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George Newton: Keeping it Real with Pedal Steel

I met George P. Newton in the very first three notes I heard him play. We hadn’t even shaken hands, yet. I hadn’t even had enough time to turn my head in the direction to see who was playing those first three notes. I found him on the bandstand soon enough. Hm … He’s an unassuming fellow. Off to the side a little. Intently and intensely listening as he played. (Musicians repeat after me 10 times: “intently and intensely listening … ”) Listening intently to the singer as he played … making musical nudges that supported the message being delivered by the singer. Doing so in a way that evokes deep emotional things … everything he played—he played like he was touching golden glow-in-the-dark drops of electric honey. By verse two, I had completely lost my mind and had realized that this guy is my favorite musician in Central New York. I found out why when I asked him in the following interview about his inspirations and such.

Syracuse: you have a special musician here. He’s easy enough to find— playing with Big D, The Merry Pranksters, Better Than Bowling among others.

Syracuse: you have a special musician here. He makes what I refer to as the Knucklehead List. You (the reader) are a knucklehead if you don’t go check George out on a show. He’s easy enough to find— playing with Big D, The Merry Pranksters, Better Than Bowling among others. You know, there are a lot of musicians lurking in this area that make the “you’re a knucklehead if you don’t check ‘em out” list … truly special, and I’ve covered plenty of them over the last few years. You can have a world-class musician, from right here … SU grad and everything … mess with your emotions in the right way over a toddy at your favorite club.

I see him from time-to-time and by now have even gotten to jam with George a couple of times. We got together for this interview so that you could meet him, too.

Chuck Schiele: Hi George. Thank you very much for talking with Table Hopping.

George P. Newton: Thanks, Chuck. Glad to do it.

CS: How’d you get your start in music?

GPN: I was in Jr. and Sr. high school during the 60’s and music was a major part of the culture. And, I was an avid fan of the music of the times. But, I never really thought about becoming a musician until I was about 12 years old. One night on our annual family vacation to Cape Cod, my father talked the manager of a night club in Provincetown into letting me join my parents who were having drinks in a basement jazz club. A 5 piece jazz group was really pouring it on­—sweat dripping, tearing it up. Watching grown men work at a job that allowed them to athletically express their musical emotion was a very powerful experience for me. It made me aware of a parallel universe of career choices.

CS: How did you come to play the pedal steel?

George P. Newton had seen pedal steel players in traditional country bands and I loved the sound of the instrument, but really liked the rock and folk of the 60’s. He decided to pursue pedal steel after hearing Rusy Young play with the band Paco.

GPN: In 1968 I was 16 years old, it seemed that everyone was playing in bands. These folks had been playing for years and many were very talented. I fooled around with guitar and bass, but I couldn’t imagine catching up. I had seen pedal steel players in traditional country bands and I loved the sound of the instrument, but I really liked the rock and folk of the 60’s. I was not a real fan of traditional country music. Then a Poco album came out with Rusty Young playing a pedal steel guitar to the new California Country music. He had a great sound. He played through a Leslie speaker at times. He made me realize how much more musical real estate had yet to be covered with this instrument. So I thought, why not try to play the steel. I can be experimental and I won’t have to worry so much about catching up with everyone.

CS: Who do you listen to for inspiration?

GPN: It’s funny. I don’t listen to other steel players for inspiration, although you can’t help but be inspired by the likes of Rusty Young, Buddy Emmons, Robert Randolph, Paul Franklin, et. al. I am inspired by great singer/songwriters who inspire me to help them get their message across.

CS: God bless you and everything you stand for.

GPN: There are lots of great singers coming onto the scene all the time. My model is David Lindley whose musical contributions are an integral element of Jackson Browne’s sound.

CS: Wow. Yeah, Lindley. Huge inspiration on me, too. I just saw him this past January in California. He certainly takes the idea of slide/steel way beyond any boundaries. So … with whom are you playing music, currently?

