This article was originally published by Stereokill on September 15, 2009
Most of you reading this will be well aware that earlier this year alt-country songsmith Ryan Adams walked away from his backing band The Cardinals to enter a period of musical hibernation. The press subsequently focused upon Adams’ poetry books, internet excursions and art shows, while paying little attention to his former bandmates and their current musical endeavours. A few months ago, I set out to resolve this Cardinal drought by contacting the band members individually to find out what they’re up to and to discuss their time spent within the Cardinals.
Alongside the Cardinals, Graboff has performed and recorded with a vast array of musicians, including Ray Davies, David Byrne, Willie Nelson and Laura Cantrell. His innovative pedal steel playing was an essential component of the Cardinals’ sound, and his talents are currently sought after by a large number of recording artists.
When did you first start playing pedal steel guitar?
I started playing the pedal steel about twelve years ago. I’d always been in love with the instrument and I can actually remember the first time I heard one, although, I didn’t know what it was at the time. I even have a rather large pedal steel record collection, which I began amassing years ago.
I had taken a stab at it before, but I realized that it was gonna take a whole lot more dedication than I was willing to commit to at that time. It’s a hard thing to play. You can learn a few chords on a lot of instruments and get passable pretty quickly – not so in this case. You kinda’ suck until you work up to 'bad', and it takes quite a while until you can even play in tune – and a lot of steel players never even get there! It can be rough going, and I tell people who express interest in learning it, 'Don’t plan on doing much else if you’re serious about it!'
When you first began playing the instrument, who where your main influences?
This is an easy one to answer: Lloyd Green. Lloyd was pretty much the 'main man' Nashville session steel player for twenty-five-plus years. He’s played on one hundred-and-seventeen number one records, and has recorded with everyone from Tammy Wynette to Paul McCartney. He’s still recording and expanding the vocabulary of the instrument and I’m glad to call him a friend. We have lunch together when I get to Nashville.
There was a golden era of pedal steel guitar playing, in my opinion. Basically, 1964 to the early seventies. You have to remember that it’s not a very old instrument, and it really came into it’s own in the modern sense in the early 60s. All the great players of that era had come up in the age of non-pedal steel guitars and had developed their own styles and voices. I can hear a steel player from that time and I can usually tell you who it is by their style and sound – sadly, that’s not so much the case today. Lloyd Green, Buddy Emmons, Jay Dee Maness, Hal Rugg, Ralph Mooney, Sneaky Pete Kleinow, John Hughey, Weldon Myrick, Jimmy Day, Pete Drake, Tom Brumley, just to name a few who I can recognise in a heartbeat.
Good thing you didn’t ask about other instruments or songwriters. This could have gone on for a while!
Are there any present-day musicians you admire and draw inspiration from?
I’m inspired by other musicians all the time. It seems that every time I do something, almost always, someone will play something that makes me think, ‘I would never have thought of that!’ It tends to not be something chops related. Chops are just a tool that you use to execute an idea and shouldn’t be used in place of one. It’s more about an inventive approach and not playing the same old thing.
What have you been up to since Ryan Adams left the Cardinals earlier this year?
I’ve been doing a lot of sessions and a few gigs since the last Ryan Adams & the Cardinals show. [Cardinals members] Brad, Chris, Neal and I cut a record in LA in May with a very talented Australian artist named Gin Wigmore. I played just about every kind of guitar on a record for another Australian artist Sandrine. She’s married to the producer Malcolm Burn and he’s used me on sessions for other artists since then. I’ve done all sorts of things: backing tracks for a musical that a friend of mine was working on out on Cape Cod, and sessions for Carrie Underwood and Norah Jones. The Norah session was produced and engineered by [frequent Cardinals producer] Tom Schick, and it was cool to work with him again after all those Cardinals projects together.
What can you tell our readers about the forthcoming Gin Wigmore album?
Well, it’s a pop-rock record. It’s really different in style and sound than Ryan Adams & the Cardinals projects. We were asked to be the studio band for her record and to back her in her style. Not do our thing, per se. Does that make sense?
How did you guys first get involved with Wigmore?
I was having dinner with a friend of mine from New York who happens to run Universal/Island Records in Australia and he asked me if the Cards did outside projects. The timing was interesting, as Ryan had announced his desire to take time away from music right before that Australian tour leg. We had done the Willie Nelson record [2006's Songbird] and part of a Minnie Driver project, so we figured, why not? Unless you’re in a band, it’s hard to describe the bonds you establish, and to have another opportunity to make music together seemed so right. We did request that the record or any live dates NOT be billed as “Gin Wigmore and the Cardinals”. There was never an idea of replacing the singer. Ryan Adams & the Cardinals was a very special thing to all of us and we’d never want to diminish it by trying to just plug-in someone else.
