I first became acquainted with the soulful, sweet pedal steel guitar styling of J. Tom Hnatow pretty recently, whilst listening to, loving and obsessing over the last These United States record, released earlier this year. As I like to say- I may be late, but at least I made it to the party. Hnatow is skillful on the pedal steel, playing with nuance, subtlety and heart, but can also totally rock it out, and plays many other instruments as well. He was with TUS for seven years (starting out in DC), five albums, and about a thousand shows, living mostly on the road. He has recently left the band, moved from North Carolina to Lexington, Kentucky, and is now on tour playing guitar with The Mynabirds (another band with DC roots- front-woman Laura Burhenn lived many years in DC.) Amidst his busy tour schedule he took some time to chat with me on the phone about music, icons of the pedal steel world, leaving These United States, and more. You can see Tom play with The Mynabirds this Friday, October 26th at Black Cat!
Alexia: So how did you first start playing music?
Tom: I was forced to take piano lessons when I was a kid, like 8 years, and I hated it! Absolutely despised it, and, I think my Mom said something like “When you turn fifteen you can quit.” So I was like “Ok, cool, I’m out!” And then I sort of stumbled into playing guitar and thought that was pretty cool, and kind of went from there.
Alexia: And how did you get into pedal steel?
Tom: How did I get into pedal steel? I think I stumbled into it, because I played banjo and I played lap steel for a long time, and realized that what I was doing on the lap steel, there were a lot of things where I was trying to imitate a pedal steel, so I thought “Oh, this’ll be really easy! How hard could it be? I can play slide guitar!” And I learned rapidly that was not the case! I’m just sort of stumbling my way through it.
Alexia: Um, for stumbling you’re doing a pretty damn good job! (laughs)
Tom: (laughs) It’s smoke and mirrors! It’s an illusion.
Alexia: Was there any artist or album that first made you fall in love with rock & roll?
Tom: Yeah. Well, I didn’t listen to rock & roll as a kid much. I wasn’t that into it, and it wasn’t that my parents banned it, but we just weren’t allowed to watch MTV, and I just really was not exposed to rock & roll. My Dad’s like a real jazz guy. So, for some inexplicable reason, and I still don’t know why he did this, when I graduated from junior high school he bought me the Led Zeppelin box set. And I don’t think I’d ever heard a note of Led Zeppelin, other than, you know, of course “Stairway to Heaven”, and I was just floored by the fact that this music existed! So I was like “I’m going to play guitar,” so of course my first band was like Led Zeppelin riffs played even stupider. (laughs)
Alexia: Are there any people in the pedal steel world who are inspirational or icons to you?
Tom: Yeah- there’s a guy named Ralph Mooney, Waylon Jennings’ long-term sidekick, and he is just absolutely one of my favorites. And Ben Keith , I think he’s the only steel player who played on any Neil Young records, and I just love his playing. It’s just like so simple and beautiful and perfect. You know, any Neil Young song you hear the steel and it’s just like, it just couldn’t exist otherwise. Continue reading