By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Photo (top) by Debra DiPaolo|
Greg Leisz has a “road face”: Divots carved in his sallow cheeks and crinkled maps around his boyish eyes make one think of a Walker Evans Dust Bowl Okie. Now in his 50s, he has traveled a long road to become arguably today’s most in-demand and prolific exponent of the pedal steel and lap steel guitars. He’s managed to forge a distinctive style — what he calls “head space” — from some of the least flexible instruments in the guitar pantheon. According to an oft-repeated quote from k.d. lang, Leisz “single-handedly liberated pedal steel from the bondage of country.”
Steel guitar in Leisz’s hands is less weepy, yeasty honky-schlock and more eerie, spare modern-retro — the dustblown primitive awash in the digitized city. He memorably introduced himself to modern radio with his alien-in-an-aquarium slide on “Save Me,” the gorgeous ballad that opens lang’s 1992 Ingenue. In the years since, he’s played on many pop-music touchstones: He’s fond of comparing himself to a plumber, so let’s just say he’s fixed pipes for Beck’s Odelay and Midnight Vultures, the Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Fiona Apple’s Tidal; unclogged drains for Grant Lee Buffalo’s Mighty Joe Moon, Wilco’s Being There and Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road; and put in new faucets for Joni Mitchell’s Turbulent Indigo, k.d. lang’s Absolute Torch and Twang, Dave Alvin’s King of California and Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend. He’s also a full-fledged member of the international instrumental supergroup the Intercontinentals, with guitarists Bill Frisell and Vinicius Cantuaria, percussionist Sidiki Camara, oud and bouzouki virtuoso Christos Govetas, and violinist Jenny Scheinman.
Being the All-Around Session Guy seems to fit his temperament. “It’s not that I don’t have an attention span to focus on any one thing,” he says. “I’m more interested in doing things I don’t already know how to do. That’s why I started playing guitar in the first place.” Born in Buffalo, New York, but raised mostly in Fullerton, Leisz started playing his mother’s Gibson acoustic at age 14, listening to what he calls “faux-folk” groups like the Kingston Trio. (In fact, one of Leisz’s first road gigs was with ex–Kingston Trio singer John Stewart.) After kicking around the latter days of the SoCal folk scene (with sidetracks to San Francisco and to Idaho, where he worked for the U.S. Forest Service), he took up pedal steel in 1973. “For every one name you leave out 10,” he says when asked to name his influences, adding, “I’d go out to these country bars in Downey — once I could get in — and see some totally obscure pedal-steel player who sounded as good as anything I’ve ever heard in my life. I didn’t even know the guy’s name. He probably worked in a factory. That’s the reality of that instrument.”
By 1976, he had done some tentative studio work and was in the rhythm section of the Funky Kings, playing R&B-meets-country-rock with future MTV Unplugged host Jules Shear and Eagles songwriter Jack Tempchin. Barely in his 20s and thrust into the vagaries of the music business, Leisz realized he “didn’t feel a real strong affinity with something that operated behind closed doors in boardrooms and had nothing to do with playing music.” Refusing a couple of lucrative offers to go on the road, he wandered back into the L.A. club scene and stayed there for the next 10 years. “I lived down in Laguna Beach, where a lot of good musicians lived. Bars like the White House, the Sandpiper and the Quiet Woman hired them to form these loose bands and play whatever they wanted — everything from John Coltrane to Merle Haggard. The audience wouldn’t realize what they were getting, namely stuff they couldn’t hear on the radio.” Leisz played in bands with unsung revolutionaries like steel guitarists “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow and Al Perkins or fiddler Byron Berline (all ex–Flying Burrito Brothers), “people that for me were just names on a record way back when, and I realized we were all on the same fuckin’ floor: Everybody’s struggling.”
In the ’80s, Leisz’s road ran alongside that of L.A.’s punk-rock generation, who not only shared his animosity toward the corporate music world but were also beginning to plumb the roots of American music. “I worked with John Doe by the time he was singing Hank Williams songs, but I didn’t even listen to X until much later,” Leisz laughs. “That was the hole in the sand that my head was in.” Prominent collaborations in the roots-oriented bands of Doe, Dave Alvin and Rosie Flores led to a call from k.d. lang.
Leisz says he goes out on tour with artists like lang, Joni Mitchell or Emmylou Harris to get away from the pressures of the studio. He notes the “double bind” of a studio musician: “It’s not like because session musicians are in the background they’re these meek little guys; they’re people who express themselves playing music. There’s some need to put an emotional investment in everything they do.”