Legendary steel guitarist Ralph Mooney, who died Sunday of kidney cancer at 82, was one of “our greatest treasures,” according to Marty Stuart.
“One of the greatest sins is that we’re always looking for the newest, brightest, bestest, loudest,” Stuart told this page last September. “That’s great, but in the course of things, we tend to disregard our greatest treasures and let things slip by the wayside. Ralph Mooney is as great today as when he first recorded.”
Mooney, who co-wrote the Ray Price classic “Crazy Arms,” was considered a pioneer of steel guitar play, standing out on hits by the likes of Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Wynn Stewart and Waylon Jennings. A player for Jennings for over 20 years, he was singled out on stage by Jennings for having the left foot that made Haggard a star–since Mooney used that foot to depress the pedal that changed the steel guitar notes’ pitch in achieving its characteristic bends.
Mooney fashioned his first pedal himself, out of a bicycle pedal and wire.
Stuart enlisted Mooney to grace his acclaimed Ghost Train (The Studio B Sessions) album of last year, which earned the Best Country Instrumental Grammy for the track “Hummingbyrd.” Mooney co-wrote the album track “Little Heartbreaker,” and also played an instrumental version of “Crazy Arms.”
“It’s about balance,” Stuart said of the album, his goal in recording it being to feature “every aspect of country music, old and new–not just the latest thing that flew off the launching pad.” Country music, he added, “is a big family with a lot of license to create with, but just because somebody’s old and retired doesn’t mean they should be disregarded. Ralph Mooney doesn’t go on the road anymore, but he still has my favorite sound in the world.”
Recalling his trip to Mooney’s home in Arlington, Tex., to see if he would come to Nashville to record Ghost Train, Stuart told The Tennessean‘s Peter Cooper: “If I was a baseball-playing kid, it’d be like hanging with Babe Ruth. Moon was the most important picker that ever came through my life.”
Marty Muse, the steel player for Robert Earl Keen, is working on a documentary about the pedal steel and its most important practitioners.
“Needless to say I am saddened by his passing but feel so fortunate that I got to know him a little bit,” says Muse. “He was such an innovative and unique player, there will surely never be anybody quite like him. He was one of the true pioneers of the pedal steel guitar, making his own instrument, and using it to shape the sound of an entire genre.”
“His impact on our popular music will be felt for generations to come,” Muse added.
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