March 23, 2013

Paul Franklin thoroughly enjoyed the three-and-a-half years he spent as pedal steel guitarist in the Statesiders, a highly admired road band led by country star Mel Tillis. Franklin would have stayed much longer with the band had it not been for the intervention of another country star, Jerry Reed.

Reed had invited Franklin to dinner at his home. Leading him to the outside deck, away from their wives, Reed chastised the musician. “Son! What the hell are you doing? I’ve tried to call you. Nobody can get a hold of you. You have a chance for a session career, and you’re going to throw it away.”

Franklin admitted he had unplugged his phone’s answering machine, because the Statesiders stayed on the road for the majority of the year. “That snapped me out of it,” he said of Reed’s admonishment. “I said, ‘Well, I’m going to quit the road then and focus on sessions.’”

Franklin cites that encounter as a turning point in his career. Shortly afterward, George Strait caught Franklin playing in the Statesiders, and Strait and producer Jimmy Bowen invited Franklin to play on one of the Texas singer’s early albums, Something Special. In large part because of his work with Strait, Franklin began receiving more calls for Music Row session work.

“I might have stayed out with Tillis for ten, fifteen years,” Franklin said. “We were having so much fun. It was like Animal House on the road with those guys.”

Franklin recalled the story during a segment of the museum’s Nashville Cats series, which pays tribute to musicians who have played an integral role in country music. In a multi-media program and interview in the museum’s Ford Theater, Franklin discussed a musical career that began when he was still in grade school and continues today.

As Nashville Cats host Bill Lloyd noted, from the mid-1980s until today, Franklin has played on more recording sessions than any other steel guitarist. He is a member of the International Pedal Steel Guitar Hall of Fame. He has won the ACM Pedal Steel Guitar Player of the Year five times and has been nominated for CMA Musician of the Year nine times. “It goes on and on,” Lloyd said.

Born in Detroit, he learned to play steel guitar at an early age and began performing professionally in Michigan nightclubs by age ten. Playing a Fender 400 pedal steel purchased for him by his father, Franklin began joining in on barroom jam sessions, playing classic country songs, such as Hank Locklin’s “Send Me the Pillow You Dream On.”

Eventually, the elder Franklin realized that the limitations of the Fender 400 kept his son’s talent from progressing further. So Paul’s father built him an original steel guitar modeled on the Sho-Bud and Emmons models, the preferred instruments of leading Nashville steel players. Franklin later played a second pedal steel built by his father, right up until the young musician moved to Nashville at age seventeen.

Franklin’s musical education, much of it self-taught, came from listening to country records, and trying to recreate the steel guitar licks, and from performing in local Detroit clubs, where country music was popular due to the large amount of southerners who had migrated north to work in Michigan factories. Eventually, Franklin also was influenced by Nashville musicians who played on rock records, such as the band Area Code 615, which consisted of top Music Row studio players, and famed pedal-steel player Pete Drake’s work on “Lay Lady Lay” and other Bob Dylan songs. While still in Detroit, Franklin played on a few rock and R&B albums, including a Parliament album and a 1972 #4 pop hit, “Nice to Be with You,” by the rock band Gallery.

Franklin’s move south followed an invitation to join the road band of Barbara Mandrell, also a steel guitarist. Mandrell was beginning to enjoy success as a solo artist, and her father-manager, Irby Mandrell, hired Franklin during his senior year in high school.

Once in Nashville, the restless Franklin changed bands frequently, jumping ship because of down time between bands or because of his desire to keep changing the music he played. He toured with Dottie West, Lynn Anderson, and Donna Fargo in his first two years in Nashville.

Early on, he tried to make a living as a session player. “But I starved,” Franklin said. His mentor, Pete Drake, helped him out, using him on advertising jingles and on recordings by Linda Hargrove, Charly McClain, and others. Returning to the road, Franklin joined Jerry Reed’s band, shortly after the singer’s acting role in Smokey and the Bandit had brought about a surge in popularity, especially in concert. “It scared him at first, the audiences got so big so fast,” Franklin said. “Suddenly he’s playing for twenty-thousand people or more.”

