It’s not terribly often you hear a pedal steel guitar on WRTI, but Jim Cohen — the Philly-based founder of Beats Walkin’, a band renowned for playing “bop-a-billy” and Western swing — seems to have worked his way onto those airwaves. His latest, Pedal Steel Jazz (self-released), at least, has turned up in the rotation of revered veteran DJ Bob Perkins, the station’s self-proclaimed arbiter of Good Music. Cohen’s no stranger to the genre, of course.
“Western swing was my starter drug for jazz, then I moved to Charlie Parker and bebop,” says Cohen. His obsession started with one of his mentors, Buddy Emmons, and his 1963 LP, Steel Guitar Jazz, cut in New York with jazz players like Bobby Scott and Art Davis. But the early listening for a Long Island kid of the ’60s was typical for the era: Beatles through Buffalo Springfield, with a special fondness for the distinctive sound of steel guitar, especially as played by Rusty Young in Poco. By college in St. Louis, Cohen was already a rhythm-guitar player, one who checked the yellow pages to find new strings. The ad for Scotty’s Music changed Cohen’s life forever: “I saw he had a picture of a steel in the ad and decided to check it out in person. So I hitchhiked over there, like you could do in those days.” The space wasn’t impressive, but the connections were. DeWitt “Scotty” Scott was booking legion halls and putting on acts like Maurice Anderson, Curly Chalker and Barbara Mandrell, who started her musical career as a steel guitarist. Scotty built those shows into the International Steel Guitar Convention, a three-day fest dedicated to everything steel still going strong every Labor Day weekend in St. Louis.
There could be no better place to start on steel guitar; everybody showed up at Scotty’s sooner or later. One, a steel player’s steel player, Jeff Newman, gave advice along with lessons. “Jeff told me, ‘Don’t come to Nashville. You need to play the music that is in your heart,’” Cohen recalls. That’s the kind of a creative blank check that led to 2006’s Home, James (all British Invasion covers, “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” “Nights in White Satin,” etc.) and 2008’s Cohen Goin’ Country (“I Always Get Lucky with You,” “Tennessee Waltz,” etc.).
Pedal Steel Jazz continues the genre-hopping. Songs like “Far Wes,” “Lush Life,” “Fly Me to the Moon” and “Black Orpheus” all get a cool, sophisticated treatment that make them perfect for RTI. “Jimbeaux’s Blues” wraps up the album with a steel-convention jam, legends taking turns freestyling over a solid rhythm section. Maurice Anderson, Randy Beavers, Chuck Campbell, Doug Jernigan, Lucky Oceans, Jimmy Bruno and Buck Reid all got the tracks and created their contributions in their home studios.
Cohen kvells about the sidemen who join him on the record. Chico Huff and Steve Beskrone split bass duties. Keyboard player Frank Strauss, Cohen points out, worked with Tom Jones for 10 years. Drummer Grant MacAvoy’s appearance makes sense — he was always tapped to join in when Buddy Emmons played Lancaster County. “Jim is cut from the same cloth,” says MacAvoy. “I consider it an honor to have performed with both. … Jim’s CD is a testament to the continuing tradition.”
Sun., Dec. 2, 4 p.m., $10-$15, 7165 Lounge, 7165 Germantown Ave., 215-629-3939, facebook.com/7165Lounge.