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During that period of your career when you were charting blockbuster singles, you were recognized for the singing more than the playing.
So many of the guest spots that have come your way in the past decade have been guitar-centric, invitations to every single edition of Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival and to play on albums by Johnny Winter, Alice Cooper, Earl Klugh, Little Feat and others. You’ve also brought guitar to the forefront on your own recording projects, with Guitar Slinger and Bakersfield. Do you think the perception of what you do has changed?
“I think probably that’s true. I knew going in what my best asset was to have an impact, and that was singing. I got that early on, and I think, hopefully, I was wise enough to center most things on that. And on songs. I think I also have a great grasp on the fact that one of the things that makes James Taylor and Paul Simon and The Beatles and Merle Haggard great is that legacy of songs… A time or two, they were great vehicles to show my playing, like a song like Liza Jane or Oklahoma Borderline.
“I think you wind up getting what you need. As they quit playing me on radio and turned their back to me in that world, so to speak, those were things that fulfilled what I needed. That call coming from Eric to come play at that festival had a huge impact on me: ‘Oh man, did I need this.’ There’s a guy that whatever it was that I did, he saw what I really was, which was a musician, and that spoke volumes. That was probably a big reason that I got connected to a whole bunch of these other folks.
“Before I had any hits, Mark Knopfler recognized a musician in me and asked me to be in Dire Straits. I turned it down, because I didn’t want to feel like I’d failed at country music. At the time, I could’ve sure used the money and could’ve sure used a good gig. But all along, I think I’ve had a good head on my shoulders of what I’ve always wanted to be and who I’ve always been. I don’t think I’ve changed much over the years.”
Speaking of vehicles for your playing, when you and Patty Loveless performed your song Go Rest High On That Mountain at George Jones’s funeral last year, there was a point when you were so overcome with emotion that you couldn’t sing anymore, and you turned to your guitar to express what you were feeling.
“Yeah, that was an emotional moment… Part of it was obviously the moment and the hurt of losing a great old friend. But the passing of someone that so dearly loved great traditional country music, at a time when there isn’t very much of it at all, you kind of know that there was a part of him that died with a broken heart. We started playing that song, and Patty started singing with me, and it was as much just our voices together that undid me. And then once I was gone, I was gone. It’s hard to get back. Every now and then that song just destroys me to have to sing it. There’s a side of me that doesn’t want to have to sing it again.” [Laughs]
Even when your voice fails, you’re still an articulate guitarist.
“It bought me some time, you know, to gather myself. What I’ve always loved about great guitar playing is, it’s just as emotional as words. Words don’t get to be the only thing that has emotion. It’s coming from the same well. I’ve always tried to play what I would sing and sing what I would play.”