Will the band be joining Wigmore in a touring capacity?
We’re doing some gigs with her in New Zealand and Australia in late November into early December. We’re not sure if we’ll do more after that yet. One thing at a time.
Do you foresee yourself, Neal, Brad and Chris recording with other artists in the future
Geez I hope so! I’d jump on any opportunity to play and hang with those guys! I love those guys and it’s definitely the best band I’ve ever been in.
You’ve performed and recorded with quite an array of artists over the years. What are some of your more memorable experiences from working with others?
Wow! Where do I begin? As I mentioned, if you have your head on straight, you learn something every time out. Sometimes it’s “man, I’ll never do that again!” Most of the time it’s good stuff though. Memorable? Like playing The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” with Ray Davies; playing Talking Heads songs with David Byrne; sitting in a recording studio, four feet from Willie Nelson, and hear him singing into my right ear? Playing a little shit hole club in NYC and have Lucinda Williams sit in one night and Alex Chilton on another? And for the UK folks out there, doing legendary BBC DJ John Peel’s show from his house outside of Ipswich and have him tell me, on air, that the steel guitar is his favorite instrument and that this was the first time he had one in his house and live on his show, and then asking me if I knew a song by Santo and Johnny, and could I play it? Live…on air! He looked crest fallen that I didn’t know it. I’ve been really lucky and had tons of cool experiences.
Out of the Ryan Adams & the Cardinals records you’ve perfomed on – do you have a personal favourite?
Yeah I do: Jacksonville City Nights. There are a few reasons. It was my entrée into a hugely important four and a half years of my life from a musical perspective. I remember walking into the studio control room when I got to the first session, and seeing the guys aligning an eight-track headblock on the two-inch tape machine – that got my attention. Then I walked into the live room and saw that the studio was being setup in a way that indicated that everyone would be playing and recording at the same time, in a circle. No starting with a drum track and building up the tracks one by one as a lot of records are made these days! Then we started on the first tune. If I remember correctly, it was the song, “The End”, and, with the things I’ve already mentioned, I said to myself that this is the record I’ve been waiting to make all my life.
How did you come to join Cardinals?
It’s funny that I’m reading these questions right now because [pianist] Joe McGinty who called me to do the Jacksonville City Nights sessions just called a little while ago about doing a gig with [actor] Vincent D’Onofrio at the end of October! Weird huh? Anyway, Joe called me about doing some sessions for Ryan on what ended up being Jacksonville City Nights. Joe was called in to augment the Cardinals on piano, and all the Cards were available for the sessions except [founding pedal steel player] Cindy Cashdollar who had other obligations and couldn’t make it up from Austin. They were looking for a steel player and Joe suggested me.
About three weeks after the record was finished, Cindy left the band. We had all gotten along well during the sessions and everyone really liked what I had done so it was a right place, right time thing.
Prior to joining the band, did you have a favourite Ryan Adams release?
I have to confess that I knew who Ryan was but wasn’t that deep into his stuff to have a favorite song. For years, I never had a lot of time to just listen to music for enjoyment. That sounds weird but I was playing with so many people that it seemed like all I was ever doing was listening to music that I had to learn for a gig or whatever. I traded all that for having to learn hundreds of Ryan’s tunes!
When you first joined, the Cardinals was still a relatively new concept. Did the band still feel like it was in its formative stages back then?
Yeah, it did feel like it was still in transition to something. This is just my take on it, but the Cold Roses version with Cindy, [bass guitarist] Catherine [Popper] and [guitarist] J.P [Bowersock] was perfect for that moment, but I have a feeling that it wouldn’t have worked all that well on the stuff that emerged later on. I guess we’ll never know.
Would you say the final Cardinals line-up was the ‘definitive’ one?
Definitive? You bet your ass it was. The last Cardinals line-up could do anything and everything and I think the band’s potential was only partially tapped. Alas.
Did the collaboration process within the Cardinals change throughout your time in the band?
No, not really. There never was a lot of deliberation on songs or sounds; we just played. The good ideas just bubbled up to the surface and that was pretty much the way it was from day one to day done.
Do you have any fond memories from being in the studio with Ryan and the Cardinals?
