Music » Music Feature

Pedal to the Metal

Jon Rauhouse dusts off those bizarre thrift-store scores


"Any music fan could get to know a song on a favorite 45; a bigger fan might risk playing the B-side." --Brett Milano, Vinyl Junkies

Talk to any serious record collector--the ones who scour not only their favorite local record store, but also yard sales, thrift stores and anywhere records can be found--and you'll hear similar stories of discovery.

You come across a band you like and go searching to fill in the gaps in your collection. The cheapest place to start is thrift stores, so you scour the dusty bins jammed with musty vinyl LPs for a copy of what you seek. But for all the golden wheat you're looking for, there's an awful lot of chaff to sort through--albums that you can't imagine anyone ever buying in the first place. Albums of music from old Bugs Bunny cartoons, of lounge jazz meant to seduce that special someone three decades ago, of TV show theme songs and, yes, albums of popular songs played by faceless individuals on the steel guitar.

Eventually, you come across so many of these long-forgotten relics that you decide to take a chance. (After all, they're only 50 cents.) Maybe you choose one based on the bizarre title, or, more likely, based on the cover art--in which case, you probably picked up Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass' ubiquitous Whipped Cream and Other Delights. (You know, the one with the sexy lady wearing only strategically placed dollops of frothy dessert topping?) And, in the process, you realize that there's an entire world of undiscovered music that you can only find in thrift stores. And, oddly enough, some of it is pretty fantastic.

Enter Jon Rauhouse--master of the pedal steel guitar, the Hawaiian guitar and just about any other stringed instrument that includes the word "guitar" (and some that don't)--who has found time in his busy schedule as a sideman over the last couple years to pay homage to these neglected and somewhat esoteric albums.

Rauhouse, a Phoenix native, fell into playing music somewhat accidentally. Toward the end of high school, a buddy of his broke his leg in a first-time skydiving accident and couldn't do much of anything. He had a guitar sitting around the house, and Rauhouse had an old banjo in his, so they basically dared each other to learn how to play them. They eventually did, and formed a bluegrass band called Southwind that lasted for about seven years.

Meanwhile, Rauhouse had fallen under the spell of a local steel guitar player. "He was two years older than me," Rauhouse recounts, "but he was playing steel guitar in the Mesa-Phoenix area, and he was really good--it was just one of the coolest-sounding instruments I ever heard. So I would go watch this guy play, and ended up being friends with him." Rauhouse found a student-model steel guitar in Flagstaff, began collecting records that prominently featured steel guitar and taught himself to play the thing. Before long, he had outgrown the student model. "It was three pedals and one knee lever, and it just wouldn't cut playing all the different chords, so I ended up having to go to Los Angeles to buy a 'real' steel guitar--an MSA that I still play."

Soon, he was taking any gig he could to improve his skills. "I was in a pool of musicians that played all the big resorts, and the guy would just call me and tell me where to be, and I would go play. I would never know who the band was gonna be that I was playing with, but I learned to really fly by the seat of my pants doing that stuff. Then I got a call to do a recording session with a band called the Grievous Angels."

Though he had no idea at the time, that call would prove to be life altering.

Rauhouse played on a couple of Grievous Angels songs that were submitted to Chicago's then-nascent Bloodshot Records, which ended up signing the band. The Angels would go on to release three records on Bloodshot, and "doing that, I met the Old 97's, the Waco Brothers, Sally (Timms), Kelly Hogan, all those people, Neko (Case)--doing tours with those people, at shows with those people."

When the Grievous Angels broke up, Mekons' Jon Langford invited Rauhouse to tour Europe and the East Coast with the Waco Brothers, one of his other bands, which Rauhouse did. The opener on those tours was another Mekon, Sally Timms, who invited Langford to perform on her upcoming album and tour as part of her band. The Old 97's put in a call to Rauhouse to appear on their albums. Before he knew it, Rauhouse had become an in-demand session player--the specialty guy folks ring up when they need to add a tasty Hawaiian guitar or pedal steel part to a song.

Things came to a peak at the 2000 South by Southwest music festival in Austin. "I did a bunch of shows with Calexico; I played a Giant Sand show; I did Kelly, Sally, Neko, Jon Langford, and all of 'em did a couple shows, and it turned out to be 14 shows. It was crazy. ... Neko was there, playing before Calexico, and I had known her, and she asked me if I'd play in her set, so I played in her set. And then I think it was the next day she asked me if I'd join her band, so I ended up playing with her."

But even with calls coming in to utilize his exceptional skills on rare instruments for a variety of recording and touring projects, and a regular gig as a permanent member of Case's band, Rauhouse found himself with a fair amount of downtime.

"That's a hard thing about being a musician now, even with me," he says. "People, to stay being a musician, have to do more than one thing usually. Because it's like, with Neko, we're gonna tour for X amount of the year, and yeah, it's a great thing, but during that other part you usually have to find something to do. That's why I started doing my own stuff, because I knew I'd sell a few records--I've sold more than I thought I would--but at least it's an income at that time when you're not doing something."

Rauhouse remembered all those wacky steel guitar records he came across in thrift stores when he first began playing, and decided he wanted to pay tribute to them. Gathering a slew of friends with whom he'd played over the years (including his old Southwind bandmate Tommy Connell, as well as Howe Gelb, Case, Hogan, Timms and members of Calexico), he recorded two albums of oddball covers and originals that were in the spirit of those old records. Released under Rauhouse's own name, 2002's Air Guitar Show and 2004's Steel Guitar Rodeo (both released on Bloodshot) veer from Raymond Scott cartoon instrumentals to sultry female-sung ballads, Rauhouse-penned tunes in the vein of the Sons of the Pioneers to lounge-jazz exotica. Hell, he even found room to include a nugget from the ultimate thrift store staple, Herb Alpert's Whipped Cream and Other Delights.

"That record is everywhere, and that's one of the reasons we did 'The Lonely Bull' on the first record, 'cause that was how I found out about Herb Alpert. It was like, Jesus Christ, I see this record everywhere, and it was the Tijuana Brass! I was like, How cool is this!"

Add a comment