like a sonic revelation rather just another instrumental guitar album,
Sacred Slack & Steel Guitar is a splendid return
to form by Hawaiian born / California based Ken Emerson. In
the appealing looking CD artwork and packaging is the story of Ken
and how he grew up in Hawaii and learned all about slack key and steel
guitar playing from the masters while also studying from rare 78 rpm
Hawaiian recordings. The real beauty of Kens Sacred Slack
& Steel Guitar CD is in his choice of music to cover here.
Included on the 15 track CD are Kens newly recorded instrumental
slack and steel flavored versions of vintage gospel classics like
Joshua Fit The Battle Of Jericho, Just A Closer
Walk With Thee, Go Tell It On The Mountain and Amazing
Grace, the perennial that closes the CD. The music is a fantastic
showcase for Kens one of a kind guitar skills and, being all
instrumental, Sacred Slack & Steel Guitar really allows
this timeless music to breathe in its own right. Track by track liner
notes fill the listeners in on the history of these timeless songs
and melodies. From the liner notes on the back cover of the Sacred
Slack & Steel Guitar Ken explains, Many of the classic
American spirituals came out of the Deep South. I have
always wanted to record an album of old spiritual songs and feature
the distinct sound of my vintage National Resophonic guitars. I have
also desired to blend the Hawaiian slide and slack key styles back
with musical genres that are in many ways offshoots and heavily influenced
by the Hawaiian slide guitar, mainly country steel guitar, bluegrass
dobro and blues bottleneck slide guitar, particularly Delta blues.
A highly diverse and sonically pleasurable CD of timeless guitar instrumentals,
Sacred Slack & Steel Guitar features Ken Emerson taking
the classic music of the past deep into the future with brilliant
mwe3.com presents an interview with
Are you in L.A. now?
Ken Emerson: Im in Monterey now. Im at the studio.
mwe3: I guess everyones talking about the hurricane in
Hawaii. How bad was it there?
Ken Emerson: It hit, but it hit the Big Island and those mountains
are so big that it made it sort of fall apart fast, which is good.
And I think the other one tracked north, so theyre okay.
mwe3: Combining Hawaiian slack key and steel guitar sounds
with gospel and blues on the Sacred Slack & Steel Guitar
CD is a great idea. What made you decide to include the two genres
with the sacred part?
Ken Emerson: Well theres a few reasons. One of them was,
one of my sort of big mentors was this guy Sol Hoopii, you might have
heard of. He was like the king of the National steel guitar in the
1920s and he got into that sacred thing. To tell you the truth,
the guy had problems. He was gambling and drinking. He got converted,
(lol) And he started playing some of that stuff. Have you heard of
the Campbell Brothers? Theyre from Upstate New York. Youd
really like them. They play sacred music on steel guitars and they
get down with it. Theres a documentary on sacred steel guitar,
you should google that... Sacred Steel Campbell Brothers.
And the history of it goes way back. All the way back to the early
1930s when the electric lap steel was first invented. Its been
there the whole time. So its part of steel guitar. It goes was
back, not just with Sol being a part of it, the Hawaiian but, the
whole thing with the churches and the African Americans. So I just
thought, this is cool. But I do my own take on it since I play a lot
of acoustic, just like Sol. I love the sound of the National Steel,
so there you go. And it was fun to arrange it too. So I sort of mixed
it up. Some of its bluegrassy, some of its Delta blues
and some of its like early jazz. Like the Jericho
thing was real fun to do. I arranged it in the 1920's style and the
guitars speak the language of Uncle Sol. Ive got an old 1928
National. Its a magic guitar. Its always a challenge to
record acoustic instruments and make them sound the way theyre
supposed to. I'm still figuring out really, trying to get that sound.
Im pretty happy with the way it came out.
mwe3: How did you first get interested in music...?
My father was the one who got me into music. Hes a collector.
