. All bailing wire and barn door hinges…everything you could think of, I had it on there! Then Bigsby saw that and he laughed till he cried, because he was a good builder. And so I said, “I want to trade this in on a bigger piece.” He said, “I’ll be glad to take it.” He made me an offer and it was fine. I asked, “What are you going to do with it?” He said, “I’m going to hang it on the wall, up over my bench, so when I need a laugh, all I got to do is look up at that damn thing.”

I was working with Red Foley at the time on the Grand Ole Opry. The Bigsby came Railway Express and Red said, “Let me go down with you to pick it up.” I said okay. I couldn’t understand why Red wanted to go down and do it; he’s pretty busy. So we went and he sneaked in and, before I got it, paid for the whole thing. He paid it all off, all the shipping and everything. That’s the first time that Red Foley ever bought anybody anything!

Geri Isaacs: We heard that they sold that steel for $85,000 a while back.

JR: Really?

GI: He sold it to Jack Hamlet for $250. And Jack sold it…

BI: I don’t care, you know. I was happy with what I got. Still am.

JR: After Red, who did you play with?

BI: That was Webb Pierce. He named me “Horace” — Webb’s brother, “Whore Ass” Pierce. Kind of a dangerous name to use in places. You don’t use it in church!

But I worked for him a lot. I had the only pedaled steel in town at the time. I got sessions with everybody! I had sessions lined up that I couldn’t possibly make. I kept working all of the time. Webb went to the union and said, “I want you to force him to play with me, cause he’s the only one that has a pedal steel and I want to plug “Slowly.” It was the fastest song that went to No. 1 in history. He said, “I got to plug that and he won’t play with me. He won’t go out on the road and play with me.” George, from the union, said, “Webb, slavery went out in 1865. We can’t force him to play if he don’t want to play with you.”

JR: This was all in Nashville?

BI: Yeah and Jerry Byrd popped up and said to Webb, “Why don’t you talk money with him?” Webb said, “Nope, paying scale.”

But I didn’t want to work with him for scale or anything above that, because I had a good job with Red Foley. I liked his singing and everything about him. He was a great entertainer. He was “The Old Master,” as they called him. And he was, too. He could do a commercial about smoking and damn if you wouldn’t want to light up! Talking about flour or shortening, he’d make you hungry with the way he’d say it! Then we moved to Springfield, Missouri, and started the Ozark Jubilee.

JR: What year was that?

BI: ’54, I think. That was the very first network country music show to ever go on. And we couldn’t even do it in Springfield. We had to go to Columbia, to the university. It was the only place that had a cable out. And they made props that were so phony looking; they were terrible. But at that time they were pretty good. There wasn’t no such thing as color TV, everything was black and white. They didn’t need a lot of stuff on it. It was Red emceeing and they had a pretty classy show. So black and white was all right.

GI: A good band, with Grady Martin, Tommy Jackson, and…

BI: Yeah, Tommy was great. Tommy Jackson and Grady. Bob Moore on bass. Jimmy Sealth played rhythm guitar. We were the choice band of Nashville at the time. We recorded with everybody. Tommy was a good fiddle player. He’s dead now. All of them guys are dead.

JR: When did you decide to do your own solo stuff?

BI: Well, Steve Sholes, with RCA Victor, heard the record of “Slowly,” and liked my playing. He asked me if I had some of my own stuff, and I said, “Sure.” I always played and wrote songs…instrumentals. And Chet Atkins worked with Steve, too. So Chet and I sort of became partners and recorded through RCA. Steve was awful good to us.

JR: How did “Bud’s Bounce” come about?

BI: Well, it was on a session I worked on, Chet and I and Buddy Harmon. Buddy was a good drummer and I knew it. Chet didn’t know it. Chet had never heard him and didn’t want to use him. And I said, “I’m not going to record if we don’t use Buddy.” I like his drumming better than Ferris or anybody else. And so Chet said, “Okay, so we’ll use Buddy Harmon.” And after that, Chet used him on everything and Buddy Harmon got more sessions than anyone in the history of recording. He died not too long ago. But he was a great drummer. He was just a kid. That’s why Chet didn’t trust him, because he was just a boy.

