There is not a more recognizable sound in music than a steel guitar.
A staple instrument of country-and-western swing, the steel guitar can also be heard in rock, gospel, blues and folk. However, in my years of writing, when rattling off names of musicians and the instruments they play, I can’t recall typing a woman’s name followed by the phrase “on steel guitar.” Until today.
Thank Cindy Cashdollar, a New York native who has made a name for herself in Austin, Texas, as a regular session musician and performer, backing a range of people, including Bob Dylan, Leon Redbone, Dave Alvin and Ryan Adams. She has also received five Grammys while playing with Asleep at the Wheel. Cashdollar will sit in tomorrow night with headliner Marcia Ball at the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College.
Ball can’t be pigeonholed solely as a blueswoman, although that’s where she gets stuck in record stores, radio stations and iTunes. But the native Texan’s piano style is more like zydeco, country and honky-tonk. Adding a talented woman like Cashdollar on the steel guitar makes perfect sense. They are old friends, a result of the tight-knit musical family that exists around Austin. Ball has played on Cashdollar’s releases and vice versa, and this is a prelude to a project both women will be working on in 2013.
“I’ve known Marcia for quite some time,” Cashdollar said. “Around here in Austin, everybody gets to play with everybody else.”
Cashdollar embraces her unique choice of instrument. While female steel guitarists are rare, the number is growing.
“There’s not a lot,” Cashdollar said. “But there’s more and more over the years, and, of course, decades ago during the Hawaiian music craze, there were schools of lap steel. A lot of those old photographs had quite a few women. At that time there weren’t women visible on the touring circuit, but certainly now there’s quite a few players.”
Her progression toward what remains a difficult instrument to play began at an early age. Beginning with guitar, she moved onto dobro. A need to be heard guided her next experiment.
“I needed something louder because acoustic dobros just weren’t loud enough,” Cashdollar said. “So I took up lap steel, six strings. Then I took up steel guitar, which is bigger and heavier with a lot more strings.”
She’s into letting the instrument take her in whatever direction she wants it to take her. Free of the constraints of country-and-western, it is found a place in many musical genres.
“The instrument has always been associated with country music, but it has taken off in so many different directions over the years, it has covered so much ground,” she said.
Steel guitar players are not often headliners, but Cashdollar is happy in the role of session musician and side player. As an Austin musician, she is afforded the opportunity to play with an endless list of great players, including Ball.
“I’m excited to be doing shows with Marcia. She’s a great person, and her band is phenomenal,” she said.
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. Reach him at Liggett_b@fortlewis.edu.