When Jay Dee Maness started playing pedal steel guitar at age 10, he certainly couldn’t have imagined that 13 years later he would be playing on one of the most important albums in the history of pop music.
Maness was contacted by the Byrds to play on their Sweetheart of the Rodeo album, which was recorded in Nashville and Los Angeles from March to May in 1968. The landmark album — one of the first records to fully integrate country music with rock and roll — has been saluted for decades as a harbinger of the many country-rock bands and albums that have followed to this day.
“As a country musician, I learned something very important from that record — that steel guitar can fit into any kind of music, if it’s allowed,” Maness said in the liner notes of the Sweetheart of the Rodeo legacy edition released by Sony Music in 2003.
Maness tells me he first met Gram Parsons — the leader of the Byrds on that album — in 1965 at the Aces Club in City of Industry, an industrial suburb of Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Valley. Parsons wasn’t in the Byrds then but came into the club with Byrds bass player Chris Hillman and heard Maness on pedal steel.
Parsons had his own band, the International Submarine Band, and asked Maness in 1967 to play with them in the studio during the recording of their Safe at Home album. Before release of the album, which also was in a country-rock vein, Parsons jettisoned the group and joined the Byrds.
“I was never a member of the Byrds,” recalls Maness, who has played with numerous big-name musicians and recently released a solo album From Where I Sit. “Since Chris and Gram had heard me play, they called me in to work on the Sweetheart of the Rodeo. I wanted to play country music. Sweetheart of the Rodeo was that but with an edge. I don’t know about magical — all the guys were always late getting to the studio. I was always on time and ready to play, because I knew studio work was what I wanted to do. But, when we did start recording, it felt great, which was the magic for me.”
Some critics have contended the album pretty much invented country rock, though the Byrds on previous albums and other rock musicians had been dabbling in country music.
“We didn’t know it at the time, but I guess it did start the country-rock era,” Maness says.
Original Byrds members Gene Clark, David Crosby and Michael Clarke were gone from the group, and only original members Hillman and Roger McGuinn were in the band when recording of Sweetheart of the Rodeo commenced. Hillman’s cousin, drummer Kevin Kelley, and Parsons had just joined the Byrds, and some historic accounts say McGuinn stepped aside as the group’s leader and let Parsons take charge.
What was the dynamic between members of the Byrds group at that time?
“I didn’t know Roger was stepping aside for Gram at the time,” Maness says. “But history has proven this to be true. There was an interesting dynamic between Gram, Roger, and Chris. Chris wanted to be more than the bass player.”
And he was, playing mandolin as well as bass, and singing lead or co-lead on three of the songs. But it was Parsons who may have influenced the album most, writing the album’s two original songs and steering it into the country-rock path of Safe at Home.
Parsons and Hillman soon left the Byrds and founded the Flying Burrito Brothers, who also were cited as country-rock pioneers. Hillman later joined Stephen Stills in Manassas and was in a few other bands, including his own, before reuniting with Maness in the Desert Rose Band in 1985.
The Desert Rose Band, which also included guitarist John Jorgensen, banjoist/guitarist Herb Pedersen, bassist Bill Bryson and drummer Steve Duncan, was a big hit on the country charts. The group’s first single — a cover of Johnnie & Jack's "Ashes of Love” — reached the Top 30 in the country charts, and their self-titled first album produced a No. 1 country hit, "One Step Forward," and two Top 10 hits, "Love Reunited" and "He's Back and I'm Blue."
A followup album, Running, included two No. 1 country hits, "I Still Believe in You" and "Summer Wind," and a No. 3 hit, "She Don't Love Nobody." Two more Top 10 hits, “Story of Love" and "Start All Over Again,” were on the Desert Rose Band’s 1980 album Pages of Life. The band today occasionally reunites for a handful of live shows, and Hillman and Pedersen regularly tour as a duo.
“The Desert Rose Band is the best band that I was ever a part of,” Maness says. “John Jorgenson wanted it to be more rock, and I wanted it to be more country. Therefore, we met in the middle somewhere. It is a joy to do reunion gigs with the Desert Rose Band.”
Maness has high praise for all the band members. He says the group is “very lucky” to have Jorgensen, a guitar wizard and multi-instrumentalist who has played on recordings of Bonnie Raitt, Barbara Streisand and many others.
Bryson is “one of the best bass players ever,” Maness says, “a great bluegrass player, and one of the best human beings on the planet.”
Pedersen is one of pop music’s most underrated musicians. He was a member of the Dillards, John Denver’s band, and Old & In the Gray, and a session musician on zillions of albums, including those of Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, and John Prine.
“Herb is a great banjo player, acoustic guitar player, songwriter and bluegrass player,” Maness says.
Maness calls Duncan “one of the best drummers anywhere” — a musician who also plays bass and acoustic guitar and writes good songs.
Hillman, he says, is “a wonderful songwriter with songs deep in thought that sometimes need to be heard a few times for the story to come through.”
Maness says his pedal steel playing is unique because he learned “how to hear harmonies” from other musicians, including Al Bruno, who was Conway Twitty’s lead guitarist. Pedal steel players Maness admires include Lloyd Green, Buddy Emmons, Weldon Myrick, and Tommy White, because they “play what I want to hear.”
Born in Loma Linda, California, in 1945, Maness was in bands led by the legendary Buck Owens and Vince Gill and has played on the recordings of numerous big-name artists. They include Eric Clapton, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Neil Diamond, Charlie Rich, Fats Domino, The Carpenters, Glen Campbell, and Graham Nash.
Maness says he became a pedal steel player as a youth because a neighbor was selling a lap steel. “It was a grey pearloid Magnatone lap steel with a matching amp,” he recalls. “My dad brought the two pieces for $50 and had to pay in payments.”
At age 10, Maness took 12 lessons in a 13-week course. “From that point on,” he says, “I was self-taught, learning by listening to country artists like Ernest Tubb, Johnny Cash, Johnny Horton, Skeets McDonald, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams, and many others."
At age 15, he played in bars in the Fontana-San Bernardino, California, area and won a talent contest the next year in Bloomington, California. In 1965, at age 20, he began his first full-time club job — at the Aces Club, where he worked for three and a half years. He later worked for years at the renowned Palomino Club in North Hollywood until he moved to Nashville to work for Ray Stevens in 1974. The television business beckoned, and he played steel on the pilot for The Dukes of Hazzard and seven years of shows that followed.
With such a long, fruitful, and distinctive career, what songs that he played on make him proudest? “All the Desert Rose Band songs, Eric Clapton’s 'Tears in Heaven,' Ray Stevens’ 'Misty,' and Tony Booth’s 1970s records,” he says.
The most unforgettable concert Maness played in was at the Palladium in England in 1969 as a member of the Buckaroos, Buck Owens’ band. “It was the first time I was in Europe, and being with the great Buck Owens and one of the Buckaroos was memorable.”
Maness says the best concert he attended as a spectator was an Elton John show at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles.
“The overall sound was the best I had ever heard,” Maness recalls. “You could hear every instrument and every vocal — unlike the modern music of today which is very drum and bass heavy and not possible to hear the lyrics.”
Maness says a live performance that most influenced him as a musician was not a concert but a recording session of an artist whose name he cannot recall.
“I went to it with my old, dear friend Lloyd Green,” Maness says about Green, a steel player who also played on Sweetheart of the Rodeo and worked with George Jones and Faron Young. “I remember Lloyd playing so well that I tried to fashion my playing around Lloyd’s playing. We are close friends to this day.”