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Country Pickers, Center Stage

Mar 15, 2024

Country Pickers, Center Stage

(Editor’s Note: Sign up here to receive Good Country issues when they launch, direct to your email inbox via Substack.)

Double-, triple-, quadruple-threats are not uncommon in country music, not in the least. It’s a frequent occurrence, tripping over or into a country artist that’s a songwriter, vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, writer, thinker, and so much more. In fact, until more recent decades, wearing many hats was seen as a sort of prerequisite to making hillbilly music. After all, this is “just” country music, it’s got a wide and deep DIY tradition, and the folks who make it often have to also load in the gear, sell the merch, post on social media, and produce the albums, play the demos and scratch tracks, write the lyrics, and otherwise steer the creative ship.

Some of the most successful artists and most original voices in country music are perfect examples of how multifaceted skill sets translate directly to star power. You may not need to be a Telecaster shredder to make it onto the radio or you may not need to be able to pick like Mother Maybelle to make a living, but if you can back up your songs with mighty playing, it certainly translates with audiences.

From Chet Atkins, Dolly Parton, and Wanda Jackson to Charlie Daniels, Willie Nelson, and Bonnie Raitt, here are just a few legendary examples of hugely successful country artists who are or were excellent musicians and instrumentalists, too.

Chet Atkins

A record company executive, producer, and pioneer of the “Nashville Sound,” Chet Atkins was also a one-of-a-kind guitar picker, renowned across the globe for his unique style – which was inspired by Merle Travis. Atkins certainly made “Travis picking” his own, arguably eclipsing all of his predecessors and continuing to influence guitarists today. An inductee of the Country Music, Rock and Roll, and Musicians’ Halls of Fame, Atkins’ impact is hard to understate and his resume includes work with Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley, Hank Snow, Waylon Jennings, and countless others.

DeFord Bailey

One of the first superstars of the Grand Ole Opry, DeFord Bailey was a world-class harmonica player who was also the first Black performer on WSM’s fabled stage. Some sources also credit Bailey as being the first musician to record music in Nashville. However you approach his career and music, Bailey was a seismic presence in the earliest days of country. Born in 1899, Bailey faced constant racism, bigotry, and marginalization on the Opry, in Nashville, and as he traveled and performed. He passed away in 1982 and was posthumously inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005.

Glen Campbell

Even at the highest heights of Glen Campbell’s superstardom, he refused to let his superlative instrumental skill take a backseat to his roles as frontman, songwriter, Hollywood actor, TV star, and tabloid veteran. Campbell’s approach to country music as a true multi-hyphenate celebrity bridged generations, connecting the hardscrabble, DIY generations where multiple skills were necessary to make a living to the modern era, where he helped pave a way for famously multi-talented picker/singer/writers like Vince Gill and Brad Paisley to not be pigeonholed as one thing or the other.

Ray Charles

Any conversation around or collection of superlative country pickers and musicians would be glaringly incomplete without the inclusion of Ray Charles. His incursions and experimentations in country music are many and infamous. His 1962 album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music is routinely listed as one of the best country albums of all time. He’s worked with and performed with Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Ricky Skaggs, Travis Tritt, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, and many, many more. Plus, his country forays demonstrate a deep, holistic understanding of the genre. Charles is a quintessential country multi-hyphenate and country-soul in the modern era would feel especially lacking without his seminal contributions to that tradition.

Charlie Daniels

It’s hard not to wonder what young, hippie, “long-haired,” Vietnam War-opposing fiddler Charlie Daniels would have thought of his older self, and his more harebrained and often hateful beliefs later in life. But the controversial and outspoken musician, at all points of his career, was a picker’s picker. Over the course of his life he performed and recorded with Earl Scruggs, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and many more. But his chief contribution to American roots music may just be his fiery, unhinged fiddling on “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Just wander down Lower Broadway in Nashville on any given Saturday night to feel the impact of that particular show-stopper. In this clip, he chats and performs “Uncle Pen” with Scruggs and Del McCoury.

Vince Gill

That buttery voice, that stank-face inducing chicken pickin’, that high, lonesome sound – Vince Gill is all at once country and bluegrass, Nashville and Oklahoma, western swing and old-time fiddle. Whether with The Eagles, preeminent pedal steel guitarist Paul Franklin, the Time Jumpers, or so many other outfits, bands, and iterations, Gill is simply right at home. Because, at his core, he’s just a picker. He may play arenas, but he knows he belongs at 3rd & Lindsley or the Station Inn. Or Bluegrass Nights at the Ryman. A quintessential picker-singer-frontman, Gill continues to define the myriad ways country stars can maintain their selfhood and personality – instrumentally and otherwise – even in their wild successes.

Merle Haggard

Speaking of chicken pickin’, country’s most famous Okie was a shredder, too. A sad song, a glass of (misery and) gin, a Telecaster, and the Hag – that’s all we need, right there. Merle’s playing style, even at its most technical and impressive, was simple and down to earth. You could tell he cut his teeth playing bars, fairs, and honky tonks. You could almost hear him pulling himself up by his bootstraps as he played.

