This is what happened to Peggy Green. Up until the point when repetitive strain injury gripped her working hands in 1990, she was one of the most respected pedal steel guitarists in New England; not to mention also crafting her way in private as a six-string player and songwriter. Subsequent neuromuscular complications during the ’90s robbed her, at various times, of the ability to use the blocking and rapid picking techniques which are the staple of pedal steel playing; to work the crucial left pedal of her instrument; to walk anything further than short distances without crippling swelling of the hands; or even to play for more than ten seconds. It’s the kind of situation which unites musicians – via both the heart and the pocket – in a cold sweat. The cut-off, seemingly irrevocable.
No, there isn’t a glitzy TV movie outcome. Peggy has recovered partially since then, but not completely. These days, you won’t find her duelling onstage with Buddy Emmons and Bruce Kaphan; or burning up Nashville pedal steel playoffs with a revitalised, zippier technique; or wearing Dolly Parton hats while having her hand shaken by the President. Life often doesn’t let us wallow in such easy tears and such feel-good endings. But what life can be is dignified.
Constrained by the cold facts of injury, Peggy could have retreated into honourable retirement, taking another job and accepting her loss as some kind of act of God. What she’s done instead does involve acceptance. But humble defeat? Not so. ‘Songs Of Naka Peida’ is a defiantly post-RSI album of pedal steel guitar music, played on a couple of custom built acoustic instruments built by legendary pedal steel maker Paul Franklin Sr. Dubbed “ped-a-bro”s, they merge the penetrating “jump-at’cha” sound of dobro resonator guitars with the flexible bends and glides of conventional steels.
As you can imagine, these are naked instruments – the kind which won’t hide a players errors behind a comforting wall of amplified smoothing. They’d be a challenge for a player in prime fitness, let alone one with hand problems, but Peggy’s chosen to make her way on them. Having accepted the limitations imposed by RSI, she’s dispensed with the flash and trickiness she could previously deploy for showboating country musicianship. Now she’s concentrating on a slow, considered, delicately melodic way of playing – clipped in approach; tailored to avoid the spasms, locks and numbness of the condition: a way in which she can, as she puts it “achieve that old connection between my soul and my hands.” She’s also elected to record in a way which makes every creak of the ped-a-bro mechanism and every shift of the player’s stool discreetly audible, so that you can hear her at work.
It works wonderfully. Peggy offers sparse, slowhand, bluesy playing nourished by lonesome American roots; at the same time she offers short, shallowly-picked notes with an exquisite attention to placement that’s associated more with East Asian music (with the yang ch’ins of China, the kotos of Japan and the assorted zithers of Carnatic music). These precise patterns can – at the right moment – be lifted off the map and up into the air, with just a push on a pedal. All of this is achieved with a patient grace and melodicism, the kind which wouldn’t shame Bill Frisell or Martin Taylor. Not that there isn’t some therapeutic wrestling with demons here. Titles like Achin’ Deep Down In My Bones and Fair Affliction assure us of that. But most of ‘Songs Of Naka Peida’ is – while never transcendently happy – remarkable in its serenity.
There’s also a background concept here. The album has a speculative yarn attached: a self-referential creation with strong flavours of Ursula K. LeGuin. In the stricken, disaster-oppressed Continuum society of the future, Naka Peida is the name of a character – the Continuum’s Chief Archivist. Each song on the album is linked to a story of the rediscovery of Peggy’s music, and its connection and implications to both Naka Peida and the Continuum. Evidently Peggy’s not interested solely in her own healing.
The music travels on, learning from places as it goes. There’s the graceful glissandi of Koroen; the tart, sparkling Indian cascades of Love’s Last Chance; the welcoming Japanese formality of Nakahama (named after the location where most of the album was both written and recorded) or the curving Hawaiian warmth of The Pedalist or Wrong Stop Blue. If the music doesn’t necessarily draw from a sense of place, it can draw from time instead. One of the approaches Peggy uses is to place herself in a particular moment. Goodbye To The Twentieth Century was recorded in Osaka on Millennium Eve, and comes out as the most hopeful piece on the entire album. Affected by its Japanese setting, it also revels in its vertiginous, playfully lovely slides and swoops, in the celebratory birdsong harmonics. For a moment, Peggy even lets the ped-a-bro sing with the jazzy bends of Billie Holiday.
The three-part Improvisations In The Moonlit Dawn (billed by Peggy as being “the closest you can come to sitting with me while musical ideas are being born and tried out”) comes from a February morning, closer to home in New York. It’s more sober (Five Note Blues is positively respectful) and more American (you could even expect Robert Johnson to be moaning over Evening Turns). Finally, it’s brasher when the punchy, multiple stop-and-slide slowhanding of Make Way For Dawn makes its presence felt. Assertive, muscular and far more assured than you’d have expected, it still loses none of the delicate melodicism of the rest of the album.
“My struggle against the adversity of my injury makes me the player I am today,” notes Peggy. Whatever she may have been before the axe fell, she’s a pretty remarkable player now. Without much of a big sound, without banner-waving, this album is quietly inspiring and humbling: even profoundly moving.
Peggy Green: ‘Songs Of Naka Peida’
Peggy Green (self-released), MHG737 (no barcode)
Released: 27th June 2000