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Curtis built his reputation as a drummer in Indianapolis and eventually met some of the St. Louis musicians who traveled in George Jones' Possum Hollow Band. Jones would come to Indianapolis and play a string of dates at his own club, and eventually Curtis got the drummer's slot. The gig didn't last, but it didn't matter. He'd soon hear Buddy Emmons playing bebop and know the pedal steel was for him. "There's an overwhelming phenomenon with the steel guitar -- anybody who starts to play the pedal steel, no matter what instrument they played before, they won't want to go back."
And if a steel player is going to make it, they go to Nashville. At any rate, that's where a picker goes when he comes home one night and finds his wife has -- finally and for good this time -- cleared out the house and taken the kids. What happens next has filled so many country songs, it's surprising Curtis didn't predict it all beforehand. He lasted 14 months.
"Everybody promises you recording work," Curtis says. "You go over to some big shot's office, they give you a tape, talk about the old days, but they never give you that final call. The only time they'll call is when the union guys are sick or on the road. I'd go every Monday morning to the union to look at the board, look at the book, and you'd see players like Bruce Bowden looking at the board. You think, "How can I compete with this guy?' Sometimes I'd get an interview, and then a second interview. I'd get an audition and then a second audition, but after that I'd never get the gig. I got auditions with Sammy Kershaw, Tracy Lawrence and Jack Greene, but I'd never get the gig. Maybe I didn't have the look or was too fat or something. So you go on the road with some wannabe guy, you play in North Dakota or New Mexico. You ask yourself, "Did I move to Nashville to go play in Minnesota?'"
As it turns out, Curtis made good on his contacts with the St. Louis country musicians he met in Indianapolis. He landed a job writing for the Steel Guitar International Inquirer and came to work for DeWitt Scott, owner of Scotty's steel-guitar shop in St. Louis. In the last 10 years, he's become a master of the steel, published nine instructional books and backed figures as imposing and diverse as Del Reeves and Bill Monroe. You hear the wit and fire and pathos he brings to a tune like "Swingin' Doors" and you might think you're hearing a man playing his dreams. Perhaps, though as many country songs will explain, you live long enough and most dreams have to reckon with the hard facts of life. "All I ever wanted to do was play "Hot Rod Lincoln' on the guitar," Curtis says. "That's all I ever wanted to do, and I can't do it."
Saturday showtime at Horstmeier's is 2 p.m., and Curtis and Carpenter kick things off -- what else? -- with Ray Price's "Crazy Arms," one of the first country songs ever recorded with drums, the definitive country shuffle and, some would say, the definitive modern country song. They coat Dooley's rich vibrato with luminous strokes; then two more Price songs follow: "A Way to Survive" -- "Which year you doing that in?" Culley laughs -- and "For the Good Times," which Dooley sings with such excruciating, sweet authority that you never want to hear anyone else sing it -- save Ray Price in his prime -- and then, come the next set, septuagenarian Chuck Raue sits in and caresses the song's every syllable, and you know you were wrong.
"I'm gonna die on the bandstand," Dooley says. It's a cliché, but he's earned the right to it. Like all the musicians at Horstmeier's, he'll be worth hearing to the end.