Since it was day one, growing up, I was around music. All different
types of music. I would say that my father was into World Music before
it was ever a phrase that was coined. Thats what we grew up
listening to in my house - everything from African music to Celtic
music, jazz, pop music of the time which would have been Nat Cole,
Bert Kaempfert, Sinatra, Tennessee Ernie Ford... Genoa Keawe, everything.
mwe3: Do you spend any time in Hawaii these days?
Ken Emerson: I spend a lot of time there. I just got back from
playing a jazz festival.
mwe3: Does it still have the same kind of vibe for you?
Ken Emerson: Its always changing like everything else.
You see, Ive carved out this niche of playing. There was a real
lack of acoustic steel mainly. So back in the 1970s I thought,
well this is a niche that I could fill and Im still doing it
to this day. I have a little corner of the Hawaiian music scene Im
trying to perpetuate. I mean, its all heritage music. Its
like blues, or jazz or anything... any cultural music. Something to
mwe3: So has Hawaii changed a lot for you over the years?
Ken Emerson: It has because my heroes were the ones on the
78 rpm records. And I got to meet and play with them. When I was in
my 20s, my peer group was one or two generations older than
me. I didnt relate a lot to the musicians my age over there
during that time period, the 1970s and early 80s because
Hawaiian music was going through a real kind of a pop phase... or
contemporary shall we say, but it wasnt rootsy enough for me.
My ear liked the traditional hula music that was more influenced by
American jazz and blues. You see, the reason why I loved Sol Hoopii
was, he would play a traditional hula, very traditionally, but at
the time he was playing something very sophisticated which was playing
steel guitar lines almost like the way Louis Armstrong or Bix Beiderbecke
would play the trumpet.
Youve been with Cord Records a long time. How and when did you
meet Michael Cord. Ive been writing about Cord for the past
Ken Emerson: Talk about a preservationist. Some day hes
going to get his regard as being someone whos really archiving
and protecting and perpetuating Hawaiian culture.
mwe3: Over what period of time did you write and record your
Sacred Slack & Steel Guitar CD?
Ken Emerson: I did it all last year.
mwe3: What was your criteria in picking and choosing the Sacred
Slack & Steel Guitar songs? What kind of process did you use
to choose to cover these songs?
Ken Emerson: Look at the liner notes. Its interesting
the way some of those songs came about. The history of the songs is
interesting in itself. I picked ones that had a unique background
and some that are just well known. A lot of those songs are instantly
recognizable when theres just a chorus. And then theres
ones I did that arent as well known but theyre known in
certain areas like End Of My Journey. I learned that in
New Orleans. Thats well known down there. And throughout traditional
jazz, theres sacred songs that a lot of the traditional jazz
bands play to this day.
mwe3: Overall, Sacred Slack & Steel Guitar is a
modern classic of Americana instrumental. Because it goes into Hawaiian,
country music to blues and gospel, it should be easy to market it.
Ken Emerson: Yeah, youd think so. Its kind of cool
the way its all mixed up because music is. Thats the way
it evolved. Its some country music... theres a lot of
gospel in country music. And also in blues. Guys like Bukka White...
a lot of them play sacred songs in their blues repertoire.
Would you say Sacred Slack n Steel Guitar is more
Americana than other artists who dont see the connection between
Hawaiian and Delta blues. You make Hawaiian music sound Americana.
Is that the nature of Hawaiian music, is that its American music
Ken Emerson: No, this is a case of Hawaiian culture influencing
American music. The slide guitar came out of Hawaii. Here it is in
bluegrass, in blues and all that. The Hawaiians are the ones that
really spread it around. Famous early composer, W.C. Handy, who wrote
"St. Louis Blues", writes about seeing a guy in a train
station playing steel guitar like a Hawaiian back in 1900, on his
lap like that. Thats how the mainland muscians got it. Hawaiians
were traveling throughout the United States playing pre-Vaudeville
tent shows before the turn of the century and recorded music.
Hawaiian music is derived from ancient chants and the Hula. Later
on, the Hawaiian royal family were trained musicians and great composers.