Most of the Cardinals sessions were memorable for one reason or another, and I think of them all fondly. But there was one session in particular that always brings a smile to my face. The Hillbilly Joel stuff! I got to Electric Lady Studios one day while we were working on Easy Tiger. For some reason [producer] Jamie Candiloro, Ryan and I were the only ones there, and Ryan said, “Hey, let’s record a bunch of twenty-second country songs!” It sounded like fun, so we grabbed a yellow pad and came up with a bunch of song titles, walked into the studio and made them up on the spot. No run-throughs, no talk about arrangements; the record button was pushed and off we went. We cracked up and had to start over a couple of times, but all in all, it was straight through.
Are there any unreleased Cardinals albums that you would like to see released. Are there any unreleased songs that you are particularly fond of?
There was so much stuff recorded during the sessions that resulted in Easy Tiger. Something like ninety-five songs, if I remember right, and lots of really great stuff! I don’t know what plans, if any, are being considered for their release. I guess we’ll all have to wait and see.
What were your favourite songs to perform live?
I always loved to play “The End”. And it’s not only because it’s such a great song and the first song I ever played with Ryan and the Cards. I may be going out on a limb here, but I believe that Jacksonville City Nights is the most real Ryan; the most direct insight into who he is as a person and as a songwriter.
Do you have a favourite venue to perform live in?
There are so many venues we played that I really love and I can’t even start to list them! I absolutely love those old theatres that we played a lot. You know, those old Vaudeville places with balconies and all sorts of gingerbread and filigree. The Fox, The Murat, Orpheum, The Uptown, The Olympia in Dublin, and on and on. I can’t even remember all of them by name but we’d hit them time and again and I’d walk in to many and say, 'I love this place!'
When the Cardinals toured with Oasis last year, did you notice any tensions within their camp back then? [Noel Gallagher departed from the band shortly after, leading to their break-up in 2009]
I have to say I was a bit surprised by Noel’s announcement. We spent a lot of time hanging out with those guys and although Noel and Liam didn’t seem to spend a lot of time hanging out with each other, there was no outward sign of tension, let alone outright hostility. It’s too bad cause they really do have that magic thing; bigger than their individual components.
Do you forsee a time when the Cardinals could get back together with Ryan? If not, can you see yourself working with Adams in the future?
It beats me. As Ryan himself has proven so many times, never say never!
What can you tell our readers about your 2002 Christmas album, For Christ’s Sake!
That record was a crazy idea by two guys who started a small label. Their big plan was to produce Christmas records on a small budget, and even if they just sold a small number of copies, over a ten-year period, they’d end up making money. Well, it didn’t work out too well. It seems that people put out Christmas records each year because they have a one-year shelf life, and we discovered another weird phenomenon: people really like my record but it never seems to occur to them to give a copy to someone else as a gift. Go figure. It’s a good record, by the way!
Will there be anymore Graboff solo albums in the future?
I’ve been mulling that over. But if there is another one, anyone who plays on it gets paid more than chump change! I called in so many favors from friends that first time!
What are your plans for the rest of the year?
Well next week, I’ll be working with Neal on his next solo record. After that, I’ll be around New York City doing my thing until we head down to Australia and New Zealand for the Gin Wigmore gigs, which will pretty much bring me up to the end of the year.
What are you listening to these days? Are there any artists out there that you recommend?
I’m really into the stuff I just recorded with Sandrine. I got to play lots of guitar on it which I haven’t done much of over the last few years. There are five songs on her MySpace page; three of which I played on: “Possessed”, “Hidden Things” and “I’m Not Afraid”.
What are your favourite albums of all time?
I get asked that a lot so I did this thing on my Facebook page called “Records I Love”. I include a somewhat concise reason why I love a particular record. You should check it out sometime!
Do you buy physical copies of albums, or do you download them?
Buy copies! I never download records. For starters, I hate the sound of MP3s and I also like to hold the package, look at the pictures and read the credits. Strictly old school.
What’s your personal take on the current state of the music industry?
I have no idea how to respond to this question! I just like the idea that a musician can make a living doing what they do like any other person who performs a service – if you want to call it a “service”. We don’t like paying the guy to install our cable modem, but we do it. But then we don’t think twice about downloading someone’s music for free. We have to pay our rent too!
Who would you put in your supergroup?
Brad Pemberton, Neal Casal and Chris Feinstein.
Finally, what do you consider to be the high-points in your career thus far?
Writing a check for my rent without having to balance my check-book first! Seriously – well that was kinda’ serious – I like to think that the high point is the next time the phone rings. I’ve had so many great things happen, but I have to be honest, I’ve worked really hard at what I do. Luck only comes into it by getting opportunities – or a break – or whatever you want to call it. But you have to have your shit together so when the moment comes, you’re ready to throw down. Peace, over and out!
Andrew Lindsay, September 2009