Jon Rauhouse was probably destined to make a rodeo record simply because of where he’s from. He can tell you about growing up across the road from a cottonfield in what is now downtown Tempe, Arizona. And the bronc rider pictured in the liner notes of his new Bloodshot Records disc, Steel Guitar Rodeo, is his brother.
That brother had a pawn shop banjo he’d never learned to play, but Rauhouse took it up on a dare from a high school pal who was learning guitar. The pair started a traditional bluegrass band, Southwind, which gained a substantial local following over its seven years as it evolved with Rauhouse’s growing command of pedal steel.
Rauhouse’s interest in steel guitar was inspired by Austinite Mike Hardwick, who has played with Jon Dee Graham, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Jerry Jeff Walker, among others. Back in the late 1970s, Hardwick lived and played in Phoenix.
“We were about the same age and I’d go watch him,” Rauhouse recalls. “The sound of the thing, it sounded really cool, so I started picking up steel guitar records, like the old Commander Cody and the old, old Pure Prairie League. There was a steel guitar player in that band named John Call who was just amazing. I used to listen to a lot of his stuff and try to steal from it.”
After Southwind folded, Rauhouse spent several years sitting in with whomever he could. He says the nightly challenge of fitting his instrument into a wide range of music styles may account for the versatility he displays on his own recordings. The taste and sensitivity of his playing was a hallmark of his tenure in the Grievous Angels, an Arizona alt-country band that issued a couple of late-’90s records on Bloodshot. The label connection eventually led Rauhouse to gigs with other Bloodshot acts, most notably Neko Case.
Much as he enjoys ensemble playing, Rauhouse hankered to make a record of his own. “I’d always wanted to do this kind of thing because of those guys that used to play those old steel guitar records that were really bizarre,” he explains. “Buddy Emmons did a lot of them, Maurice Anderson, Joaquin Murphey. Just the types of tunes they would do, like ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’, ‘Moonglow’, ‘Where Is The Love’ — a lot of stuff that you wouldn’t expect to hear on a steel guitar.”
A chance encounter in Los Angeles reacquainted Rauhouse with his former Southwind bandmate Tommy Connell, a master of picking styles. When Bloodshot offered the opportunity, Rauhouse tapped Connell and some of the most in-demand talent in Chicago and Tucson for his band, then found willing songstresses in Sally Timms, Neko Case and Kelly Hogan. The result was his 2002 solo debut, Steel Guitar Airshow.
A brief tour followed featuring Connell, Timms, Hogan and Carolyn Mark. “I got a lot of press and a lot of really good will from Airshow, and a lot of radio stations played it, and I thought if I just let it go away, that would’ve been kind of a waste,” he says. “So I just forged ahead to do another one.”
Steel Guitar Rodeo features the same players, including Connell, bassist Tom V. Ray (Bottle Rockets, Pine Valley Cosmonauts, Neko Case), and drummer Kevin O’Donnell (Quality Six, Andrew Bird). Lending a hand from fellow Tucson band Calexico are John Convertino (drums), Joey Burns (bass and cello) and Jacob Valenzuela (trumpet). In addition to Timms, Hogan, Case and Mark, the list of guest vocalists this time also includes Howe Gelb.
Tracks with obvious rodeo references are original instrumentals: “Widowmaker”, traditionally the deadliest horse on the circuit, and “Ropin’ The Goat”, a children’s rodeo event. Several other cuts relate to the west, including that state so west it’s almost east, Hawaii. Rauhouse’s “Hamma Hamma Hula” is named for a state park in Washington. “Corn And Coffee” and “Wishin’”, he says, were inspired by a Sons Of The Pioneers listening jag. “Those are my first attempts at singing, so it was kind of frightening,” he confesses. “It all fit in with the western rodeo type thing.”
His hopped-up “Indian Love Call”, featuring Gelb, is based on the Artie Shaw version, and Sally Timms sings the entirely anomalous “White Cliffs Of Dover”. Funky covers include “Work Work”, a one-off national hit for outré rockers Hubcap & the Wheels, a fixture of the long-running Phoenix cartoon show “Wallace & Ladmo”. In a similar category is “Powerhouse”, an instrumental once commissioned for Warner Bros. cartoons.
And what about the banjo? Rauhouse plays it on one track, accompanied by Pennsylvania bluegrass band Jim & Jennie & the Pinetops. The song is “Jennifer’s Breakdown”. Jennifer being his wife, though he’s quick to explain: “She didn’t have a breakdown; it’s a banjo term.”
Good to know. In less skillful hands, it could be a “Widowmaker”.