As I say, the steel guitar and ukulele really contributed a lot to
American music. All the dobro players and steel guitar players can
thank the Hawaiians for that.
mwe3: Many of the guitar parts you play on acoustic steel,
I could imagine being played by Hawaiis pedal steelers like
Ken Emerson: He did play some but he was so refined in his
playing. He really became what he is. Very smooth. My playing is more...
I dont know how to say it... not a rougher edge. First of all,
its acoustic so its gotta have a different attack on it.
Youre playing an acoustic instrument. Its not like an
electric instrument where if you even lightly touch the strings it
sounds. On acoustic, youve gotta work it. Just as much as playing
an acoustic guitar compared to an electric guitar.
mwe3: Were you also influenced by the Hawaiian pedal steel
Emerson: Yeah, theres some... Im more influenced by
the non-pedal. You see, theres a real division in steel guitar
between the pedal and the non-pedal. Most people dont realize,
when you watch even a great pedal steel guitarist they never slant
chords with a bar. All that left hand technique is out the window
because the pedals and the knee levers are doing it... the manipulation
of the strings. So for me, the art that I enjoyed is in just slanting
that bar as far as you can making these incredible chords and things.
And it all depends on the tunes too, so its pretty cool. I did
Jericho in a minor tuning and I did a bunch of weird slant
chords in that. Even when I hear it, Im like...wow, what does
that position look like? lol .. Im not putting down pedal steel
guitars. It cant compare. Its like comparing a classic
old 1920s race car, to a Ferrari. Theres really no comparison.
Im just talking about the physical, actual playing of the instrument
as well as the sound. Theyre completely different.
mwe3: When you use the slide its completely different
from the pedal steel but it has a similar kind of vibe.
Ken Emerson: And you can mimic a pedal steel... I can. Its
fun to do that with slant chords. I just enjoy manipulating that slide
man. Youre always discovering stuff. If I did play a pedal steel,
Id probably slant the chords anyway and then hit the pedals.
(lol) Im sure Id do that!
mwe3: For the readers who dont know what slanting the
chord mean, can you say something about that?
Emerson: See when you play a chord.... the guitar is tuned to
a chord basically of some type. The root of a chord. So where ever
you take that steel and play it straight across, equal with a fret,
straight across the neck there, right across the fret, up and down.
With a lap guitar, acoustic, you get different inversions. You can
take the slide and tilt the front part of bar a few frets down to
the left. Its called a slant you see? Or you can go the other
direction and do it on the bass strings or mostly the upper strings.
Depends on your tuning. It opens up a whole new world. I use different
tunings. I use a straight open, low bass tunings for acoustic instruments.
But for lap guitars... electric lap steels, I use a high bass tuning.
I use a tuning a lot of people dont use. C6th and E9th are popular
and a lot of people use those. I go from the root of the acoustic
stuff so I use a G root, however I tune the bass strings high and
I tune the middle D up to an E so it gives me a sixth tuning, so I
can do all the jazzy stuff and also minor chords. Its real good
for 1930s and 40s Hawaiian swing styles. But I can slant
chords and get nice voicings from the bass strings.
mwe3: What do you use to get the slide sound?
Emerson: Its a solid steel bar. I use Dunlops a lot because
I always lose them. (lol) And I play bottleneck blues, a tube worn
on the finger.
mwe3: How about DVD titles?
Ken Emerson: I should really do one. Never been approached.
At this point, Im 61, I really need to find preferably a Hawaiian
kid thats really got the heart to learn what Ive learned
and pass it on. I need to do that.
mwe3: How about current Hawaiian guitarists that interest you?
Any favorite instrumental Hawaiian music CDs you could suggest to
Ken Emerson: Oddly enough I dont really know that many.
