Jim Vest has walked out of the recording studio many times after playing steel guitar on some of the greatest songs in country music history, including Vern Gosdin masterpieces “Chiseled in Stone” and “Set 'em up Joe.”
For many years, Vest worked in the road band of Johnny Paycheck and played the memorable steel licks on “Slide off of your Satin Sheets” in 1977 that dripped of pure honky-tonk.
Fast-forward 40 years.
In 2017, Vest duplicated his timeless instrumentation on the same song for a new face on the national scene pushing the nearly lost art of traditional country music. Craig Gerdes has received widespread critical acclaim for his version of the tune.
“I'm carrying the torch for real country music,” Gerdes says. “I spent many years down in Nashville and finally figured out I didn't fit in. My style and songs were too country. I refused to change and stayed true to my roots.”
Gerdes waltzes down a heart-wrenching trail of misery and jubilation with his debut album “Smokin' Drinkin' and Gamblin'” with carefully crafted tunes like “Dead in a Box in Kentucky,” “Learned from the Best,” “Redneck Sonsabitches” (Music Row slang for artists refusing to play bro-country) and the flawless cover of “Slide off of your Satin Sheets.”
A classic outlaw singer, Gerdes will perform a CD release party at The Nashville Palace with a full band Wednesday.
Gerdes will play a solo acoustic show at 8 p.m. Feb. 16 at Xroadroads in Herrin. There is no cover charge.
The CD will be officially released on the same day. Gerdes will have copies for sale at the show. It will also be available for purchase on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and Spotify.
“I stuck to my guns and recorded the album I wanted,” Gerdes says. “These are songs that I have written over the past four or five years. I wanted to capture the '70s country vibe and the honesty of traditional country music. It's a piece of work that I fought hard for and I'm proud to put my name on.”
Gerdes says his earliest musical memories involved circling the radio on a Saturday night with his family listening to the Grand Ole Opry on WSM. He cut his teeth on a steady diet of Merle Haggard, George Jones and Johnny Cash.
He began playing in his dad's country band when he was 10. Within two years, he was an accomplished guitarist and maturing songwriter. He roared through his teens with reckless abandon, culminating in a wild chain of events during the summer when he was 16 that would evoke a sly grin from James Dean.
“In the same summer, I totaled my car, broke my best friend's neck, dropped out of high school, got arrested and got married,” he says.
A native of Pattonburg in rural Marshall Country, located in extreme central Illinois, Gerdes established a large local fan base playing in Ottawa, Champaign, Kankakee, Bloomington and Galesburg.
“I opened for a Nashville band in Peoria in August 2011. After the show, they invited by to join the group. I accepted and started making the seven-hour commute every week,” Gerdes says.
In Nashville, he had a publishing deal, but still struggled to make ends meet. He slept on the floor of a studio where Jones and Jerry Reed had recorded big hits. After four years, he threw in the towel and returned home to raise his children in a familiar environment.
During his sojourns to Music City, he would pick up extra cash by stopping for performances in Southern Illinois, starting with shows at the Key West bar in Carbondale.
In 2012, he met Vest and stared working at his publishing company.
Gerdes completed the vocal work and rhythm portions for his album at a small studio in Indiana. Fiddle and steel tracks from Vest and Robbie Turner were added in Nashville. The album was released on Sol Records, an independent California label.
The debut album single, “Slide off of your Satin Sheets,” was released Aug. 18, just in time for the Americana Music Association's annual September gathering.
“The single started getting attention AMA week. People started giving us some good feedback,” Gerdes says. “At that point, we started getting aligned with the right people. I even got a cool little mention in Guitar World magazine.”
Critics loved the material, comparing it the likes of J.D. McPherson, Nikki Lane and Whitey Morgan.
Gerdes is definitely making career progress. He will appear at the inaugural Tumbleweed music festival from June 14 to 16 in Kansas City with Americana stars Cody Johnson, Ward Davis, Dale Watson, Marty Stuart, Shooter Jennings and many others, including Evan Webb of McClure.