Wanda Jackson

The Queen of Rockabilly has been slaying rock and roll, hillbilly music, and the guitar for more than seventy years. In 2021 she released her final album, Encore, when she was 84 years old. It features her signature passion and fire – and performances by Elle King, Joan Jett, Angaleena Presley, and more. Jackson has been representing the vital contributions of women to rockabilly and rock and roll for her entire career, just as often commanding the stage with her growly, entrancing voice and her powerful right hand.

Willie Nelson

Who would Willie Nelson be without Trigger? Without a tasty, less-is-more, nylon-string guitar solo? For decades, Nashville, Music Row, and guitar players around the world have been emulating his particular sound as a guitarist – whether they know it or not. Sure, he’s a hit songwriter, a star and front-person, a collaborator of Snoop Dogg and Frank Sinatra, and a connoisseur of fine bud, but perhaps more than all of these accomplishments, Willie is an impeccable picker. He can hold his own with the best of the best, because he is the best of the best.

Brad Paisley

Brad Paisley’s fame crested at perhaps the perfect time for him in country music, combining a rip-roarin’ guitar playing style with a sound that was entirely trad while carrying touches of the bro country wave that was about to inundate the genre. As such, he was able to build a career on the diversity of his skill set, before Music Row and the power behind it began prioritizing music that didn’t need to be musical and voices that didn’t need to be singular. Luckily, Paisley is both those things and more, and despite the many eyebrow raising moments across his career, our faces more often show shock at his mind-bending skill as a guitarist than anything else.

Dolly Parton

How is it that Dolly Parton can play so many instruments so impeccably with those iconic acrylic nails!? Nowadays, you are just as likely to hear Dolly performing to a track – yes, she does lip sync and pantomime playing along with recordings – but don’t get it twisted, she absolutely can play a passel of instruments from her beloved “mountain music” traditions. She plays guitar, banjo, auto-harp, dulcimer, and has even been known to pick up a bedazzled saxophone from time to time – though we can’t guarantee she actually knows how to play that one, we’re still blown away.

And what about thatone viral video with Patti LaBellewhere they play their acrylics like washboards? Dolly can make music with just about any instrument.

Bonnie Raitt

How many people do you think enjoy Bonnie Raitt’s soulful blues and Southern rock sounds without knowing she’s also often the one playing the guitar solos and making that bottleneck slide weep? Raitt is a Grammy winning songwriter, a fantastic vocalist and song interpreter/collector, and – above all, in this writer’s opinion – a superb guitar picker, especially playing slide. She can hold her own with just about anyone, and she has. Her phrasing and use of melodic space demonstrates that she’s been honing her craft for her entire life. That taste can’t be taught, it has to be found. Boy, has she found it.

Marty Stuart

Marty Stuart’s long, fabulous, superlative career began with him filling the role of sideman for such luminaries as Lester Flatt, Johnny Cash, Vassar Clements, and Doc Watson. He plays guitar and mandolin, working up his chops as a youngster with pickers like Roland White as his mentors. When his solo career took off after his Columbia debut in the mid-eighties, his ear for fine picking remained present throughout his music – however far afield from those early bluegrass and country days he may have traveled, stylistically. Whether bringing in psychedelic surf sounds or Indigenous flavors of the American West, Stuart’s catalog of music centers virtuosity that’s never gratuitous. And his band, the Fabulous Superlatives, featuring crack guitarist Kenny Vaughan and multi-instrumentalist Chris Scruggs, represent a high level of picking prowess, too.

Tedeschi Trucks Band

By many measures, Derek Trucks is the world’s foremost living slide guitarist, but don’t overlook powerhouse vocalist and co-band leader, Susan Tedeschi in order to venerate Trucks! Both started playing as youngsters – Trucks when he was a kid and Tedeschi when she attended Berklee College of Music. These two are guitar and blues royalty, helming one of the most impactful modern blues and Southern rock orchestras on the planet. They’re consummate musicians, knowing just how to surround themselves by players who support and challenge, both. Even with their laundry list of personal accomplishments, together, Tedeschi & Trucks – who are also married – are so much greater than the sum of their parts.

Keith Urban

Keith Urban brings a scruffy, down to earth guitar playing style to his polished and glam mainstream country sound. Yes, even as far away as Australia, having instrumental chops means having country currency. When he moved to Nashville in the early ‘90s, with a few Australian radio hits and awards under his belt, he immediately found work as a side musician and co-writer in Music City. It wasn’t long until his star ascended stateside, too – and then, as quickly, around the world – bolstered by arena-ready guitar. Now readying his first album since 2020, Urban shows no signs of slowing down, with the music or the picking!

Photo of Glen Campbell courtesy of the artist.

Editor’s Note: Sign up here to receive Good Country issues when they launch, direct to your email inbox via Substack.

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Country Pickers, Center Stage
Country Pickers, Center Stage