Bobby Ingano comes to mind. I think me and Bob Brozman were the main
guys perpetuating this National thing in Hawaiian music. Maybe theres
more around but theres really not that many. Plenty in the blues
idiom. Thats another thing yknow? I know those Japanese
guys the Sweet Hollywaiians? Theyre doing the acoustic thing
and using Nationals. My friend Pascal in France is playing Nationals,
so theyre doing it over there.
Its a world wide thing.
Ken Emerson: Its worldwide but its very small pockets.
It was a huge craze but its heyday was the 1920s.
mwe3: Were those early Americana guitar guys like Fahey and
Kottke an influence for you or was it mostly Hawaiian music?
Ken Emerson: Well yeah I went through that phase because I
am a guitar player as well as a steel player and I did a lot of that
finger picking stuff.
mwe3: Did you work with George Winston? He did that great line
of Dancing Cat CDs. Were you involved with his label?
Ken Emerson: No I wasnt, oddly enough but I really appreciate
what George did. He really, really got slack key out there. And he
did have some steel players on some stuff... he used Barney Isaacs...
Brozman was in on that stuff. He didnt need me but George got
it out there and I think he was indirectly, probably really the reason
why our Slack Key record we did in 2005 won the Grammy award. Theres
a nice cross section of guitarist's on that album, I had two songs
mwe3: Is it still in print? Who released that?
Ken Emerson: Yes. It is on Palm Records and Charles Brotman
was the producer.
mwe3: How would you explain the term Slack Key guitar to someone
who never heard the term?
Its simply open tunings, when the guitar is tuned to a chord
it gives it a certain voice depending on the tuning.
mwe3: And you dont need a steel bar to play slack key?
Ken Emerson: Yeah. Depending on where you press... I mean you
could have a straight G tuning and you can drop the bottom D string
down down to a C and if you put your two fingers on the second string
of the first fret and the fourth sting on the second fret you get
a C. Its a whole different world. Turn the one string down,
you get a whole different voice, but then you have to transcribe everything
to the particular tuning.
mwe3: Do you only play vintage guitars and how has your choice
of guitars changed over the years?
Ken Emerson: No, my main guitar is a Taylor for Slack Key because
its built really well, travels well, takes humidity well. The
only other guitar that was able to make it through everything was
the triple O Martin that I have that has too many cracks in it and
had to retire it. The Taylors been just a workhorse, its
mwe3: Do you have a guitar endorsement deal or a Ken Emerson
Ken Emerson: Yes, I designed one for Breedlove guitars back
around 2006. Its called the Calendar Guitar. They only made
twelve of them throughout the year, different models. But oddly enough,
the company went through changes. One day I looked and I wasnt
on their website so I figured well... okay, so I started playing Taylor's.
If you dont mind me saying Ken, youre one of the best
kept secrets in American music.
Ken Emerson: Thanks, well Ive really been under the radar
(lol) and I kind of like that. And I dont just play... I play
everything except classical, really. And Ive played and toured
with a lot of name acts but people dont know who I am, and thats
fine. The best compliment I ever got was, some guy walked up to me
after a gig and said, should I know you? (lol). Its
nice being able to just slide in and out of every style and different
levels of musicians. I like just like playing with the boys in Hawaii.
I dont know if you know Ive played with Donald Fagen some
and Todd Rundgren, all throughout the years. Charlie Musselwhite,
mwe3: I was in Hawaii in 1990 and I did discover the music
Kapono Beamer and his CD Secrets Under The Sun. Did you ever
hear that album by Kapono and do you know Kapono? Its really
like a mix of Hawaiian and New Age music.
Ken Emerson: No I have to check it out. A little bit yeah.
We talked about collaborating once but it didnt really happen.
Yeah I experimented too. Have you heard any of my other records?
mwe3: Yeah I did hear one of your other albums.
Ken Emerson: Theres one called Kauai Style.
Slack And Steel Kauai Style. I kept the slack and steel
thing. I like mixing slack key and steel guitar. Its a good
sound. But on the end of that album I did a thing called E Kalihiwai.