George Newton doesn’t listen to other steel players for inspiration. He is inspired by great singer/songwriters who inspire him to help them get their message across.

GPN: I play regularly with The Big D Orchestra, Better Than Bowling, The Merry Pranksters and The Joedogs. I occasionally play with lots of folks including Cross Creek, The Dust Devil Band, Jane Zell, Leo Crandall, Colin Aberdeen and Mike Powell. My wife Sharon Allen, incidentally, sings with Better Than Bowling, The Big D Orchestra and The Merry Pranksters as well.

CS: Tell us about favorite highlights in your music career.

GPN: I really haven’t had a lot of highlights as I spent 30 years in a full-time job and most of my playing fell before and after that. I’m just a part time local musician. I did have the chance to open for some great acts including Muddy Waters and Peter Tosh. A couple of years ago, The Big D Orchestra was playing the Dinosaur Barbeque and Billy Joel was playing the Dome the following night. Musical director and sax player, Mark Rivera was there. He asked to sit in for a couple of songs and ended up playing the entire 1 hour set with us. The real highlights for me have come when I have been part of a thrown together group and something unexpected and magical has happened.

CS: Ha!. That last sentence … best answer, ever. Ok then … Tell us some funny war stories.

GPN: As political correctness is now in vogue, I’ll try to think of some appropriate ones.

CS: heh heh heh …

GPN: Cumberland Stage was the first band for me as well as for my pal Skip Murphy. We were all pretty basic musicians and we used only acoustic guitars. No drums. But had some great harmonies. We got the chance to open the show for Melissa Manchester at the old Brookside in East Syracuse and were about half way through our set when the audience became restless. They started heckling us and as I recall, shouting “Go back to Nashville!” Unbeknownst to us, Melissa’s band had heard what was happening from their dressing room and had come up behind us and picked up their instruments and the drummer sat down at his kit and in the middle of a song joined in. The audience when nuts and they finished out the set with us. God bless ‘em!

CS: Super cool.

GPN: The wildest gig I ever played was in the early 80’s with a band called Old No. 7. WOUR radio in Utica had sponsored an event for the 4th of July for which they had contracted for the use of the big double decker sightseeing boat that cruised out of Old Forge and up the Fulton chain of lakes and back. The deal was, the first so many hundred people (whatever the boat would hold) to be in line could take the cruise with free beer all day with Old No. 7 playing on top deck. In the middle of the deck was a cattle trough about 20 feet long full of ice and beer. We headed up the chain, playing and drinking and then turned around and headed back toward Old Forge to arrive just as the fireworks over the bay started. As we approached the town, we had accumulated a huge flotilla of boats all around us, following us in, honking their horns. At some point, the well lubricated crowd on board realized that if they all ran to the railing on one side and then back to the other, they could get this huge boat rocking substantially in a very slow roll. I guess you had to be there, but it was pretty wild when the rocking boat with the band playing, the flotilla and the fireworks all came together. Another interesting gig was opening for Peter Tosh, the Jamaican Reggae star. It was at the old Beginnings in East Syracuse which was in a strip mall and in a space that I believe was once a grocery store. With the large open space, the bar was placed in the center of the room and was shaped like a large oval so that patrons could be served all the way around. A couple of hours before the show, Peter and the band, who considered making music a religious experience, engaged in their pre-show preparations which included consuming several spliffs each. Peter then mounted a unicycle and did dozens of laps around the bar while chanting. After that, he went into the dressing room to, I assume, continue getting into the right mindset to deliver his performance. We did not see him again until after our set when the rest of his band went on stage and began thumping out an amazingly powerful, slow, hypnotic reggae beat. The band manager then stepped to the mic and began shouting “Peter Tosh—he’s the Mystic Man,” and whipped the audience into  a frenzy. After a few minutes, Peter came out and stepped onto the stage and delivered a truly religious performance.

CS: Great stories, man. I love the stories. Thank you for sharing. If you could change one thing—an old episode, a factor in the scene, something you wish … what would it be?

