Interviews, Music, We Love Music

Q&A with J. Tom Hnatow


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

Entertainment, Music, The Features, We Love Music

We Love Music: Listen Up! 2 albums you should hear.

courtesy of These United States

It’s not super often that I come across albums I can’t stop listening to, can’t get out of my head, and just can’t stop thinking about. If I’m lucky it happens a few times a year, and it’s what I live for. So, for it to happen with two different albums in the course of one week has kind of blown my mind, and I feel it’s my responsibility to share this joy with the world, or at least the We Love DC readers.  The albums are Young People’s Church of the Air by Deleted Scenes, and These United States, self-titled.  Coincidentally both bands have DC connections- Deleted Scenes are based in DC, and These United States started here. These albums have totally distinct sounds, they live in different spots on the musical spectrum, but both are beautiful and brilliant in their own way.

I’ll start with These United States, self-titled. I first became aquainted with the music of These United States several years back, when they were first starting out, and based in DC. I saw them live at Iota, probably around 2007, and their enthusiasm and energy, combined with the charisma of frontman Jesse Elliott was exhilarating. Fast forward five years and just as many albums…the group no longer calls DC home, they are based partly in New York, and spend lots of time on the road. Their fifth studio album, These United States came out in June on Colorado-based United Interests records.

This record makes me want to stomp, holler, daydream and dance. The record is beautifully produced, a shining example of Americana- a lively blend of country sounds, folk, and rock. Jesse Elliott’s lyrics and vocals take you on a journey, weaving and winding from the fast-pasted “Dead and Gone” to the dreamy “Miss Underground” and quiet contemplation of “The Park.”  The sounds that come from J. Tom Hnatow’s guitar and pedal steel are like caramel- so rich, sweet, soulfully delicious. They add a decadence to the recordings that almost makes my ears feel guilty. It’s hard to pick favorites from a record this good (there are no bad songs on this album) but my top songs at the moment are the soulful “Miss Underground”, the classic-rock tinged “Let the River In”, and the jubilant stomp-fest of “Dead & Gone.” But don’t just track-hop this album- it deserves a start-to-finish listening. (Last week I got to ask TUS singer Jesse Elliott a few questions. Check out what he had to say here.) Continue reading

Entertainment, Interviews, Music, Night Life, People, The Features, We Love Music

Q&A with These United States

Jesse Elliott, photo by Tamara

These United States play exuberant, uplifting alt-Americana rock & roll. They formerly called Washington,DC home, but are now based in New York, and spend copious amounts of time on the road. The band recently opened for country legend Willie Nelson, and are touring now in support of their fifth studio album, the eponymous These United States. They’ll be making a stop to play Black Cat this Saturday, July 7th. This week TUS frontman Jesse Elliott offered WLDC’s Alexia Kauffman a little peek inside his mind. Check it out here.

Alexia: How did you first start playing music?

Jesse: Honestly, it was like soccer, or math club, or all these strange things we got signed up for when we were very young and couldn’t possibly know any better and they turned out to be these beautiful human endeavors that people had been doing for centuries, just a goal and a ball and a bunch of other humans to kick it all around between. 
Alexia: Was there any artist or album that first sparked your love of rock music?

Jesse: The Who. 
Alexia: You all were based in DC for a while- what was the catalyst for your move?

Jesse: We were moving around so much, it just made sense to keep moving. we had one foot on the platform, at one point, and then all of a sudden both of them were on the train, and we couldn’t say why, but even the platform looked perfect in the distance, from that far away – so why not?  Continue reading