JR: Did you write the song at the session? Or is it a song you already had?

BI: At the session. I had ideas of what I wanted to do. And I just talked to Murray and Chet and the rest of the band — Red playing rhythm and Dale Potter playing fiddle. And we just decided that was it. I came up with this tune and they liked it. So they thought it’d be good. “The Waltz She Saved for Me” was mine also. That’s the first one with foot pedals. I didn’t invent pedals, because there were pedals long before me. Alvino Rey had them in the ’30s. But he’d strum across the whole thing, push the pedal and change the whole chords. He would change all the strings, and I wanted to get to change the individual strings. Like if one pedal pushed one-two strings, one pedal pushed the fifth string, that way. And I finally worked it out. I had a awful time. I had barn door hinges. I had bailing wire. Every time I’d play it, I had to rebuild it.

JR: I bet it was hard to keep in tune.

BI: I did that three or four times. And I put it on an old six-string double neck guitar. And it worked pretty good when you first hear it, till I played it a while, and then, bang.

I worked on the road with Jimmy Dickens. And he’s throwing it around, you know. I worked with Jimmy for a couple hundred shows, I guess. The best entertainer in the world. He was a master at it. He could hold a crowd right there. And little as he was, you wouldn’t think so. But a powerful voice.

GI: Bud was on all 11 No. 1 songs at one time.

JR: All at one time? What were they?

BI: Hard telling. In fact, I don’t even know who I recorded with! You know, in Nashville when you recorded, you wouldn’t know who you were recording with. Or what the name of it was. They’d say, “So-and-so number 4434.” You’d learn it and play it, and because they’re new tunes, you never heard them before. They hadn’t been recorded yet. And that’s why I couldn’t tell you half the things I’ve recorded.

Shot Jackson was a practical joker. He pinned my steel to the Opry curtain! A telephone pole is what they used as a weight. He had big laundry-type safety pins, about that long, and he pinned my top strings to that curtain! I didn’t see him. So I was ready to go on, and they hit the theme…and there went my steel. And my foot pedals was swinging in front of Red’s face. And Red was trying to sing. I flubbed it myself. Walter Haynes had a steel sitting in the wings, because he was going on next. And so I went and got his and finished the show with my steel hanging up. They can’t put the curtains down once they were up, not until the whole thing’s over. And my steel swung in midair!

I fixed him. I got his Fender guitar when he played with Kitty Wells. Anyway, I got these little shop sinkers, you know, the ones that you put on fishing lines – and pinched them up and down on his strings. He had a hell of a time! He made a big slide and he started laughing about it, because he knew I got a joke on him. And poor Kitty was singing, and we’re all on live. I’ll never forget the song!

JR: Of all the recordings you’ve done, what was your favorite?

BI: Red Foley’s “Walkin’ in the Cold, Cold Rain.” We did that before “Slowly.” And it was all foot pedal. “Blue Guitar” was another one with Red Foley singing.

JR: How long did you play with Red?

BI: I worked with Red about four years. I then moved to Arizona. I got tired of Springfield, too. We had finished our contract, but we made a lot of money while we were doing it. So when we got through with that contract, there wasn’t nothing but that one night to work, the Jubilee. That was the only thing left. It wasn’t enough to make a living on. Thirty-five to forty dollars was all that you got for doing that — it ain’t nothing. So I moved out to move to Arizona. I was supposed to go back to Nashville, they tried to get me to, but I didn’t like Nashville. And I don’t care who knows it.

JR: You’re not alone.

GI: Back when Bud was there, they all cared about one another. They came in off of the road and they’d all share stories. They all cared and took care of each other.

BI: Yeah. Roy Acuff said, “When one gets cut, they all bleed.” It used to be that way. They all cared about each other.

JR: You gave some pedal-steel lessons to some famous musicians, didn’t you?

BI: Jimmy Day. And Red Rhodes. Tom Brumley. They used to stand around while I was playing at Studio C.

I got through and they would say, “Do you care if I play your steel?’ Yeah, play it. Go ahead, help yourself. Every one of them did.