An outstanding guitarist, Reed and his band stretched out in a variety of directions, adding to Franklin’s skills and reputation. “Jerry allowed me to be myself,” Franklin said. “Instead of sounding like I was copying other people, I started to be able to have a sound of my own, and I think other musicians noticed that.”

Franklin also recorded solo albums, showing off what Lloyd described as the steel guitarist’s “daring side,” as he integrated rock, jazz, and funk into his playing. But after years of performing pop-country on the road, Franklin joined Tillis and the Statesiders, which allowed him to return to playing a more traditional style of steel guitar. “I think it groomed me for studio work,” Franklin said.

Indeed, Jimmy Bowen had been Tillis’s producer, and also worked with George Strait on the album Something Special. On those sessions, “I met John Hobbs and Eddie Bayers,” Franklin said. “A lot of bonding went on, and these became the players I would be with so often over the years.”

Meanwhile, Franklin’s father also had moved to Nashville, working as an instrument builder for Sho-Bud steel guitars. After several years with the company, he developed on his own the prototype of the Franklin steel guitar. The Sho-Bud company thought the look of the instrument was too different than their established style, so they declined to produce and market it. But when Paul played the Franklin prototype at a steel-guitar convention, several top Nashville players, such as Hal Rugg, put in orders for one. Paul Franklin Sr. left Sho-Bud and started his own steel-guitar business.

“He’s been making them ever since,” Franklin told the audience, with his father sitting in the front row of the Ford Theater. “I always tell people he’s like an old violin maker. He makes one at a time, and he’s content with doing that.”

Franklin also discussed two innovative instruments he and his father developed, a Pedabro, which allows him to create sounds similar to that of a resonator guitar, and an acoustic-sounding instrument on a steel guitar frame that the Franklins call “The Box.”

By the 1990s, Franklin played “on nearly every record out of Nashville,” Lloyd said. “The list of artists you recorded with is staggering.”

At his peak, Franklin averaged three four-hour sessions a day. Lloyd played a few examples of Franklin’s style: Rodney Crowell’s “Above and Beyond,” a cover of a Buck Owens hit; Alan Jackson’s “Here in the Real World”; and Vince Gill’s “When I Call Your Name.”

Franklin took a break from session work when touring with guitarist Mark Knopfler, first with his country-influenced side project, the Notting Hillbillies, and later with Knopfler’s most famous group, Dire Straits. He left on a two-year world tour with Dire Straits in 1991.

“That’s a long time for a session player to be away from Nashville,” Franklin conceded. “I was scared to death about that. My thing was what I had going, playing with what I consider the greatest musicians on the planet here in Nashville studios. What would it do to take myself out of the loop? I said yes.”

After agreeing to the tour, Franklin ran into one of his heroes and predecessors, renowned steel guitarist Lloyd Green, at a Christmas party. Green had heard Franklin had signed on to do the Dire Straits tour. “Let me tell you,” Green said. “I got offered a job, in the middle of my heyday, to tour with [Paul] McCartney, and I said no. That’s the biggest regret I have.”

Franklin let out a sigh of relief. “It let me know I was doing the right thing. I relaxed after that.”

In recent years, besides his busy studio schedule, Franklin is a member of two bands: the Players are all top session musicians who play intricate instrumentals that show off their talents; and the Time Jumpers are equally well-regarded players who play western swing and traditional country songs. In both bands, Franklin said, “You really have to step up your game.”

As accomplished a player as Franklin is, he believes bringing an emotional quality to his performances is of utmost importance. Lloyd read a quote Franklin had used in the past, which said, “The session player’s job is to conform to the emotion of the music with a mind toward its communication.”

Franklin elaborated, “I groomed myself studying the lyric. That’s the only way I can feel the music, to find some way to express the emotion in it. Even on a song you don’t like, you have to find a way to connect with it. The only way it’s going to mean anything is for there to be emotion attached to it.”

-Michael McCall