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One dollar bill's journey through the aces and annals of the steel guitar

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We were in St. Louis, at the 1993 International Steel Guitar Convention, when Speedy West—one of the wildest and most flipped-out cats ever to bar-crash the instrument—was about to introduce the next player. He started with a story.

In the '50s, West remembered, he and country great Ray Price had lunch to catch up on the latest music news. As they were preparing to leave, Ray pulled a dollar from his pocket and told Speedy to autograph it for his new steel guitar man. The kid was going to be "pretty good," Price had said. Speedy obliged, addressed the autograph to "Jimmy" and handed it back to Ray.

The kid, Speedy said from the stage four decades later, did turn out to be "pretty good." In fact, he was the next guitarist due on stage, Jimmy Day—my all-time favorite steel player.

When the set was over, I rushed over to Speedy and handed him my own dollar bill. He laughed, signed it and returned it. "Now you'll never be broke," he said.

A few minutes later, Jimmy signed it. We were standing in front of the stage in St. Louis. For more than 20 years, people had traveled from across the world (and, 20 years later, they still do) to hear country music's best musicians cut loose outside the confines of Nashville. That's what founder DeWitt Scott had in mind, and this simple formula made the convention one of the hottest tickets in classic country. For one weekend a year, the steel guitar would be placed front and center of the stage, and the singers would back up the musicians.

Like many in the audience, I was in St. Louis because I played pedal steel, too: At the convention, you could meet and mingle with the guys who played on all the records you had at home, plus the people who built your instrument. The pedal steel is a mysterious and challenging thing, and this contact with the greats offered young players like me a chance to learn their ways.

Though Speedy and Jimmy were the first players to sign my dollar, many more have added their names over the years.

One year, I snuck into the convention's main ballroom when it was closed. Buddy Emmons was sitting alone in the audience section, tuning his steel and getting warmed up for that night's set. I walked over, smiled, said nothing. He smiled and nodded, so I sat down. A couple of other people joined, but no one said anything. For about 20 minutes, we watched a master work his craft.

People call Buddy the "world's foremost steel guitarist" for good reason: Arriving in Nashville at 18, he brought with him a Bigsby pedal steel, state-of-the art in 1955. He quickly became the epicenter and driving force of many advancements that redefined the instrument's mechanics, tuning structures and musicianship. Several of those advancements turned up in Burlington, N.C., where Emmons Guitar Company built some of the finest pedal steels ever made. Meanwhile, Emmons showed the world what the steel guitar could do with the country music of Little Jimmy Dickens, Ernest Tubb, Ray Price and Roger Miller. He also took the steel into uncharted musical waters of jazz and big-band swing.

When practice was over, Buddy autographed my dollar, adding his name dead center on Washington's face. That's right where it belonged.

Later, I met Billy Robinson, inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in 1996. From Nashville, Robinson played steel guitar in junior high school in a local band called the Eagle Rangers. His mom would haul the band around town to their shows in her 1937 Hudson Terraplane. By 1948 Robinson was playing on the Grand Ole Opry with major country music stars such as Red Foley and Roy Acuff. He signed my dollar bill on the front's far left edge.

In the last 20 years, more than a dozen other steel experts, including Bob White and Junior Brown, have signed my dollar. But if my dollar could have only one autograph, it would belong to Jimmy, who signed it that first day. He spent five decades performing with countless bands and singers, including Ray Price and Webb Pierce, Willie Nelson and Elvis Presley. Jimmy wasn't fast or flashy, but he could flat-out smoke a country ballad or honky-tonk shuffle. His sound was like melted butter and maple syrup covering a stack of hot pancakes—smooth, rich, finished with a distinctly Southern sugar high.

The road has destroyed a lot of musicians and shortened the lives of many others. As the years went by, Jimmy's performances could be uneven. But in the early to mid-'90s, he hit the best sets I would ever hear him play. On that day in 1993, the convention house band was locked in with him. After he blew through four or five great songs, there was a pause. Jimmy seemed to be wondering what to do next.

He sat at the steel and simply waited until the packed ballroom became completely quiet. He let the silence linger. Jimmy called out the key, and without counting the band in, he offered the opening phrase of Hank Williams' "You Win Again." He slowed the tempo, flavoring a taste of weary blues into the melodic phrases. It was classic Jimmy Day, a bittersweet mixture of beauty and emotional pain that had the feel of a gospel hymn sung by the light of a jukebox. For me, Jimmy's performance of that simple country song was the pinnacle of everything I'd ever heard at the convention.

The last time I went to the St. Louis convention was in 1997. Speedy West and Jimmy Day have since passed on. Buddy Emmons began having problems with his right hand and retired a few years back. Billy Robinson still hits the road and plays some of the steel conventions—but not in his mother's 1937 Hudson Terraplane.

Not long ago, I saw a recent photo from the convention, and the place looked more than half-empty. When I was going, you had to come very early or stand in the back. There's great concern among players about the future of the steel guitar. Will kids pick it up and carry the tradition of this beautiful American instrument forward?

Who knows? This Saturday at The ArtsCenter, Cindy Cashdollar and Allyn Love will demonstrate various styles of steel guitar at a steel guitar concert and symposium. Cashdollar has played with some of Austin's best, including Redd Volkaert and Asleep at the Wheel. Allyn is a fine steel player who has played with several North Carolina acts, including Mount Moriah and Jeanne Jolly. In his other life, he disguises himself as the director of operations for the North Carolina Symphony. Maybe they'll help.

As for me, well, at least I'll never be broke.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Cash dollar."

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