The story of guitarist Richard Bennett is one of those rare tales in the music business of a spectacular guy who has done spectacular things with spectacular people. He is unassuming in person--polite, witty, and erudite—and yet ineffably cool. And over almost five decades, it’s that off-handed sense of cool that musicians of all stripes have come to count on including Mark Knopfler, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Neil Diamond, and Vince Gill, among many more. In a business that promotes excess, rewards bad behavior, and chews up talent and discards it like penny gum, Bennett has thrived with a reputation for bringing both glue and spark to recording sessions. He’s managed this with—seemingly--minimal scars and a datebook that has been full ("more or less," he says jokingly) since he moved from his native Phoenix to Los Angeles in the mid ‘60s as a protégé of Wrecking Crew guitarist and close friend Al Casey.
Bennett's first studio experiences came backing up pop, rock, and jazz greats including Peggy Lee, Sammy Davis Jr., and Johnny Mathis along with records you've heard a million times like The Bellamy Brothers' "Let Your Love Flow," and Billy Joel's "Piano Man." A session in the early ‘70s with Neil Diamond led to a long friendship and almost 16 years on the road with Diamond before Bennett moved to Nashville to help produce Steve Earle's Guitar Town in 1986.
Guitar Town will always stand as one of the most important country albums cut in Nashville (it was also one of the first digitally recorded albums). Steve Earle’s full length debut was the Big Bang. It had attitude, a rockabilly lip curl, killer guitar riffs, and introduced Earle's singular songwriting voice to Music City. Guitar Town was the sounding of a new era and tossed a mighty stone in the river bed of Music Row that all waters since have had to flow left or right of.
Once in Nashville, Bennett continued to bloom as a guitarist and a producer appearing on loads of albums including classics by Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, and Vince Gill, while also producing critically lauded works for Phil Lee and Iris Dement and serving as a right hand rhythm man for Mark Knopfler for almost 20 years and counting. But we're not done yet. The reason why we're keen to talk to Richard Bennett is not because of his guitar collection but his vintage Epiphone upright bass as well as his passion for steel guitars of all stripes and sizes, including Epiphone.
Epiphone.com spoke with Richard about what to look for in vintage steels, his classic Epiphone upright, and best of all, his new album, For the Newly Blue, which was praised recently in a star review in Vintage Guitar Magazine. "Like the builders who'd etch a design, a gracing touch on the uppermost ledges of those first early 20th century skyscrapers, Richard puts something into his work that no one else may be able to extract or identify or even know exists. But something about its being there makes the end product complete, better."
Epiphone made some great Hawaiian guitars before World War II and after and I know you’re a fan. What do you look for in vintage steels?
Richard Bennett: I like the steels that have wood in them. I’m not a fan of the Formica steels, which began probably with Emmons--that might have been the first one. They just got rid of all the wood in them and the tone suffered where as Shobuds—for instance--have wood and it makes a difference. But’s that’s just me.
The modern steel guitar sound is that Formica sound, that real pingy sound. Too much ping and not enough pong. Knopfler and I talk about this all the time. After many years of him bugging me to bring my pedal steel out on the road, I could finally not say no anymore. I said ‘Look, I’ll bring it with the qualification that as far as I care, this instrument stopped in 1958 and that where I stopped with it. If you don’t like what I do on this, that’s perfectly fine.’ Well he loved it and then we got to talking about ‘why does yours sound the way I remember them sounding?’ It’s just one person’s taste.
You have some classic Epiphone Hawaiian guitars.
Yes, I have two Epiphone Hawaiian guitars--one is a Zephyr, which they also made a guitar called a Zephyr. My Zephyr is actually a 7-string steel and the other is an Electar 6. I also have one of those honey colored string basses that they were making in the ‘40s. I’d love to have one of those great archtops.
Was guitar your first instrument?
My first instrument was drums. But I got my first guitar when I was 11 and I was gaggin’ for a guitar. That’s what I wanted to do. The guy who taught me—the same person who Duane Eddy came up through and Al Casey came up through, Forrest Skaggs--played steel. He was a fine guitar player--played string bass and accordion--and was a fine teacher. But his main instrument--legit so to speak--was Hawaiian or western steel. So anyway, that’s where I got on to it. He’d play all around the music store. He’d play steel and I’d follow along on sock rhythm behind him. So, I had that sound around me and funnily enough, a very antiquated sound at that. Like a 30s and 40s sound as opposed to a 60s sound.
Do you think that served you well when you first started playing recording sessions? You had something different to offer, even though you were a rock and roll fan.
It did serve me well and it serves me well to this day. I’m not of my generation somehow. For better or worse. But funny enough, once I got in there doing sessions I could tap into that ethic. But all I really wanted to do is upend all those guys and play rock and roll (laughs). But yes, all of that served me really well.
I would imagine learning from someone whose main instrument was steel guitar and having to hear the changes from someone whose playing a completely different instrument was very helpful to your ear. In other words, most people who take a guitar lesson are going to be sitting across from someone playing the same instrument.
