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John Hughey Interview

John Hughey

The following interview by Gib Sun took place in August 2001 in Nashville, Tennessee and appeared in the Steel Guitar Rag.

I’m honored to be here with the famous, great steel guitar player, John Hughey. How are you doing, John, and thanks for being with us.

Pretty good, Gib, and it’s a pleasure being here with you, too.

We’re sitting at the NTSGA Superjam, and John is a big part of NTSGA, and the Superjam that you were on a couple months was about one of the best I’ve ever seen in my life.

Thanks very much. We appreciate that, and we really enjoyed doing that too.

Isn’t it a great venue, Bell Cove, intimate setting, maybe a hundred great steel guitar fans there and playing with your peers like Lloyd Green, Bobbe Seymour...

Hal Rugg. The biggies were up there. I like to be in their company. That’s great company to be in.

John, I’ve probably got a dozen calls in the last couple of weeks since we started playing the great album by you and Jimmie Crawford...

The James and John project was cut years ago. It laid on the shelf for so long, we just forgot about it. He found it one day and thought we should do something with this. He pulled it out and started fooling with it and got the late Gary Hogue to mix it. I think it’s really a good album myself.

I didn’t realize Jimmie did Whispering Hope. What a terrific job!

He did a fantastic job. Such a great player.

In fact, we did our Gospel Steel Guitar Showcase with Jimmy last week. He was our interviewee and did a terrific job. I got three calls that afternoon, and someone in our audience knew something about Jimmy that I didn’t. He used to do the Wheeling Jamboree with Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper.

Way back yonder. He’s been around a long time. Both of us have. Gettin’ old.

I know that feeling myself. Speaking of 25 years ago, I’ve gotten tons of questions on how you got started playing the steel guitar and your affiliation with, we'll just call him Harold Jenkins.

I was about 12 years old when I met Harold. We were living in Mississippi. My daddy had been transferred there where he was working on a dairy farm. He was a maintenance man there during the war. We moved back to Arkansas after the war was over. I had passed to the seventh grade and Harold was in my class. There was a program on the local station that we listened to every Thursday. One night we were listening and Harold was on there and he sang. That just knocked me out. I told Mother and Dad, "I know that guy, he’s in my room at school." So the next day at school I told him we heard him and I didn’t know he played and sang. He didn’t know I played anything. Well, I didn’t really, just a little guitar. So we started getting together at school. When it would rain, we’d go to the auditorium and kinda entertain the kids. They couldn’t go outside and play, so we would pick and sing for them. I had me a coat hanger warped around my neck to play harmonica and rhythm guitar. That’s the way we met. One night we went up to the radio station to watch that program live. To make a long story short, everyday I would come in from school, Eddy Arnold was on for Purina Chow. I kept hearing this sound I liked. It was Little Roy Wiggins on steel guitar. He was doing the ting-a-ling thing. I didn’t know what it was. I thought it was the prettiest thing I’d ever heard in my life. That night daddy carried us up to the radio station to watch this country music show live. There was a guy sitting over in the corner that had a lap steel. I still didn’t know what I was looking at. Thought it was a pretty little guitar. It was hollow-bodied, silver, and had Hawaiian girls on it. When he hit the first lick, I knew that was what I’d been hearing on the radio. I told daddy that’s what I want right there. He didn’t know what it was. He said, "You don’t want one of those things." I said, "Yea, daddy, that’s what I want," because he was about to buy me an electric guitar. I kept on for two or three months. So he went to Montgomery Wards and ordered me the Sherwood Deluxe lap steel and amplifier. The time I got the steel I was 16 years old. Right away Conway and I and a couple other boys that sang with us got a radio show on that same station that we’d been listening to. We were on every Saturday morning at 10 o’clock. Of course I was trying to copy Little Roy Wiggins. In fact, I’ve got a tape that Conway used to have in his museum at Twitty City. I had a guy record it off the radio on a wire recorder. This was in 1951. 1952 got ahold of one of those little disc that he had transferred from the wire. It was so scratchy that when Conway was putting his museum together, he wanted to put that song in there. He was singing Crybaby Heart. So I let him have that record. He carried it downtown and had it cleaned up and put it on tape so he could play it constantly there at the museum. So he gave me that tape when he got through with it. So I’ve got the tape of me trying to play like Little Roy Wiggins.

