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Steel guitarists play it as it lays

You wouldn't recognize as household names any of the graying men playing steel guitar in a conference room at the Best Western Lexington.

But in their stories you find the history of country music.

Take steel guitar player Bobbe Seymour. Seymour says he once unknowingly made Elvis angry during a recording of the song Kentucky Rain, first by slightly yawning and then by asking at a bathroom door within Elvis' earshot whether the "King" was on the throne.

And there's Sonny Curtis. He played steel guitar for George Jones and Tammy Wynette, not wanting to take sides as country's then-power couple divorced.

And that's Joe Wright, who played for Charley Pride for years and remains in awe of his former boss's popularity in places like Australia and Ireland as well as the United States.

At the Best Western Lexington on Athens-Boonesboro Road, the steel guitarists who backed some of country music's greatest artists performed Friday and Saturday for the Central Kentucky Steel Guitar Club's 23rd anniversary Steel Guitar Classic Show.

The annual conference — billed as the fourth longest-running steel guitar show in the country — doesn't get much attention locally, but it is well known around the country, said its organizer, Al Vanderpool. An estimated 300 players and fans turned up for the event.

"It's the best-kept secret in Lexington," Vanderpool said.

The name steel guitar comes from the steel slide that players run along the guitar strings with their left hands.

"In the 1950s and 1960s, the steel guitar was one of the most important instruments a country band could have," said Herby Wallace, a member of the International Steel Guitar Hall of Fame who backed performers from Alabama to Roy Clark.

These days, Wallace said, many country bands have phased out the steel guitar.

"Events like this," he said, "keep it alive."

Many of the Nashville musicians who appeared at the show are in their 70s now. They are afraid that the steel guitar will become a relic.

"We need players in their 20s. The instrument will die on the vine unless we get more people interested in it," said Russ Hicks, who played steel guitar on the Hee Haw country music variety show from 1980 to 1993,

One young player at the show, Rodney Crisp, 34, of Ashland, said he is doing all he can to preserve the art of playing steel guitar. "They need to start putting more steel guitar in country music," he said.

On Saturday, the Nashville musicians allowed themselves some reminiscing about their old bosses.

Seymour said that the producer on Kentucky Rain told him that Elvis liked Seymour's work, even if Seymour's gaffes rubbed the icon the wrong way.

Ron Elliott, who played for a number of Grand Old Opry stars including Kitty Wells, Faron Young and Ray Price, was careful in sharing his memories.

"The good stories couldn't go to press," Elliott said.

Many of the performers said they are out promoting their own careers now.

Joe Wright, 53, travels across the country playing everything from jazz to rock 'n' roll and traditional country on the steel guitar.

Kayton Roberts, who played steel guitar for Hank Snow from 1967 through 1996, still takes jobs on the Grand Ole Opry.

Sonny Curtis, meanwhile, plays steel guitar shows like the one in Lexington and says that he's seen his old boss George Jones four times in the last five years.

Although Jones had a reputation for being unreliable in his younger years, Curtis confirmed recent news reports that Jones' career is not only stable but on the rise at the age of 77. "He's very focused," Curtis said.

Meanwhile, it was hard to find someone in the audience Saturday who didn't play a little steel guitar.

Ken Bonham, 69, of Knoxville at first described himself as simply a fan of the instrument.

But with a little prodding, Bonham came clean about his background. "I played," he said, "with Jimmy Dickens and Roger Miller."

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