One guy nailed it in the review. He said it sounded sort of like Pink
Floyd gone Hawaiian. (lol) And it had Bill Kreutzmann on it from The
Grateful Dead. so he wasnt far off track. It is psychedelic
Hawaiian music. (lol)
mwe3: I saw the pictures of you with Todd Rundgren and his
wife. What other artists are living in Hawaii these days that you
Ken Emerson: Oh there's some great folks out there I have met
and performed with. Graham Nash, Buffy St. Marie, some of the guys
from the Eagles. Yeah, I hang out with Todd quite a lot. In fact Im
getting ready to do his music camp down in Cambria California. Next
week I think it is. Coming fast.
Talk about really leaving the mainland. He really took off. (lol)
Ken Emerson: Hes also sang in Hawaiian on a couple of
my records. (lol)
mwe3: Which albums of your does Todd sing on?
Ken Emerson: Hes on the Kauai Style and
hes on Hulas Tangos Blues. Thats record you ought
to hear. Thats a good one.
mwe3: So how many albums do you have out?
Ken Emerson: Im not really sure. Ive got stuff
out of print too. Theres one called The Slack Key Posse,
thats a pretty cool record, a Paniolo Hawaiian cowboy thing.
Ive got to get that back in print.
mwe3: Anything new for 2014?
Ken Emerson: Ive got a friend I went to high school in
Hawaii with named David Roerick, he went to Nashville in 1980 and
became a first class bass player and he played with Jerry Reed. He
played the last ten years of Johnny Cashs career. He still lives
in Nashville. Ive always been threatening to go out there and
I never have. I played a festival in Hawaii earlier this year with
Jerry Douglas and had a blast playing with him. Since some of the
stuff is real bluegrass-y on the record I figured Id better
get a trip in. Sometime before this year is over Im going to
take a trip out to Nashville. Play some gigs and check it out.
mwe3: Because your new album is all over the map. Its
Americana, its Hawaiian, its country, its bluegrass
and gospel, its sacred steel. Its everything Its
a near religious experience. A real revelation.
Ken Emerson: Yeah, Im pretty happy with it. I kept it
simple. I really like the sound of that National guitar and upright
bass and nothing else. Really hearing the instruments together.
So will a compilation or a DVD, possiblly another New Age kind of
record will be coming next?
Ken Emerson: Yeah, I think all of it. But I would like to do
a DVD. Im way due for something like that. A DVD would be good.
mwe3: A lot of people dont even know this is music from
our country. I'm working with an instrumental steel guitar based band
from Finland called Southpaw Steel n Twang. Their guitarist
is a left handed guitar player who loves Hawaiian music.
Ken Emerson: Yeah, Im a left hander and I play right
handed. I dont know if that has anything to do with my picking
hand but anyway, I played left handed for two years and then switched
mwe3: Youre a lefty also?
Ken Emerson: Yeah.
mwe3: And you fret with your left hand and pick with your right?
Ken Emerson: Yeah.
mwe3: But you play the guitar with normal bass string on top?
Ken Emerson: Yes, its just that when I was a kid... Did
you ever watch Jimi Hendrix play? He turned the strings around so
he had the bass string on the top, for the downstroke, which is the
way youre supposed to do it if youre right handed. And
thats what I did as a kid. Id take a guitar and Id
restring it, a lefty, and I had the bass string up top, for the downstrokes.
But the thing is when youre a kid and you go into the music
store, all the guitars are strung the wrong way, you cant play
anything. You know what I mean? (lol) So I just said, the hell with
it. If you cant beat em join em. So I can still
play left handed oddly enough. If I had a guitar strung up that way,
I could still play it. I can still make all the chords.
mwe3: Im happy you were able to shed some light on your
Sacred Slack n Steel Guitar CD for the readers.
Ken Emerson: Im really happy that youre interested
in the record. Its just another thing that Cord and I have put
together. Im pretty happy with all the records weve done
together. Hes given me free reign on them yknow?
to Ken Emerson and Michael Cord at Cord