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Who Ralph Mooney
What Steel guitar innovator Ralph Mooney dies at 82
When March 20, 2011
Where Arlington, TX

Steel guitar innovator Ralph Mooney, who co-wrote the shuffling Ray Price smash “Crazy Arms” and added propulsive steel to hits by Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and many others, died Sunday at his home in Arlington, Tex. He was 82, and had cancer of the kidney.

“He’s a pioneer of the steel guitar,” said Jerry Brightman, who played in Buck Owens’ Buckaroos band in the 1970s and often found himself playing the parts Mr. Mooney created for Owens hits including “Under Your Spell Again” and “Foolin’ Around.” “He played with such drive and energy, and approached things with such uniqueness.”

Mr. Mooney was a staff musician at Capitol Records in Los Angeles in the 1950s and ’60s, and with Capitol he played on hits from Owens and on Haggard smashes including “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “Swinging Doors.” On those recordings, Mr. Mooney would press and release a pitch-shifting foot pedal (his very first pedal was a self-styled setup, made from a bicycle pedal and bailing wire) that helped him arrive at an identifiable sound. Later, when Mr. Mooney was in Jennings’ live band, the bandleader would call attention to his steel player, saying, “Show ‘em the foot that made Merle Haggard a star.”

In more than two decades with Jennings — a stint that began around 1970 — Mr. Mooney offered a raw and edgy tone that could be heard loud and clear amidst Jennings’ amped-up electric guitar. He also offered a link to classic country that helped root Jennings’ sound.

“Moon was the unifier within (Jennings’ band) the Waylors,” wrote critic and historian Rich Kienzle, in the liner notes to a 2003 reissue of Jennings’ 1976 Waylon Live album. “His sharp toned, economical style gave the band’s disparate musical elements cohesion. … Waylon’s sound might have roared more than some purists and old timers might have liked. … But with ‘Moon’ riding shotgun, it couldn’t have been anything but country.”

Born in Duncan, Okla., Mr. Mooney moved to California as a teenager in the 1940s, and he soon found work playing the steel in clubs and on studio sessions. He didn’t focus on songwriting, but he and Chuck Seals co-wrote “Crazy Arms,” which stayed at No. 1 on Billboard’s country singles chart for 20 weeks in 1956 and became one of the defining hits of a career that landed Price in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

In the 1970s, Mr. Mooney focused on his work with the Waylors. He contributed to classic Jennings albums including Dreaming My Dreams, Honky Tonk Heroes and This Time — swaggering works that stood as highlights of country’s much-lauded “Outlaw Movement.” His steel part, with swirling swells and staccato eruptions, is a central element in Jennings and Willie Nelson’s No. 1 “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.”

In the 1980s, Mr. Mooney continued his work with Jennings, and also aided Johnny Cash, Neil Young, Marty Stuart and others. Stuart ranks Mr. Mooney among his primary musical heroes, and he brought Mr. Mooney back from a lengthy absence from music for the recording of Stuart’s 2010 album Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions. On Ghost Train, Mr. Mooney played bracing steel, co-wrote “Little Heartbreaker (The Likes of You)” with Stuart and delivered an instrumental version of his pivotal composition, “Crazy Arms.”

“I went to Texas two springs ago to see if he would come to Nashville and play on that record,” Stuart said. “We wound up going out and playing a show with his church band. As we got back to his house, close to midnight, it was a full moon and a perfect night, and you could smell the cactus flowers in the air. I helped him put his steel guitar back in the house, and then I drove off and thought, ‘This has been one of the perfect days of my life.’ If I was a baseball-playing kid, it’d be like hanging with Babe Ruth. Moon was the most important picker that ever came through my life.”

By January of 2011, word circulated in the music community that Mr. Mooney’s health had taken a turn for the worse. Stuart called him late that month, before an overseas tour, and Mr. Mooney sought to assure him that all was well, whatever happened.

“I talked to him, and it was mostly about all the regular stuff we talk about,” Stuart said. “As we were about to hang up, he said, ‘I love you, and everything is alright. The Lord knows what to do with me.’”

Mr. Mooney will be buried Wednesday at 10 a.m. at Pleasantville Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas.

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Contact Peter Cooper
The Tennessean


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