Studio Visit: Bob Watson


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Studio Visit appears first in print, in Sunday editions of The News-Gazette. Here, Melissa Merli visits with pedal steel guitarist Bob Watson.  In the Feb. 19 newspaper, we'll have a visit with Michele Miller of Urbana, who has been painting for more than 30 years.

Q: You're a great pedal steel guitar player. Did you ever live and work in Nashville?

A: Yes. I grew up here and then lived in Colorado from 1984 to '87. I was a traveling musician and played all over the West. Then I lived in Nashville from '87 to '98, and then I moved back here to be closer to my mom and family. After that, I just decided to stick around.

Q: Who did you tour with?

A: The biggest star I played with was Jeannie C. Riley, who had a hit with "Harper Valley PTA" in 1968. I played guitar with her.

Q: How long?

A: A couple of years. I bought a dobro when I was working with her. I'd been playing pedal steel maybe 20 years by that time. I love playing dobro. It's got a certain haunting sound that everybody loves. It can be bluesy or real country. The eight-string has more of a Hawaiian or Western swing or jazz sound. That's been a lot of fun. I bought the eight-string dobro when I started playing with Ol' No. 7.

Q: How did you learn pedal steel?

A: I took a few lessons from a local guy named Bobby Howe, and I'd go and hear Scottie Baker at the Rose Bowl. He was a big influence on me. He's a left-handed pedal steel player, and he played with Sunny Norman and the Drifting Playboys. I've known Dyke Corson since I was 14, 15. When I was 16 or 17, he used to work at the Marvin Lee Guitar Store in Urbana. They had a pedal steel in there, and Dyke sat me down in front of it and I played a few licks. When I was 18, a bunch of us went down to Nashville and saw a lot of bands, and then I decided I wanted to play pedal steel. Actually, Bobby Howe told me, before I owned one, 'You ought to play pedal steel. You'd make a good pedal steel player.' When I lived down in Nashville, I learned how to chicken-pick on electric guitar, too; that's just something you pick up.

Q: What's chicken-picking?

A: You know, the twangy sound on the guitar. There are guys who do it around here, but I picked it up down in Nashville. Nashville was a great education for me. I learned how to be a disciplined musician.

Q: What bands do you play with now?

A: I play pedal steel at the Eagles Club in Champaign the second Saturday of every month with a band called The New Rural Route 3. I play guitar in a band called Groove Avenue, and I play six-string square-necked dobro in a band called the Corn Desert Ramblers. Then I play eight-string dobro in Ol' No. 7.

Q: Do you ever play with Angie Heaton?

A: Yes, I definitely play with Angie. I played with her Wednesday. It's as entertaining to play music with her as if I was watching her from the audience. You never know what she's going to say.

Q: What about Dottie and the Rail?

A: Yeah, I do that, too. We haven't played in a long time. I don't know when we will play next.

Q: What do you teach here at Corson Music's Guitar Store?

A: I don't teach. I'll give lessons occasionally to intermediate players on guitar, steel or dobro. Those are my main instruments. I dabble in banjo and mandolin. Playing banjo has been really good for my finger-picking on every instrument I play.

Q: Do you ever think about moving back to Nashville?

A: Occasionally I think about it, especially in the winter. I really like it here because I have a very eclectic taste in music, in what I like to play, and Champaign is a really eclectic music town. I might be playing electric guitar in a R&B band one night and bluegrass the next gig.