If the steel guitar were an animal, it would join various types of turtle, gorilla, whale, elephant and leopard among the most endangered species on earth.
A driving force behind the popular honky-tonk sound of Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell and Merle Haggard, the once “king of the jungle” instrument has been virtually eliminated from the current brand of country music popularized by mega stars Sam Hunt, Kane Brown and Florida Georgia Line.
A local organization works as a preservation society of sorts for the lost art.
Top steel guitarists in the world like Johnny “Dumplin” Cox, Tommy Dodd, Junior Knight and Mike McGee will perform at the Southern Illinois Steel Guitar Show, being held April 19 to 21 at the Double Tree Inn by Hilton (former Holiday Inn) in Mount Vernon.
Tickets for individual days are $10 for April 19, $22 for April 20 and $22 for April 21. A three-day pass can be purchased for $45.
For more information and a complete schedule of events, visit southernillinoisproductions.org.
“This is our 18th year of putting on the show,” says president Cord Fitch, of the not-for-profit Southern Illinois Productions, the group that organizes the event each year. “It seems the steel guitar is being used less and less in country music today. Our mission is to display and promote the best professional and local steel guitar players for our attendees and give them three outstanding days of entertainment.”
Joining the steel players will be traditional singer Teea Goans, the veteran mother-son package of Leona and Ron Williams and Nashville piano legend Tim Atwood.
The opening night of the show features a performance by the Williams duo, a singing contest with a $250 paycheck for the winner and a collection of local talent like Vernon Mandrell, Leon Mercer, Dan Burham and Fitch.
“To enter the singing contest, all you have to do is buy an admission ticket to the show and put your name on a sign-up sheet that will be down by the stage,” Fitch says.
All four of the steel guitar stars will take the stage on April 20. They will be joined by piano legend Tim Atwood.
“This is the first time Atwood has performed for at the show. He is new to us. He travels all over the country performing his variety show, which includes lots of old country, gospel and comedy,” Fitch says. “He has played with every country star in the business over the last four decades as the piano player for the Grand Ole Opry staff band.”
On April 21, the action will be nonstop as Goans, the Williams duo, fiddle master Dennis Stroughmatt of Albion and the featured steel guitar foursome all take the stage.
“Leona Williams is always our biggest draw,” Fitch says. “I get calls throughout the year about the show and most of them ask if Leona is going to be back in the lineup.”
The 75-year-old Williams was born in Vienna, Missouri, on the northern outskirts of the Mark Twain National Forest. She broke into the business as bass player and harmony vocalist for Loretta Lynn. She replaced Bonnie Owens as backing vocalist for Merle Haggard.
Williams married Haggard in 1978, the same year they released duet hit “The Bull And The Beaver,” which peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard charts. She was married to Haggard for five years and wrote his chart-topping hits “Someday When Things are Good” and “You Take me for Granted.”
Goans grew up 125 miles west of Williams and migrated to Nashville in 2002, to pursue her musical dream of writing songs, recording demos and playing gigs. She made several appearances with The Time Jumpers at the Station Inn.
Working for WSM radio at scheduling bands for the Grand Ole Opry warm-up show, Goans' powerhouse traditional vocals were discovered when wintry weather pressed her into action at the Opry. She has released two albums, “The Way I Remember It” and “That's Just Me,” both loaded with a hardcore traditional sound.
Cox, one of the featured players at the show this year, is a former member of the critically acclaimed western swing band The Time Jumpers. He played on the road with Lonzo & Oscar and was a member of Ernest Tubb's band The Texas Troubadours. He has worked in the recording studio with Bonnie Raitt, Mel Tillis, Charlie Louvin and Tubb.
Knight has played in the road bands of Ray Price, Wynn Stewart and Leann Rimes.
McGee owns a studio in Branson and has been a dominate figure on the fertile Branson music scene for decades.
Dodd once shared the stage with Elvis Presley as a member of J.D. Sumner & The Stamps. He also played steel guitar for Clint Black, Tanya Tucker and The Judds during the halftime show of the 1994 Super Bowl. He has worked in the studio with Travis Tritt and Doug Stone.
Profits from the event go to the Shriners Hospital for Children. Fitch says over $35,000 has been donated to the organization over the past five years.