KEN EMERSON
Sacred Slack & Steel Guitar
(Cord International / Hano Ola Records)

 

More 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 Ken’s Sacred Slack & Steel Guitar CD is in his choice of music to cover here. Included on the 15 track CD are Ken’s 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 Ken’s 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 results. www.CordInternational.com


mwe3.com presents an interview with
KEN EMERSON



mwe3
: Are you in L.A. now?

Ken Emerson: I’m in Monterey now. I’m at the studio.

mwe3: I guess everyone’s 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 they’re 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 there’s 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 1920’s 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? They’re from Upstate New York. You’d really like them. They play sacred music on steel guitars and they get down with it. There’s 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. It’s been there the whole time. So it’s 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 it’s bluegrassy, some of it’s Delta blues and some of it’s 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. I’ve got an old 1928 National. It’s a magic guitar. It’s always a challenge to record acoustic instruments and make them sound the way they’re supposed to. I'm still figuring out really, trying to get that sound. I’m pretty happy with the way it came out.

mwe3: How did you first get interested in music...?

Ken Emerson: My father was the one who got me into music. He’s 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. That’s 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: It’s always changing like everything else. You see, I’ve carved out this niche of playing. There was a real lack of acoustic steel mainly. So back in the 1970’s I thought, well this is a niche that I could fill and I’m still doing it to this day. I have a little corner of the Hawaiian music scene I’m trying to perpetuate. I mean, it’s all heritage music. It’s like blues, or jazz or anything... any cultural music. Something to be preserved.

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 20’s, my peer group was one or two generations older than me. I didn’t relate a lot to the musicians my age over there during that time period, the 1970’s and early ‘80s because Hawaiian music was going through a real kind of a pop phase... or contemporary shall we say, but it wasn’t 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.

mwe3: You’ve been with Cord Records a long time. How and when did you meet Michael Cord. I’ve been writing about Cord for the past 15 years.

Ken Emerson: Talk about a preservationist. Some day he’s going to get his regard as being someone who’s 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. It’s 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 there’s just a chorus. And then there’s ones I did that aren’t as well known but they’re known in certain areas like “End Of My Journey”. I learned that in New Orleans. That’s well known down there. And throughout traditional jazz, there’s 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, you’d think so. It’s kind of cool the way it’s all mixed up because music is. That’s the way it evolved. It’s some country music... there’s 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.

mwe3: Would you say Sacred Slack ‘n’ Steel Guitar is more Americana than other artists who don’t see the connection between Hawaiian and Delta blues. You make Hawaiian music sound Americana. Is that the nature of Hawaiian music, is that it’s American music first?

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. That’s 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 Hawaii’s pedal steelers like Jerry Byrd.

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 don’t know how to say it... not a rougher edge. First of all, it’s acoustic so it’s gotta have a different attack on it. You’re playing an acoustic instrument. It’s not like an electric instrument where if you even lightly touch the strings it sounds. On acoustic, you’ve 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 players?

Ken Emerson: Yeah, there’s some... I’m more influenced by the non-pedal. You see, there’s a real division in steel guitar between the pedal and the non-pedal. Most people don’t 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 it’s 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, I’m like...wow, what does that position look like? lol .. I’m not putting down pedal steel guitars. It can’t compare. It’s like comparing a classic old 1920’s race car, to a Ferrari. There’s really no comparison. I’m just talking about the physical, actual playing of the instrument as well as the sound. They’re completely different.

mwe3: When you use the slide it’s 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. It’s fun to do that with slant chords. I just enjoy manipulating that slide man. You’re always discovering stuff. If I did play a pedal steel, I’d probably slant the chords anyway and then hit the pedals. (lol) I’m sure I’d do that!

mwe3: For the readers who don’t know what slanting the chord mean, can you say something about that?

Ken 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. It’s 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 don’t 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. It’s real good for 1930’s 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?

Ken Emerson: It’s 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, I’m 61, I really need to find preferably a Hawaiian kid that’s really got the heart to learn what I’ve 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 the readers?

