No Depression Interview with Gary Stoller - January 2018

Why did you choose Hawaiian steel guitar as your instrument to learn at age 9?

In the early '50s, "Hawaii Calls" came to the states via the trans pacific cable each Sunday evening. It would come on for an hour around 6pm CST in West Texas. It was Hawaiian music and very much a change from regular programming. Eventually, an enterprising company in Lubbock called the Dunnigan School of Music began sending door to door salesmen across the mid and southwest towns.

One Saturday morning, a fellow knocked on our door to see if anyone might be interested in Hawaiian steel guitar lessons. My dad loved the steel in country music and played an acoustic and sang around the house. I didn't know a thing about it, so I was hesitant at first, but we accepted the opportunity.

The school sent a young man, not even 21 yet, who moved into Odessa, TX with his new wife in order to teach Hawaiian steel guitar classes. His name was Al Petty from Tyler, TX. He was already a genius at the instrument and taught guitar as well. Soon after, he also began playing concerts, TV and radio with regional country star Bill Myrick

How did you get involved in Shiloh, and who were the members of the band when you were in it?

Mickey Jones (1st Edition) saw me playing at the Ricksha Club in Dallas, TX in 1969. He told Kenny Rogers who was producing an east TX group called Felicity for Jimmy Bowen's Amos Records. They in turn came to see me and asked if I would join them. They wanted someone who could play steel guitar for this new "country rock" style of music and was heading to California!

In the band were two cousins, Richard and Mike Bowden along with Don Henley and another new member, Jim Ed Norman.

Can you recall some interesting anecdotes involving Don Henley and Kenny Rogers while in Shiloh?

Don began friendships with another act also on Amos Records, "Longbranch Pennywhistle", a duo with Glenn Frey and J.D. Souther. This led to mixing with other new writers and artists at The Troubadour club.

Kenny started using me on 1st Edition records and invited me to be part of the staff band in Toronto as they filmed the "Rolling On The River" TV series, which was a great help to my start in California.

What years were you in Shiloh, and what was your next group?

1970 with Shiloh ... 1971 with The Flying Burrito Bros ... end of '71 - '73 with Stephen Stills' Manassas

How many gigs did you play with the Burrito Brothers, and what do you remember most about those shows?

Can't be sure of the number of gigs, but we worked steadily. We based out of L.A. and worked NE colleges mostly. We would fly out on weekends and home during the week. Their schedule allowed me to continue playing sessions. I had a great time playing for people who came to see the group instead of just being background music.

In the summer there were music festivals and I enjoyed meeting other touring groups. We also played several shows with the new Byrds lineup.

I believe you were playing lead electric guitar and pedal steel at those Burrito shows. Did you play on every song, and, on what songs, were you most featured?

That's correct. For a while, before Bernie Leadon began rehearsals with The Eagles I would play mostly steel. They had a delightful middle segment where they would play a few Bluegrass songs. Bernie would switch to banjo, Chris to mandolin, me to bass and Rick on acoustic guitar.

After Bernie's departure, I began playing electric guitar alternately with the steel. I enjoyed all the tunes. "Six Days On The Road" & "Colorado" were fun with the steel. I think because of my style of electric guitar, we began doing "edgier" versions of R&B songs like "Don't Fight It" and "Ain't That A Lot of Love" ... and that was fun too!

On "The Last of the Red Hot Burritos" tour, Eddie Kramer recorded our show at three Ivy League college performances. In order to present a "top" Bluegrass segment, Byron Berline, Roger Bush and Kenny Wertz were added.

What were your views about the vocal work done by Chris Hillman and Rick Roberts in that band?

I'm not quite sure about the question, however both have great voices. Rick is a wonderful balladeer and Chris is a very strong singer ... both have always had super instincts regarding song styles, and content!

What is the legacy of Chris Hillman in American music, and what are your opinions about his musicianship?

