John Hughey, a member of the Pedal Steel Guitar Hall of Fame
whose deft instrumental work graced recordings by Vince Gill, Conway Twitty, Elvis Presley,
Willie Nelson, Marty Stuart, Loretta Lynn and other greats, died Sunday evening
at the Hendersonville Medical Center, of heart complications. He was 73.
"This is a pure heartbreaker," said Stuart, who brought Mr. Hughey into the studio to
play on the 1992 hit album This One's Gonna Hurt You. "John was a top-drawer statesman
who helped define the whole 20th-century sound of country music. The work he leaves
behind is timeless."
Mr. Hughey was known for an atypical sound that focused on the steel's high tones. His
use of the metal bar to produce a tremulous tone led some to refer to his "crying steel"
guitar, and his Hall of Fame plaque refers to him as the master of "bar shiver." That
sound appealed to country artists from the 1950s through the present, and also to rockers
such as Presley and Dickey Betts and soul man Isaac Hayes.
"He gave my music definition," said Gill, for whom Mr. Hughey played steel in the studio
and on the road for 12 years. "His introduction to 'Look At Us' makes that song
recognizable by what happens before any words even get sung."
Mr. Hughey began learning the steel when he was in high school, playing at church and
at school with his classmate Harold Jenkins. After graduation, Jenkins went
into the military and Mr. Hughey played steel guitar in the Memphis area. In
the 1960s, the former schoolmates reunited as Jenkins, by then calling himself
Conway Twitty, became a country star. Mr. Hughey performed and
recorded with Twitty for 20 years.
(Vince) Gill called one evening and asked Mr. Hughey what he was doing.
"I was just sitting down to my last bowl of ice cream," Mr. Hughey said. Gill
replied, "No, I mean professionally."
Soon, Mr. Hughey was in the studio, playing the luminous part on "Look At Us," and then
he agreed to become part of Gill's touring band. His 12 years with Gill were in
fact like one long, last bowl of ice cream, with Mr. Hughey bringing the sound
of significant steel to a broader audience.
"I know it was a real great stretch of life for him, from a respect level," Gill said.
"I think he felt like a king because we treated him as such. He was royalty to us."
Mr. Hughey would also show up to play in Lower Broadway clubs, where tourists would wander
in and place tips into a jar just a few feet away from one of the greatest
steel players of all time.
Once, Stuart heard a familiar steel sound at the Legend's Corner club, and he poked
his head in just as a song was ending. He saw Mr. Hughey onstage, and before Stuart
could say anything, Mr. Hughey looked at him, grinned and explained, "Because I love it."
Mr. Hughey is survived by family members including: wife, Jean; daughter,
Cheryl (and her husband, Beany) Carter; and four grandchildren, Katherine Carter,
Gracie Carter, Reed Carter and Kirby Carter.
Visitation will take place November 20 from 2-4 p.m. and 6-8 p.m. at the Hendersonville
Funeral Home, 353 Johnny Cash Parkway. Another visitation takes place at First Baptist
Church of Hendersonville, 106 Bluegrass Commons Blvd., from noon-1 p.m.
The funeral will be Wednesday, November 21, at 1 p.m. at First Baptist Church
of Hendersonville, with burial to follow at Hendersonville Memory Gardens, 353 Johnny Cash
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