Irish Steel Guitar Festival 2016

When you hear twin fiddles and a steel guitar
You’re listenin’ to the sound of the American heart
And Opry music on a Saturday night
Brings a smile to your face and a tear to your eye

– George Strait, “Heartland”

To paraphrase the King of Country, few things are as synonymous with Country Music as the sound of a pedal steel guitar.

Although Ireland has thousands of country music followers, few may be aware of the Irish Steel Guitar Festival, run since 2002 by the dedicated and energetic Irish Steel Guitar Association. This year’s festival took place in Dublin on 15th and 16th October 2016.

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Dag Wolf and Egil Skjelnes, Norwegian pedal steel virtuosos performing at the 2016 Festival

Irish Steel Guitar Association

The ISGA was formed in 2002 with the initial aim of organising an annual Irish Steel Guitar Festival. Its wider objective has been to promote the instrument and its capabilities to a wider audience.

The Festival has become a mainstay of the Irish Country Music calendar, with a loyal following in Ireland. The committee has also forged links with similar organisations overseas such as the British Steelies. In each year of the Festival since 2002 the ISGA has managed to attract the best Irish and international pedal steel talent to the Festival.

2016 Festival

The star attraction of this year’s Festival was Russ Hicks, one of Nashville’s most famous steel players who has played with bands under Ray Price, Connie Smith and Charlie McCoy; and on records by dozens of artists including Marty Robbins, Townes Van Zandt, and Charlie Daniels. We streamed some of Russ’s performance including a rocking version of Merle Haggard’s “Workin’ Man Blues”, with Longford’s Danny Sheerin on vocals.

The two-day event at Dublin’s Green Isle Hotel also featured England’s Sarah Jory, a multi-instrumentalist, one-time member of Van Morrison’s band and an established artist in her own right. Sarah brought an infectious energy to the stage and seemed to enjoy getting the best out of her fellow musicians. Her amazing version of Brad Paisley’s Nervous Breakdown was (for me at least) one of the highlights of the day.

Full details of the line-up can be found at the ISGA website.

Having gone on Sunday looking forward to a day of Honky Tonk and Western Swing, it was a pleasant surprise to hear other genres like Irish Trad (courtesy of Aidan Cunningham and his talented family), and even Jazz and Bossa Nova (Richard Nelson has diverse tastes!).

The “house band” deserves a special mention – clearly a talented and versatile group, made up of some of Ireland’s best professionals. Impressively, we heard that some members of the band had squeezed in a long-distance gig on Saturday night,  in between playing 7-8 hours at the Festival on both Saturday and Sunday. Bruce Springsteen has nothing on those guys…

Live Tweets

Some tweets and Periscope videos from Sunday.

Pedal Steel – a Brief History

The modern pedal steel traces its roots to the Hawaiian style of playing acoustic guitar with a metal slide. The unique ‘Hapa Haole‘ sound exploded in the US between the 1900s and 1920s, popularised by Tin Pan Alley songs, Broadway shows, and travelling musical groups from the newly-annexed US Territory of Hawaii.

The advent of amplification in the 20s/30s eliminated the need for a hollow guitar body, and the electric ‘lap steel’ was born.

In the 1950s and 60s, pioneering country steel players like Bud Isaacs and Buddy Emmons were instrumental in the introduction of levers and pedals, to adjust the pitch of certain strings. Additional strings were soon added, along with second and even third necks.

More detail on the history of the pedal steel can be found in this article by premierguitar.com, or at the Pedal Steel Wikipedia page.

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“Williams” brand twin-neck pedal steel guitar

© republicofcountry.com, 2016