Chris has accomplished a leadership role in the creation of a completely new and unique role of country rock. Beginning with "The Sweetheart of The Rodeo" contribution and all the way through to The Desert Rose Band. Chris is right at home with rhythm guitar, mandolin or with his distinctive style of bass guitar!

When you left the Burritos, Rick Roberts took over the band for a short time before later joining Stills' band and forming Firefall. What are your opinions about his musical work?

Post Burritos, we all thought that both of Rick's solo albums were excellent! One can never guess why good records just don't catch on, so many variables ... but Firefall did very well.

I consider the first Manassas album one of the 5 best albums in rock music history. Am I crazy, and what are your thoughts about the album?

Thank you, we hear that from many fans! Looking back, it was such a melting pot of good players and musical styles, and sounded like no other one band. I'm very happy with the recordings and enjoyed the friendships and experience greatly.

Do you play on all the Manassas songs on that album, and, on what songs, were you most featured?

The album concept and recording was underway when Chris & I joined. I believe "Anyway", "How Far", "Move Around" were pretty much complete. Jerry Garcia had already played steel on "So Begins The Task".

Stephen played slide guitar on "The Love Gangster" and "What To Do". I played one of the electric guitars and the steel slide on "Right Now".

However, where there were two or more of Stephen's guitar tracks on a song, I would sometimes play one of them "live". (Same way with "Bound to Fall") Of course, "Blues Man" was always played on solo acoustic guitar ... as only Stephen can!

Would you please detail your contributions on the double album?

I will do my best. I don't remember whether I played other guitars on the double LP, or which ones I'm singing backgrounds on. I did play acoustic on a bluegrass song or two but was not released until the "Pieces'" LP

I played pedal steel on "Song of Love", "Jet Set (Sigh)", "Both of Us (Bound to Lose)", "Fallen Eagle", "Jesus Gave Love Away for Free", "Colorado", "Hide It So Deep", "Don't Look At My Shadow", "It Doesn't Matter", "Right Now" and "The Treasure (Take One)" I also played electric guitar on "Right Now".

Chris Hillman has said that Manassas was Stills' band, but what was the relationship between Hillman and Stills in that band?

The concept was all Stephen's, but we looked at the band as having three principal partners ... Stephen, Chris and Dallas. The three of them were listed as co-producers. Stephen jokingly referred to the band as a quasi-democracy, however Atlantic Records had to look upon it as Stephen and his band because we never signed contracts with them.

I once lived in Gold Hill, Colorado, and I know Stills lived there for a short time. But, otherwise, how does Manassas fit geography-wise into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame?

Stephen, Chris, Joe Lala and maybe Paul Harris lived there for a time. Also, we and Joe Walsh were two of the first bands to record at Jim Guercio's Caribou Ranch Studio. The second Manassas album cover "Down The Road" was also shot at Stephen's Colorado home.

Why did Manassas break up, and what is your view of the second album?

I think drugs may have played a part in it. However regarding the "Down The Road" album ... as the band tried to grow together, ideas were coming from the rest of the band and we were recording new things. (Some appear on the recent Manassas release called "Pieces")

I seem to recall two sets of submissions to Atlantic for the second album ... both were denied with the reply saying, "not enough Stills songs"! They were right, it seems that since they didn't have a contract with us individually or corporately. CSNY had the better appeal.

You mentioned that drugs may have played a part in the Manassas breakup? Can you explain what you mean by that?

Just to say that drugs and alcohol always have some effect upon us whether it be moods and demeanor or perception and impairment. Obviously, that alone doesn't always break up bands, but it can bring tensions into them. In our case, the second Manassas album did not do as well as it could have.

At the same time, there was a rare opportunity for Chris to join in partnership with two other great singer-songwriters. He then presented it to me. Chris had given me a chance to fill Sneaky Pete's position in the FBB's, which in turn led to Manassas, so I decided to follow him into the SHF Band.

