All right, sports fans: It's the third inning at a spring training matchup between the California Angels and the San Francisco Giants, with the Angels

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Swing and a Hit

Steel-guitar journeyman Jon Rauhouse steps up to the plate.

All right, sports fans: It's the third inning at a spring training matchup between the California Angels and the San Francisco Giants, with the Angels up 1-0. It's a beautiful March afternoon at Tempe, Ariz.'s Diablo Stadium in the glorious American Southwest, no doubt with beer and peanuts aplenty . . . in sum, precisely the last place one wants to have to take a call from some intrusive music journalist two time zones away.

But the endlessly affable Jon Rauhouse once-and-future pedal steel gunslinger for acts like Neko Case, the Waco Brothers, Old 97's, and the Pine Valley Cosmonautsis taking it all with happy grace and infinite cool.

And speaking of those two elements, the loose topic of today's confab is a delightful disc titled Jon Rauhouse's Steel Guitar Air Show, on which many of the higher-profile people with whom Rauhouse has collaborated giddily return the favor.

"I make music with a lot of good people," Rauhouse saysnot for the last time"but the records tend to be a little morose," he laughs. "What I really wanted for this project was to do a bunch of fun songs that we could all have a blast playing."

Air Show is loaded with a cast of stellar performers, all alt-country and roots music heavyweights, many of whom are previous collaborators. To consider only the most immediately recognizable names: Neko Case and Kelly Hogan provide sweetheart vocals, while Calexico's John Convertino and Joey Burns and Rauhouse's longtime musical conspirator Tommy Connell hold down the rhythm on drums, bass, and guitar. Former Bottle Rocket Tom Ray also plays bass on a half-dozen tracks, while Sally Timms (of the legendary Mekons) offers her pleasurably chilling reading of the Alberto Dominguez chestnut "Perfidia," covered by everyone from Xavier Cugat to Nat King Cole.

It's comfortable company for Rauhouse, who's guested live and in the studio with most of the players assembled here. But significantly, this was his first outing as bandleader, and the sessions bear the stamp of his convivial approach to his craft.

"Whenever I've played with these guys, it's always been, 'Look, just tell me what you want to do, and I'll do it.' So when I got them all together, it was complete reciprocation: 'Tell us what you want.' And everybody did a stellar job."

As the title suggests, Jon Rauhouse's Steel Guitar Air Show is offered as something of a tour de force. A grab bag of swing standards (Paul Lincke's "The Glow Worm" and Darling, Gabler, and Horton's "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie") and Rauhouse's own whip-smart compositions (e.g. "Circle the Wagons Babe" and the irresistible "Beer & Lettuce"), Air Show is both a celebration of the country and swing music Rauhouse openly reveres and a small but loving contribution to the form itself.

Rauhouse isn't the only modern-day guitarist mining this territorySoCal's Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys are tearing it up a little farther out Westbut few players can claim his considerable chops. Rauhouse is, make no mistake, the driving force behind the music here, even the comparatively few vocal numbers; moving deftly from steel to Hawaiian guitar throughout the record, he leads his band on a note-for-note homage to often-overlooked trailblazers like Pee Wee King, Cowboy Copas, and (most audibly) Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant.

In the spirit of those country-swing troubadours, most of the takes on Air Show are early ones. "With the exception of some of the more elaborate stuff, all of it was done live, and most of it ended up being a first or second pass," says Rauhouse.

"Well," he interrupts himself, "Joey and John, I mean, Jesus Christ. They've been together for so long, we'd do a run-through and then say, 'OK, roll tape . . . ah, should we do another, just for the hell of it?' And [engineer] Craig Schumacher was usually rolling on the run-through, so we'd end up having two or three versions to pick from, in spite of ourselves. And Tom and [drummer] Kevin [O'Donnell] are the same wayjust amazing players, no problem. We'd go through it once, then take a run at it. I couldn't have asked for better people."

But to be honest, says Rauhouse, the confluence of personnel for this recording was as much due to luck as to anything elsethe bulk of the recording was done in Tucson and Chicago on a ridiculously tight schedule that just happened to coincide with the available free time for interested parties.

"I just lucked out that everybody was in town, in Chicago. We did a half-dozen tracks in two days at Kingsize Studios with Mike Hagler, and then the girls came down and did vocals, like, the next day. I don't want to say it was a piece of cake, in a wayI mean, me and Tommy rehearsed our asses off to get the simultaneous guitar parts downbut it all fell together like I wanted."

Furthermore, the wheel's spun around again, vis-᭶is Rauhouse's reciprocal relationship with his playing companions. An upcoming pair of EMP dates with Neko Case, Kelly Hogan, and Carolyn Mark will feature Rauhouse in his standard journeyman role, providing steel guitar backup for those estimable performers as part of the Project's "Women's History Month" celebration. Like many such collaborative moments, it's all livea setting for which Rauhouse has a newfound respect.

"It's funny, I was talking to Tommy the other day about it, and maybe it's just my age or having done this for 26 years, but I've got a new appreciation for how all those early players approached this material. We used the Mills Brothers' arrangement of 'The Glow Worm,' and to think that those guys were all standing around a single microphone and getting it right . . . if you consistently screwed up in that band, you were gone. And everybody who plays on this record is a consummate professional.

"Like I said," he offers, the words tumbling happily against the sounds of the ball game behind him, "I couldn't have asked for a better crowd."

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