The Rapidian

WYCE talks to Drew Howard, Michigan's steel guitar wiz

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Michigan's steel guitar authority Drew Howard has surely seen more than his share of witching hour recording and jam sessions. You'll find him throughout the WYCE library, adding his sacred sound to
Underwriting support from:

About the Video

 Drew Howard (right) performs with the Steels Heal the World band

They call him "Captain Midnite." I decided to leave that one to the imagination, though through 33 years of music, a 62 album discography ('I think maybe I'm missing a couple') and 'thousands of bands', Michigan's steel guitar authority Drew Howard has surely seen more than his share of witching hour recording and jam sessions.

You'll find him throughout the WYCE library, adding his sacred sound to the works of a host of familiar roots music artists like Drew Nelson, May Erlewine, Jan James, Delilah DeWylde, Greg Nagy, Seth Bernard, Jen Sygit and Steppin' In It.

The jewel in the crown, though, is his 2008 album, Steels Heal the World, a collaboration with Steppin' In It's Joe Wilson, that packed swing, country, ragtime, surf, "funky and western," Benny Goodman and Bob Wills, into one all-star session. In a recent Local Resonance interview, Mark Lavengood cited it as the inspiration for his 2010 Jammie-nominated solo dobro release.

I caught Drew's attention long enough for this email Q&A exchange.


Matt Jarrells: So, just how many albums have you appeared on?

Drew Howard: 62 albums by my discography @ count so far. I think I'm missing a couple.
Recording music has changed immensely since I first recorded in a studio in 1979. The whole process has been democratized. Recording is no longer solely the realm of the studios. The digital realm has put the manufacture of recorded music in the hands of the masses. Quite remarkable. In the vinyl days, it was rare for musicians to make a record. Now, you can record from your PC or Mac laptop.
The last home recording rig I had was an 8-track reel to reel tape machine. Briefly had a PC rig but the computer hung up and crashed constantly. But I have to bite the bullet and start over.
In the early- to mid-'90s digital was taking over and many studios were parking their tape machines in the hallways, to be taken away. Recalled seeing this in Chicago at a studio where I was recording political radio ads. It reminded me of the end of the steam era, when diesel replaced steam locomotives and all of the old engines were lined up on "dead tracks" to be scrapped. OK, I'm a train freak! My musician friends are rolling their eyes. "Had to get some trains in there, eh, CAPN!"

MJ: It seems you've found a niche as the go-to lap/pedal steel guy for such a variety of artists, how has your approach to music evolved from your very early days as a recording artist?

DH: My approach since the early days has to been embrace new experiences, listen and be part of the musical glue. How that has changed is that I've become more of a sideman, so I really have to be sympathetic to the artist and song. A decent pair of boots. Plenty of spare strings.
I had always loved the sound of steel guitar and bought a Buddy Emmons record back in the '70s along with some country records. This was during a time where I was playing guitar in bar bands, performing rock, blues and R&B. Not steel guitar territory at all. My friend Scotty Allman bought a Sho-Bud LDG in the early '80s and I remember sitting in front of that, in awe of the machine. Fast forward to the mid-'90s. I was busy writing songs and one in particular needed some steel guitar. Not being from the country music crowd where steel guitar predominates, I didn't know where to look to find a player. This is at the very beginning of the internet. I found a dealer online in Chicago and ordered a pedal steel guitar.
Pretty soon the songwriting stopped and the steel guitar was the only thing I was pursuing. I neglected the six-string until finally, I got a studio call and the engineer asked if "I still played guitar." A wake-up call to come back to earth and my primary instrument!
Within weeks of getting my first steel guitar I was in a band, playing bars, sitting in with whomever I could.
So, I didn't learn the instrument as part of any big plan. But as it turned out, there were hardly any players other than the older ones I knew, and they were retired. So I've had a lot of opportunities come my way simply because of the rarity and novelty of the instrument. And because I knew many musicians and people in the recording business. Certainly from the younger musicians in Michigan, who are always looking for new sounds and textures. From the folk crowd for sure, although again the younger songwriters are the ones pushing the boundaries. 

MJ: When/how did you get involved with the Earthwork Collective and what has grown out of those collaborations?

DH: In 2005 Seth invited me to become part of the Earthwork Collective. An honor, if there ever was one, to be among these intensely creative and productive artists. Most of whom were twenty years younger than me. Being part of the collective invited opportunities to play and contribute to recordings and performances. Above all, to be mindful of one's footprint upon the Earth, literally and figuratively.