Tell me about your playing on "Torn & Frayed" on "Exile On Main Street". How did you team up with the Stones, and how was your part recorded. Was it with the full Stones band playing along?

Gram Parsons was most likely the one to point me out to the Stones. Two weeks before I got the call, I had sold my older, much simpler Fender 1000 that I played with Shiloh and The Burritos, and bought Tom Brumley's 11 string ZB Custom pedal steel. The ZB was much more complicated and was a world of difference. I was still a little unsure about playing on a recording with it.

The track was already recorded when I arrived one night in the winter of '71 at Sunset Sound Studio in L.A. The production/engineering team were present in the control room, in suits. Mick and I in jeans, Keith and Anita were brightly clad, to say the least!

I noticed a mic setup for vocals in the studio, however I had planned to record direct in the control room and set up at the opposite end on the console. Someone said that would be fine but also said Mick was going sing the vocal. I thought, well ... they're already set up for him in the studio and I have time to wait for him. Ahh, but that was not the plan.

I was not ready for Mick to sing with a stage mic while dancing around me and the steel guitar! However, the idea made sense later when I realized the endeavor was to create a "live" stage feel!

Keith said as we began "You can stretch out! Play anything you want!" Sitting at this new pedal steel guitar, I thought to myself..."I AM stretching out!" (lol)

Rock critics have said Souther, Hillman and Furay never really clicked. Do you agree (why or why not), and how do you view the group's two albums?

We had some great songs between the three writers and two renowned producers, Tom Dowd and Richie Podolor. We also had Jim Gordon, one of the best drummers, on the first album. Unfortunately it was one of those things that looked great on paper but just wasn't the time to happen.

Besides the musicians previously mentioned, which artists you have worked with live have meant the most to you and your career?

I appreciate all the artists who have chosen me to perform with them. From early on, Shiloh, Kenny Rogers & The 1st Edition, Chris Hillman, Stephen Stills to Michael Nesmith, Debby Boone, Dolly Parton, Michael Martin Murphy and Emmylou Harris. With the Lord's help, all have been helpful in bringing in session work.

What was the extent of your work with Dylan, and were there any interesting anecdotes?

I must say my favorite Dylan LP is "Slow Train Coming". I met him and Roger McGuinn at a friend's home in L.A. while he was attending Bible classes, after accepting Christ as his Saviour. At the time, he mentioned that he had some ideas for a new album ... I do believe that must have been "Slow Train". The only recording I've been on with Dylan is "Knocked Out Loaded".

On which albums that you have played on are you most proud of your contributions?

That's really hard to narrow down. The Eagles version of "Ol' '55" on "On The Border" comes to mind. Bill Szymczyk chose to keep both of my steel tracks for the final mix.

Probably the most unusual session began with a call late one night from Joe Walsh. He asked where my banjo was. I said "down at S.I.R.'s locker" ... he replied "I need you to get it and come play on a song at the Record Plant!" Puzzled, I said "okay".

When I arrived I couldn't find any studio that sounded like I would fit in with a banjo. Finally, I went into a control room where "The Blackberries" vocal group were, and asked if Joe was there. To my surprise, they shouted "Are You the banjo player?". To make a long story short, If you listen to Billy Preston's song "Nothing' From Nothing", you'll hear a banjo.

Did you work at all with Gene Clark, or have any memories of Gene?

Yes, I worked on "Two Sides To Every Story", "The Lost Studio Sessions" and "Flyte". The last one was a set of studio recordings with Chris Hillman, Herb Pedersen , Michael Clarke and me, circa 1982. I think Sierra Records may have it. We played one show at the famous Palomino Club. Gene was a quiet gentleman, and a very good artist, I enjoyed my time with him.

Tell me about your solo albums. How many are there, and how do they differ?

"Snapshots" - A collection of various rare music and artists from my early years, with a booklet.
"Triple Play" - First solo album on various styles and instruments with two live cuts.
"Big Dog 3" - Most recent album with a harder edge and special guests.

