Wander down into the lower ballroom level of downtown's Millennium Hotel during Labor Day weekend, and you would have found yourself in the middle of a worldwide tourist attraction...that few locals have heard of and even fewer have ever seen. The enigmatic draw? The International Steel Guitar Hall of Fame, which consists of scores of relief-cast plaques honoring the greats of the instrument, from the first inductee, Jerry Byrd (in 1978; he's hailed as "the master of touch and tone"), to Springfield, MO's, own Speedy West (1980) to Sol Hoopii (1979; "Hawaiian music's greatest steel guitarist") and "the world's foremost steel guitarist," Buddy Emmons (1981).
Also enshrined on the wall you'll find DeWitt "Scotty" Scott, the guiding force behind the Hall of Fame and its annual ceremony, the International Steel Guitar Convention, which this year will drew upwards of 3,000 attendees to its 34th annual Labor Day celebration. Scotty's described on his plaque as "the ambassador of steel guitar," but "missionary" perhaps better captures the zeal he embodies for the instrument. Besides organizing the convention and the induction process (two new members entered the Hall this year), Scotty and his entire family are involved to some degree in running Scotty's Music, an overstuffed shop that's a steel-playing packrat's dream. Guitar necks, strings, picks, steel bars, Mel Bay instructional manuals (many written by Scotty or a member of his staff) and tools fill every nook and cranny. In a cool basement closet, a lone computer acts as server and world headquarters for SteelRadio.com, the Internet radio venture overseen by Scotty's son Michael. Though the mellifluous sounds of steel guitar may have faded a bit from pop consciousness, orders still pour in from the 50 states and around the world; plenty of big-name musicians have pedal or lap-steel guitar players on their tours and recordings. Still, spend a little time with Scotty and it's clear that, for him, putting on "the Super Bowl of all steel guitar conventions" is the highlight of the year. As much as thousands can be like family, these people are, and the convention is their family reunion.
The devotion goes both ways: the fans from young to old (although Scotty admits the crowd is mostly pushing "40+ and up") and from all over the world can't get enough, packing the hall year after year to hear more than 30 hours of live music from their idols, up close and personal. In a segment on The (-then) Nashville Network, a white-haired woman faced the camera and declared, "I'm a freak! I'm a steel freak!" Keep sliding over those strings and pushing those pedals and we won't have any trouble. If you're a steel freak, too, keep your calendar clear for next Labor Day weekend and prepare for some amazing music.
Amanda Doyle is a steel fan, but doesn't think she's crossed over to freak.