Ken Emerson: Oddly enough I don’t 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 there’s more around but there’s really not that many. Plenty in the blues idiom. That’s another thing y’know? I know those Japanese guys the Sweet Hollywaiians? They’re doing the acoustic thing and using Nationals. My friend Pascal in France is playing Nationals, so they’re doing it over there.

mwe3: It’s a world wide thing.

Ken Emerson: It’s worldwide but it’s very small pockets. It was a huge craze but its heyday was the 1920’s.

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 wasn’t, 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 didn’t 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. There’s a nice cross section of guitarist's on that album, I had two songs on that.

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?

Ken Emerson: It’s simply open tunings, when the guitar is tuned to a chord it gives it a certain voice depending on the tuning.

mwe3: And you don’t 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. It’s 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 it’s 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 Taylor’s been just a workhorse, it’s been great.

mwe3: Do you have a guitar endorsement deal or a Ken Emerson model?

Ken Emerson: Yes, I designed one for Breedlove guitars back around 2006. It’s 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 wasn’t on their website so I figured well... okay, so I started playing Taylor's. (lol)

mwe3: If you don’t mind me saying Ken, you’re one of the best kept secrets in American music.

Ken Emerson: Thanks, well I’ve really been under the radar (lol) and I kind of like that. And I don’t just play... I play everything except classical, really. And I’ve played and toured with a lot of name acts but people don’t know who I am, and that’s fine. The best compliment I ever got was, some guy walked up to me after a gig and said, ‘should I know you?’ (lol). It’s 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 don’t know if you know I’ve played with Donald Fagen some and Todd Rundgren, all throughout the years. Charlie Musselwhite, Boz Skaggs.

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? It’s 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 didn’t 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: There’s one called Kaua’i Style. Slack And Steel Kaua’i Style. I kept the slack and steel thing. I like mixing slack key and steel guitar. It’s 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 wasn’t 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 know?

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 I’m getting ready to do his music camp down in Cambria California. Next week I think it is. Coming fast.

mwe3: Talk about really leaving the mainland. He really took off. (lol)

Ken Emerson: He’s also sang in Hawaiian on a couple of my records. (lol)

mwe3: Which albums of your does Todd sing on?

Ken Emerson: He’s on the Kaua’i Style and he’s on Hulas Tangos Blues. That’s record you ought to hear. That’s a good one.

mwe3: So how many albums do you have out?

Ken Emerson: I’m not really sure. I’ve got stuff out of print too. There’s one called The Slack Key Posse, that’s a pretty cool record, a Paniolo Hawaiian cowboy thing. I’ve got to get that back in print.

mwe3: Anything new for 2014?

Ken Emerson: I’ve 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 Cash’s career. He still lives in Nashville. I’ve 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 I’d better get a trip in. Sometime before this year is over I’m 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. It’s Americana, it’s Hawaiian, it’s country, it’s bluegrass and gospel, it’s sacred steel. It’s everything It’s a near religious experience. A real revelation.

Ken Emerson: Yeah, I’m 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.

mwe3: 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. I’m way due for something like that. A DVD would be good.

mwe3: A lot of people don’t 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, I’m a left hander and I play right handed. I don’t know if that has anything to do with my picking hand but anyway, I played left handed for two years and then switched over.

mwe3: You’re 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, it’s 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 you’re supposed to do it if you’re right handed. And that’s what I did as a kid. I’d take a guitar and I’d restring it, a lefty, and I had the bass string up top, for the downstrokes. But the thing is when you’re a kid and you go into the music store, all the guitars are strung the wrong way, you can’t play anything. You know what I mean? (lol) So I just said, the hell with it. If you can’t 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: I’m happy you were able to shed some light on your Sacred Slack ‘n’ Steel Guitar CD for the readers.

Ken Emerson: I’m really happy that you’re interested in the record. It’s just another thing that Cord and I have put together. I’m pretty happy with all the records we’ve done together. He’s given me free reign on them y’know?

Thanks to Ken Emerson and Michael Cord at Cord International

 

 
   
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