What do you think of Rusty Young's pedal steel playing, and who are your favorite steel players? Why?

I do love Rusty's playing, very original and creative.

In the early 60's, I began playing electric guitar but had no steel guitar until 1969 when a group I was playing with in Dallas, called Foxx, bought an Army green Fender 400 for me to play on a couple of songs per set … That was when Mickey Jones saw me and told Kenny Rogers.

I heard Rick Nelson with Tom Brumley on the "Live at the Troubadour" LP while driving home one night. I told myself, "If I'm gonna play steel again, that's how I want to play it!" Tom listened to the great Jerry Byrd for tone and touch. It was a pleasure to become friends with Tom and his family.

My early teacher, Al Petty, laid all the groundwork. Other influences were Buddy Emmons playing on Judy Collins' "Someday Soon" and John Sebastian's "Rainbows All Over Your Blues" (a song about Dallas Taylor incidentally). Also Lloyd Green & Jay Dee Maness on The Byrds' "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" LP and Jimmy Day's classic "Steel 'n Strings" album.

Who are your musical heroes and why?

Besides the steel guitar players I mentioned, I appreciate all these who brought excellence and creativeness to the fore with their talents ...

Singers: Buck, Waylon, Webb Pierce and George Jones - styles that made way for country rock/blues.
Rock Guitar: Eric Clapton - soul and taste, Jimi - immense innovation.
R&B Guitar: Cornell Dupree / Steve Cropper - soul and taste.
Country Guitar: James Burton / Don Rich - styles and taste. Clarence White and Bob Warford - styles and taste, but also the B-Bender innovation.
Acoustic Guitar: Tommy Emmanuel / Doyle Dykes - technical ability. Clarence White - style and timing.
Fiddle: Tommy Jackson / Johnny Gimble - consummate country styles.
Banjo: Earl Scruggs of course, but Doug Dillard / Bernie Leadon also for their attack and drive.
Bass: James Jamerson / Paul McCartney / Roy Huskey Jr. - lyrical, soul and technique.
Drums: Jim Gordon / Steve Gadd - melodic grooves, John Bonham - raw, exquisite power.

Please explain the music you have made with Emmylou, and what are your thoughts about her legacy.

Her Nash Ramblers band was a delightful acoustic excursion through her musical repertoire. She has faithfully kept our music with style and grace. A long time friend.

What was the best concert you ever attended as a spectator, where and when was it, and why was it the best?

In '71 we saw one of the last Fillmore West shows featuring a three groups. Tower of Power, Santana and Creedence Clearwater Revival. CCR took the stage as a 3 piece.

John Fogerty had a fitted blue suit and hair combed back like James Dean and they simply drove a fantastic groove from the stage like I'd never experienced before.

Which concert that you attended as a spectator influenced you most musically?

That Last Fillmore West show in '71 … it taught me that soulful simplicity is preferable over frantic frenzy!

If you had to choose your 3 favorite albums, which would they be, and why?

I mentioned Bob Dylan's "Slow Train Coming" earlier, but it has to be one of my favorites simply because it has "air" in the tracks and presents the Gospel of Christ in such a brilliant way!

Next, The Beatles "Revolver" or "Sgt Pepper" and The Byrds "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" because they represent such milestones in our musical culture. It's very hard to choose because I also enjoy Motown and Buck Owens' music as well!

Where did you grow up, where are you living now, and how, if any, did those places influence your musicianship?

I was born on a farm near DeKalb, Texas . By three years old we moved to Odessa, TX where I completed my education and in '66 enlisted the Army National Guard. I moved to Los Angeles, CA twice, once in '68 and again in '70. Moved to Nashville area in 1989 where I still reside. I believe the moves were God directed.

Sometimes He gives us opportunities and ways to benefit in each situation. I could sense doors closing and believing others could open. Hindsight let's us see how it worked. I'm very thankful!

Originally published in No Depression Magazine May 2018