First thing you know, they had it down. It didn’t take long. And I left with Red and I was out of there. Then, if someone wanted to record, I drove in. The recording didn’t pay enough. Forty-one dollars a quarter was scale for years. That’s what I got for “Slowly.”

JR: Forty-one dollars for playing “Slowly”?

BI: Yeah. And Red didn’t really like it very well because I got a bigger name out of it than he did. Then he called Bigsby and said he wanted a steel that was like mine.

He told him he had to get in line like everybody else, take him a year, year-and-a-half. He said, “Bigsby, I want one like Bud’s. And I want it now.” And he said, “Red, I’ll tell you somethin’. I wouldn’t make you one for anything – for any time. Just forget it.”

JR: So when did you and Geri meet?

BI: Forty years ago. I was walking up one side of the street and she was working the other.

JR: I knew there was going to be a joke there!

BI: That’s an old Jethro Burns joke. But we worked together in San Diego. I needed a singer. I had a good band, and good work with the Navy. And I found out Geri was singing good, everyone was telling me about her. And I asked her if she’d be interested in singing. And she was. The best thing that ever happened to me. And we’ve worked together ever since. Forty long years.

JR: And Geri, you play bass?

BI: Yeah. Yeah, she plays good bass. Roy Lanham says she’s his favorite bass player. ’Cause she had an ear for chords. She could hit the right note. She could play a strange tune.

GI: They asked me if I could read music, and I said, “Not enough to hurt my playing any!”

JR: After the Bigsby, what did you end up playing?

BI: Gibsons. I went back to Gibson and I designed for Gibson some. For Clarence Evango, he used to be the president of the Chicago Musical Instrument Company, which built Gibson and Epiphone. I worked with him for a quite a while and designed his triple-neck. Then after that, I got a Rusler.

JR: Those are great guitars.

BI: I had a Fender that Bob Venn replaced the pickup, coverplate and pickguard on. He made it one big piece. He carved it out with a pocketknife. And that thing looked like it was out of a factory job when it was done! I sold the Fender and I got two Ruslers, but I don’t want to say how.

JR: Those were built in Phoenix, right?

BI: Yeah. But he moved to Tennessee and quit building. I don’t know if he died or someone killed him. He built me one I got —I don’t want to sell that one. I left it in the trunk of the car all summer long in Phoenix one time. I came back and that steel was still in tune! After laying in the trunk, in all that heat! Right now, it’s just as good as it was when it was new. Nothing could hurt it. I always liked Ruslers.

JR: What kind of amp did you have in those days?

BI: I had a Fender amp, I think. It might have been a Standel. I had a Standel for long time. The only bad thing about Standel is they wouldn’t put a reverb in it. But they made them pretty powerful. Les Paul tried to trade me out of that. I had a Standel and Les Paul saw it, and he said, “I’d like to trade you out of that.” He said, “I’ll offer you any amp I got even for that Standel.” I said, “No, I really like it.” It was powerful. They were padded all around the side of them. Fifteen-inch speaker…first one, I think, to come out.

We had 807 tubes, I think. They were bigger than, I guess, 6L6s. But no reverb. In fact, they didn’t have such a thing. When Chet and I cut this stuff, we didn’t have reverb. He got about the first one that they ever made — they made a little box, it was a reverb spring in it, and Chet had that. And he loved that thing. It was a little thing you can sit on top of your amp.

JR: Have you still got your Rickenbacker frying-pan lap steel?

BI: Yeah. I’ve still got it. It’s not a fryin’ pan, but it’s a Rickenbacker – a metal one. Jimmy Dickens has got one of mine — an old Dobro. Dopyera brought me a steel one time. You know, the Dobro.

So he brought me this steel, the prettiest thing you ever saw. Had engraving all over it, and it was German silver. Heavy. And Jimmy Dickens has got it right now. But I didn’t mean for him to do that. He said, “That steel’s going to Nashville in the Hall of Fame where it belongs.” He said it’s going to be there. I said, “Well, I don’t care, ’cause I don’t play it. Go ahead, take it.” So he did, but he put it over his own fireplace in his house.

JR: I think it’s time you gave Mr. Dickens a call and say, “Hey.”

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the Fretboard Journal #26. Photograph by Josh Peckler.

 

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