There are some fantastic women steel guitar players out there, even though the instrument is often a male domain. Backing bands from the Bluebird to the Opry, from the 1930s to the 2010s, have consistently featured men on the steel.
Players like Jerry Byrd and Buddy Emmons were technical wizards, both in playing the instrument and inventing new tunings, pedals and levers.
But women have also been playing the steel guitar for decades. They’re not only backing some of the top country singers, they’re also striking out with solo careers of their own. Here are five you should know about.
Barbara Mandrell is the very definition of child prodigy. Her steel guitar abilities were discovered early on and she quickly rose to fame and performed with some of country’s best-known acts, including Tex Ritter and Johnny Cash. Later, her television show, which featured the talents of Barbara and her sisters, attracted millions of fans. And as a result of her instrumental prowess, she’s won multiple awards.
Cashdollar is a multi-instrumentalist, mostly playing lap steel and Dobro. A member of many bands, including Asleep at the Wheel, she’s venerated as one of the top performers on the instrument. And like Sarah Jory, mentioned below, she’s toured with acts outside the country realm, such as Van Morrison. Here she is with Redd Volkaert, a regular collaborator.
Born in England, Sarah Jory was one of the top pedal steel players through the ’90s, securing gigs with Glen Campbell and Ricky Skaggs, among others. She’s had a long and productive solo career as well, releasing albums from the time she was an 11-year-old. Watch her antics as she points out the intricate changes the pedals produce on her cover of the classic tune “City Lights”.
Maggie Bjorklund has partnered with a number of artists such as Calexico, Giant Sand and Jack White. On her own, she records albums of ethereal sounds, looped steel guitar samples and dense textures. Her push to make the pedal steel more palatable for non-country listeners is working: on “Missing at Sea” she uses some distortion and brings her sound into the rock world.
Donna Hammitt might be the most obscure of these women, but she’s no less accomplished. Like Jory, she was well-known in country circles just after she exited her teen years. She studied at Belmont University in Nashville, becoming the second pedal steel guitarist in the school’s history. Later, Hammitt went on to play with Bill Anderson, Rhonda Vincent and many others.