MJ: I have this picture in my mind of the Earthwork folks saying something like, "OK, Drew, your turn. How are we gonna make you an album?" Is that anywhere close to the story of 'Steels Heal the World'?

DH: The concept was Seth Bernard's, originally to gather Joe Wilson and I together and play a steel guitar set at The Harvest Gathering a few years ago. Out of that grew the idea of recording an album as both Joe and I were in bands and we wanted a CD with our names on the front. Plus the concept was a real winner. Kudos to Seth, he is what I call an instigator, a facilitator of the arts. Joe enlisted the help of his band, Steppin' In It, you could do worse, and augmented with other players from around the state. Michael and Margaret Erlewine offered the use of the Heart Center Studios in Big Rapids, where lots of Earthwork albums had been recorded. I owe them a debt of gratitude and work. So it all came together quickly. Joe and I met every week for a couple of months and worked on arrangements and charts. So while the band was not rehearsed, we were, knowing that the band would fall in fast as the repertoire was familiar.
We all met in Big Rapids mid-December 2008, before the holidays. Ian Gorman brought his mobile recording rig. I brought a ton of food as we had three days to record everything and were committed to locking ourselves into the place with no distractions. Pretty soon the Heart Center was transformed into Steel Guitar Center. Steel guitars and amps of every vintage were everywhere. The artist and fellow Earthworker Susan Fawcett was in attendance as we hired her to illustrate the CD. She set up shop next to us and painted Joe, I and steel guitars while we recorded on into the night. Basic tracks were mostly done in one day, as I recall. The recording eventually gave way to a late-night party, mainly consisting of Joe and I, drinks in hand, playing each other steel guitar licks and tricks. Then we arranged all of the steel guitars together in one big pile and Susan got to work painting those while we passed out.
Rachael Davis arrived the next day to sing on a couple of songs. May Erlewine was there as well. We had everyone sing the chorus on "Lost in the Ozone" and make party noises. Joe played trombone and his brother Andy added trumpet and harmonica to make a horn section. We almost had Michael Erlewine talked into playing harmonica on a track.
So in a matter of a couple of days we had 90% of the work done, music, artwork and preliminary mixes. All that was left to do was a bit more mixing and the mastering. All in all this was a special project, a moment in time that I’m very proud of.

MJ: Can you give details on other memorable sessions?

DH: Many of the Earthwork sessions are recorded in houses. I can think of a couple on the same street in Lansing's east side where we set up shop for days and recorded.
Most memorable sessions include Seth, May and the Copper Country Quintet recording sessions @ Calumet Theatre, Calumet, MI 2005. Wonderful location, full run of the theatre for two days, food, drink, amazing musicians.
(Another) memorable session: recording songs @ the Schoolhouse in Ann Arbor in the mid-80's. A one-room school house with all of the desks, blackboard and books intact. We pushed everything out of the way and set up our amps and drums. Mixing desk and tape machines were in the basement.
Another was with Seth and May a few years ago in Seth's barn up in Lake City. We wore winter jackets, gloves and kept warm passing a bottle of something around the circle of musicians. Breathing lots of steam into the cold night air. I played steel and baritone guitar. Sessions never released to my knowledge - would love to hear them again! Zach Bunce of Detour Bluegrass on bass.
The gigs are always way more eventful than the sessions, where you are cloistered away from people.

MJ: What are you working on right now?

DH: I still write songs in the vain hope of recording a solo CD.
The secret is to track them while they are fresh before I get bored :) So hoping to record something of significance in 2011.
Sitting in this Thursday on steel for a couple of tunes with Led Zeppelin 2: The Live Experience @ The Intersection in GR. Doing a handful of duo shows with Detroit hot-shot Jason Dennie in early 2011. Playing steel and dobro, with Annie & Rod Capps. Also with Drew Nelson. Plan on shooting a video for Heartland Klezmorim, my klezmer band.
Also, in 2011 the live taping Delilah DeWylde and the Lost Boys did for WKAR-TV's "Backstage Pass" show in 2010 will broadcast around the country at PBS outlets that have picked up the show.


Contributed by Matt Jarrells, program director for 88.1 FM WYCE. This article originally appeared on the WYCE Fresh Picks blog

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