That’s right. Well he’d do that too. But then other times he’d pick up the steel. I wish it had been a case of: “follow me.” He’d write out a little chart of what the song was--”Sweet Georgia Brown” or whatever it was—then he’d show you the chords--teach you the chords--and then he’d pick up the steel and you’d be either reading the chart or he’d be calling out the chords. So my ear probably didn’t really develop that well at that point yet. But it was fine. I learned how to play and I learned all those tunes, those beautiful songs. I learned a lot just hearing him play that very 30s kind of way--between that and what I had grown up listening to like hillbilly steel--Jimmy Day, Bud Issacs, and people like that. So I had those two steel sounds very set in my mind.
When I actually bought a pedal steel, I got to it really quickly. I knew what I wanted to do. Once I learned the mechanics of where that was on the instrument-- what to do—man, in a couple of months I could play. And that’s about as good as I can play now. And I haven’t’ really progressed. And that’s fine.
As a kid, were you aware of an “old” sound and a “new” sound?
I don’t know. The other thing that was going on when I was taking lessons was that Forest had stacks of 78s and a record player. If he’d get bored, he’d plug it into a guitar amp and he’d play 78s. So I actually came up with that. I was listening to 78s as a kid so it didn’t seem that odd to me. I knew they weren’t records of the day. But it was just what I listened to. And to me it was just as valid as the Ventures. I guess it didn’t sound odd or antiquated to me. It was just stuff I was taking in.
In what ways does that show up when you’re working with Mark Knopfler?
Well there are obvious ones. Occasionally Mark will write a period piece and then you really pull it all out and dust it off. The rest of it now that I’ve been doing this mish mash of 100 influences, they magically meld and they become less distinct and that becomes your style.
I don’t really think about it. It’s all fused into whatever the hell I am. But there are tunes that I play just straight Hawaiian steel or straight kind of country steel with Mark. So that would be a case of definitely dusting off a period.
How do the other musicians in the band respond to steel? Not every musician has experience listening to steel and playing around it.
It’s sort of new to them. Ian Thomas, whose been playing drums for the last couple of tours--he comes from playing with Shirley Bassey and Sting and he’s the London session guy…genius drummer--he says, “wow--what’s that about?” Guys like (fiddler) John McCusker, he’s like an old soul. He’s like ancient. So he would hear the Hawaiian guitar and even though he’d not come up it, he sort of knows bout it through his DNA. They all take it in and absorb it.
I’m really thankful to guys like Skaggs and Al Casey that I came up with, encouraging me to play all these oddball instruments because it’s expanded my working career longer than had I just played guitar. And it has certainly served me well with Mark and I think it’s one of the reasons why he’s kept me around. I can make myself useful. Because God knows, he doesn’t need a star guitar player. I’m not a star guitar player, I’m a great second banana and that’s what I’ve always been. He needs something to complement him and be creative at the same time. I’m not there to elbow him out of the spotlight.
Some of the old electric instruments are wild--the early vintage models. There’s something almost extra electric about them. They’re a bit rough since they’re all handmade.
Yes, it’s a little volatile. They can be rough and very different. Some of those Hawaiian guitars, you open them up they’ll tear your head off. The gain structure is different. But you get to where you can control it.
Tell us about the new record.
It’s called For The Newly Blue. There are some definite country things on this one. Some more steel guitar things--Hawaiian and pedal. There’s a straight-up Polynesian thing. I got about midway through and I had a little pack of tunes with very glum depressing titles. One of which was “Your New Blue World,” but the music isn’t necessarily depressing. So I began thinking in terms of that--music somebody who has broken up recently or is going through a disappointing, difficult time. You might listen to it in the morning. It’s got a nice sexy cover.
You often track very simply.
The fewer things you have, the bigger sound you get. Depending on the piece and how I got it in my head, sometimes I will do it with just myself and a drummer but generally I don’t like to play a lot of things myself—doing a lot of overdubs. I’d rather have someone else’s fingerprints on it. Even if I have a specific part in mind, I’d rather they do it than me do it. It makes it more of a group effort. I can usually tell the difference. I just write these songs but it pleases me.
Is that how you produced the Iris Dement album Sing the Delta with Bo Ramsey?
It’s all live. That’s the only way Iris would do it. Once Bo and I shook hands with the fact Iris was gonna play the way she did, that was that. And boy, it was great. It took a lot of options off the table. So we tracked bass and drums with Iris playing and singing, one of us playing guitar or sometimes both of us. Very few overdubs. We sweetened some horns on a couple of things--a little bit of B3. No background vocals. I think Iris did a harmony on one song.
That must have been so much fun.
You were remarking when we were looking at your steel guitars that you’re able to now get what with very few tools. How do you get that point?
A lot of it is laziness. (laughs). I’m not gonna bring loads of guitars. I’m gonna bring two guitars, and one amp--whichever one I can lift. It forces you into making some decisions.
Is there a story behind your Epiphone bass?
I bought that bass in a bicycle shop in Studio City, California in the late '70s. The owner of the store used to have a music store and had a few leftover things hanging round at his new place of business. I think I paid 3 or 4 hundred for it. Also bought one of those great 1940's style wrap around music stands from him that you saw all the guys in the big bands using. I was really into playing slap bass then and one of the good things about the Epi is it's rosewood fingerboard which has a great, resonant tone when playing that style. In the end it was a little tough on the hands of this guitar player.