Pedal Steel Is Weeping Its Way Out of Country and into the Mainstream

For most, the hard-to-describe but easy-to-spot timbre of the pedal steel evokes melancholic honky tonks and lonesome saloons. When many people think of the instrument (if they think about it at all), their minds go to country music. And country music has indeed put pedal steel to excellent use for the better part of a century, but it also inadvertently monopolized steel guitar in the process — until recently, that is.

From indie icons like Mitski to up-and-coming noisemakers like Wednesday, the gentle weep of steel guitar is slowly but surely infiltrating the indie rock scene. For seasoned session players like Spencer Cullum — who’s contributed pedal steel to songs by Angel Olsen, Billy Strings, Kesha, and more — it’s an exciting trend, and not just because it means more work (“Of course, I’m a steel player, so I would say this,” he laughs). At the same time, he admits it’s a cycle that pop music has seen before.

“It goes in circles, the steel guitar. One moment it’s a hot topic and the next, it’s like no one gives a shit,” Cullen tells Consequence. He goes on to reference Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” and ambient touchstones like Brian Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks as examples. “[But] there’s a community of steel players that are like,” — he drops into an American accent — “‘Keep it country! Don’t change our instrument! What the heck are you doin’?’”

A not-insignificant number of pedal steel players are staunch traditionalists against the instrument’s wider use. It’s a sect that Cullen, himself a Nashville transplant from England, has encountered for years. He’s not alone. “When somebody takes the stage [at a pedal steel convention] and plays something other than country, people get up and walk out,” founder of the now-defunct Steel Guitarist magazine Tom Bradshaw told NPR in a 2020 interview.

Leading the charge in the opposite direction, there are musicians like Xandy Chelmis, who fuses classic Neil Youngian pedal steel with the distorted, noisy beauty of ’90s indie rock for acts like Wednesday and MJ Lenderman. Self-taught and with an omnivorous taste in music, Chelmis and those alongside him are helping pedal steel break back into new scenes by appreciating its link to country music but not allowing that history to dictate their playing, as seen in even harder rockin’ acts like Black Midi or Touché Amoré.

Chelmis became interested in the steel guitar because “I was trying to figure out what the instrument was in the background music for Spongebob,” he tells Consequence. “But it was only after years of playing lap steel that I felt ready to try to learn pedal steel, because it was so intimidating… When you sit down on the pedal steel and try to play it, it’s like a wall; it is so anti-intuitive to figure out.”