Some of the stuff that him and Loretta did just tears your heart out, doesn’t it?

It really does, it was some great stuff.

Conway went into the army. What did you do during that period?

Most people think Conway was rock and went country afterwards, but we were playing country music first. When we were in Helena, where we were raised we played in church, schools, and socials. There’s a country music show in Memphis called Slim Rose and the Mother’s Best Mountaineers. Their steel player got called to the service in 1953. They were advertising for a steel player. Conway kept saying, "John , why don’t you go up there and audition for those guys," and I kept saying "I'm not good enough to play with those guys," and I really didn’t think I was. This went on for a couple of months. Conway asked if he made an appointment and took me up there, would I audition. I said, "I guess so." Got lost going up there. Half the band had got tired waiting and gone home. We played two or three instrumentals, my volume pedal trembling because I was scared, and he sang a couple songs. Speck Rhodes that used to be with Porter Waggoner said, "Hey, that boy sang pretty good to." I got the job and shortly afterward, Conway got called into service.

   While he was in service, Elvis came up and got big. So when Conway got out of service, he thought he could do that kinda stuff, because it was hot. So that was when he went rock.. In 1964 he changed back to country. Most people thought he was rock then country, but he was country, rock, then country.

Tell me how you got with Vince Gill and Look at Us and in my humble opinion, defines the John Hughey that we know today.

I appreciate that. I had left Conway in 1988 and sat around home for about a year. I was gonna try to do sessions, but that didn’t pan out to good, so Loretta’s steel player Terry Bethel was going back to work with Mel Tillis. Loretta’s band leader asked if I would go out with them for a couple weeks until they found somebody. So I said, "What about me." He said, "Would you be interested in going." I said, "Yea." So he said. "let me call Loretta," and in about thirty minutes he called back and said I had the job. So I worked with Loretta for about a year and a half. She only worked about fifty day a year, so I worked two seasons with her. I came in one days off the road and there was a message on the answering machine from Vince. He said, "I know you don’t know who I am, but I do a little recording around town. My record is about to take off and I’m thinking about putting a band together." He said, "I knew you left Conway and was with Loretta, but I didn’t know what your situation was. Just wondered if you would be interested." So here I am listening to this message on the answering machine and didn’t know who Vince was because he hadn’t got really hot back them. He had done lots of background vocals and played guitar on sessions, but I did not connect him with When I Call Your Name. I had been hearing that song on the radio but had always tuned in on the middle of it, and I never got who it was. I heard Paul Franklin play steel on it, and I kept listening and I thought, "I don’t remember cutting that," because it sounded like me playing. I thought who was that guy singing. So one day I heard them say it was Vince Gill and I said, "No, that's not me, it's Paul Franklin." So I asked Vince if he was going to be working regular, and he said, "Yea, we sure are." Loretta was doing only fifty days a year, and I needed to work. So he said he was gonna be working so I said, "You got a steel player then." The first year we worked 150 days.

John, what gospel groups have you recorded with besides the Goodmans? I’ve seen your name on The Crabbs.

There are so many, I can’t remember the names of all of them. I go blank when I start thinking. I get those senior moments they’re all talking about.

I’ve had a few. One of my favorite groups is the Freemans. They kept talking about this great steel guitar player.

I enjoy doing the gospel music. Just hearing some of the groups sing, I get cold chills. It makes you play. You just feel it more when you get to listening to them sing. I have a friend, Clint Holly, The Singing Hollys. He had a church in West Frankfort, IL. He passed away five or six year ago, but his wife and daughters still have the church and are still preaching there. I used to go up there every once in a while and sit in with them and play in the church. And when they would start singing, me and my wife would tearup. I’m sitting there playing with them, and I would actually tearup. You know there’s got to be something there, or that doesn’t happen. I just recorded a new gospel album. I recorded He Touched Me. Right now when I play, my wife sits there and tearsup. She says it’s the prettiest thing I do.

John, what an honor it is having you here today.

It’s my pleasure being here. I’m enjoying it and having a great time.



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