Martin Harley on Weissenborns, lap steel tips and how Nashville changed his playing

Acoustic slide ace on new album Static In The Wires

(Image: © Joby Sessions/Future)

I’ll tell you where I’m going, when I get there’, so says Martin Harley in his autobiographical signature song One For The Road. And after a dozen years of touring various continents, it seems to us that one of the country’s finest blues/folk/country/swing/slide guitar musicians (yep, he’s certainly versatile) might be nearing his destination on new album, Static In The Wires. 

“I feel like I’m in a great place,” he tells us.  “And I’ve made a good record with people whose talents I’ve recognised and enjoyed.”

It’s very good, in fact. And one of those people is US bassist Daniel Kimbro, co-credited on his second record with Harley following 2015’s Live At Southern Ground. The two hit it off after an impromptu set together at a Tennessee festival and you could even say he’s the Danny Thompson to Harley’s John Martyn…

“I’d always been a fan,” Martin concurs. “They achieved so much with two instruments – there’s a lot to be learned from that. Daniel can go in all kinds of directions. He can go down some pretty deep rabbit holes because his musical vocabulary is broad enough to do that.”

Martin’s music has always reflected American connections; inspired to play slide by Ry Cooder’s Paris, Texas soundtrack, his influences are a melting pot of everyone from Kelly Joe Phelps to Bukowski, Tom Waits and Kyuss, but the delta has always run deep in his Weissenborn playing and it wasn’t surprising when he took a trip to work in America in 2012.

His stop in Nashville had a huge effect on him – jamming with modern hero of Americana, Chris Stapleton and gigging in a writer’s circle at the famed Bluebird Cafe.

“I was the only person there who hadn’t had a multi-platinum hit,” laughs Martin. “But everyone told their stories and did their thing. You’re facing four other songwriters and I just got a kick out of it.”

You’re going to see someone on a Tuesday night in Nashville with no cover charge who’s going to blow your mind skill-wise. Just seeing the standard of musicianship made me conscious of the choices that I’m making

The proudly-independent musician certainly has the songs hold his own in such company. But being exposed to the Music City’s hotbed of guitar talent made him reflect on his playing.  

“It really made me sit up and take notice again,” he admits. “Because you’re going to see someone on a Tuesday night in Nashville with no cover charge who’s going to blow your mind skill-wise. Just seeing the standard of musicianship made me conscious of the choices that I’m making. The choices to use less notes and ask, what am I trying to say?”

The answer was refining what he’d achieved on the six albums leading up to tracking Static In The Wires Joe McMahan’s Wow & Flutter studio in Nashville’s increasingly hip east side.

The Jerry Douglas-guesting slide fest of Feet Don’t Fail Me is a feast of flair, but less really is more elsewhere.

Weissenborn To Do It

Thinking of playing lap-steel guitar? Here are Martin’s three slide rules

1. Prepare

“Getting experience with alternate tunings and alternate picking on regular guitar is a great basis to move to lap-steel. Have a comfortable fingerpicking technique like Travis picking. Because you don’t strum the Weissenborn with a regular pick; you’ll use thumb pick or fingers.”  

2. Don’t overplay

“I was fairly accomplished on a regular acoustic, but then when I went to slide, it became quite limiting. Accept that maybe you could do more with less notes. It’s deciding what to take away that gives you the benefit.”

3. Choose the right tool

“The Weissenborn shines more as a solo instrument, so a duo or alone is where it’s at. If I’m going to be in anything that’s more than two instruments, as soon as electric bass and drums come in I’m going to plug in with an electric lap-steel.”

“It’s an exercise in reduction,” he reflects. “How can I make a song work and how can I make a solo work without using too many words and too many notes.”

That mindset spilled into the intimate tones too. He’s an accomplished fingerstyle player, but on the road with Daniel, Martin is able to focus on allowing his Anderwood, Andreas Cuntz and original Kona Weissenborns to shine too. They’re all characterised by their hollow and resonant necks and the potential for expression they offer is unique.

“I realised there was this dedicated thing with a resonance to it and it sits on your lap,” he reflects. “It had what I was looking for – a complete sound. A very deep bass. You’re tuned into an open chord so you can alternate your picking without fretting and then suddenly you’ve got this linear voice with the slide which is much more like a human voice than a fretted instrument.”

Despite all the Nashville creativity, the charismatic bluesman is still very much UK-based, as his young family and a relentless touring schedule that takes him up and down this country proves.

He’s also balancing the workload of managing as an independent artist on his own Del Mundo Records: “If you buy a record from the website that’s often me going down the Post Office with the kids to send it. Sometimes the running of that does get in the way of making music but that’s the way it is. I’m not sure I’d want it any different.”

Martin’s hard work ethic is continuing to pay off; with Static In The Wires a testament that with persistence and great tunes, you get what you give as an artist.

“I like my job,” he concludes. “I have made it work, but by working really hard to get there. And I think if you constantly try and make good records, hopefully good things will happen.”

Martin Harley’s Static In The Wires is available now on Del Mundo Records.

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