GPN: I’m not sure if I would change anything but I, of course, wonder what might have happened had I elected to give a serious shot to becoming a professional player as opposed to getting a real job.

CS: When I first heard you play … it took only about  [your first] three notes to note that you had your own very strong matter of style. Do you feel that you have “your” style? If so, is there some kind of background to it? Or, maybe you just never think about it and it is what it is?

The Big D Orchestra and The Merry Prankstersare are planning to record CD’s in the near future. if you want to sample a few of his projects (some studio, some live, some work-in-progress), check out his Reverbnation page: www.reverbnation/georgenewton

GPN: I have always used the steel guitar to play cover songs that did not have steel in the original composition, so I have developed a homemade style. In fact, when I bought my first steel guitar around 1971, I had to order it without even trying it because no music store in the area carried them. When I ordered it, I also ordered a Mel Bay book of pedal steel guitar chords and I bought the new Derek and the Dominoes Layla album. When everything came in, the first thing I did was learn to play the chords to those songs and try to find a pocket to work in. That is still how I work. Also, I’m lazy when it comes to learning other people’s stuff. Or maybe it’s that I lose interest before I am able to capture it as I’m not as dexterous as the great players and I get frustrated easily. But, it is when I just make sounds that I am in love with the instrument and I am in my element. I would be a better musician if I learned all of that great stuff that all of those great players have created and figured out. But, I really don’t have much interest in recreating what others have done. I love doing great songs, but I never want to do them the way the original artist did. Somebody already did that and probably had a blast coming up with it! So I just take the chords, listen to the lyrics and add what I hope supports the music and the message.

CS: Ummm. George. We need to collaborate, if even only for a tune. I share this exact sentiment, artistically.

GPN: Absolutely.

CS: Cool. Let’s finish this article, first. What do you have to say to the budding musician?

GPN: Hard to say because there are so many different ways to approach music. Some folks love to recreate songs exactly like the original artist and people love listening to it. If that’s your desire, follow it. But if, like me, you are a tinkerer and an experimenter, remember—you have in your hands a device (or a voice) that makes sounds and there is no right or wrong way to make them. Don’t get me wrong. Learning fundamentals is important. But, let the instrument take you wherever it wants to go. Lastly, choose the pedal steel guitar. There are only a few players around so you will always be one of the best! And, it has so many places yet to go.

CS: What are your thoughts on the CNY music scene, itself?

GPN: I traveled a lot during my “day job” career and always sought out the local music scene. Syracuse and Central New York has a music scene that is bigger and better than you will find in most cities that are much larger. This is wonderful. The only downsides are that the players outnumber the venues, so the venues don’t need to pay much and don’t feel the need to charge at the door. If every venue charged an admission that was equal to the price of a single beer, our music scene and our musicians would be thriving.

CS: What’s on your horizon? What’s coming up that you’re looking forward to?

GPN: I enjoy playing with the bands I am involved with; and both The Big D Orchestra and The Merry Pranksters are planning to record CD’s in the near future. I also get several calls for studio work which I enjoy. As I mentioned earlier, what I really enjoy, is helping songwriters create a sound. I have a few songwriters with whom I am working remotely to record my tracks at my home and this is a real pleasure as I can take my time to get it the way I want it. These include Beartoe in Central Florida and Landon Rowe in Columbus, Ohio.

CS: Got website?

GPN: No, but if someone wants to sample a few of my projects (some studio, some live, some work-in-progress), they can check out my Reverbnation page: www.reverbnation/georgenewton

CS: Ok, that wraps it up, George. Thank you, so much, for taking the time to share your story with Table Hopping.

GPN: Thank you, Chuck. My pleasure!

Chuck Schiele
Chuck Schiele is an award-winning musician, art director, producer, editorialist, artist, activist, member of SaltCityChill.com and fan of the CNY music scene. To be considered for this column, please write chuck.schiele@gmail.com.