Ralph Mooney was already an acknowledged pedal steel guitar vitruoso when Waylon Jennings, a longtime fan, hired him in 1970. Over the next 20 years, "Moon" became the musical glue that held together Waylon's hell-for-leather backup band the Waylors. A member of the International Steel Guitar Hall of Fame since 1983, Mooney died March 20 of kidney cancer at his home in Kennedale, Texas. He was 82. His funeral took place March 23 in Texas.
Long before joining Waylon, Mooney.an Oklahoma native who settled in California, made history by helping define the instrumental side of the "Bakersfield Sound," symbolized by Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and Wynn Stewart. To that pulsating, twangy and volatle mix, dominated by spare, snapping Fender Telecasters and a tight,aggressive beat, Mooney added high-register, treble-drenched accompaniments tailored to both lyric and singer. He's all over early Owens hits including "Under Your Spell Again" and "Second Fiddle", Haggard's "Sing a Sad Song" and "The Bottle Let Me Down" and Stewart's "Wishful Thinking."
Despite his extensive recording session work in LA, Mooney was never a fulltime studio musician. For years he performed as part of Wynn Stewart's band and rarely appeared onstage with Owens or Haggard. Nonetheless, the standards he set for Bakersfield steel were so clear that when both singers formed their respective touring bands, the Buckaroos and Strangers, their steel players maintained the Mooney style and sound. He also influenced California country-rock steel guitarists like Sneaky Pete Kleinow of the Flying Burrito Brothers and Poco's Rusty Young.
In the mid-50's, Mooney wrote the ballad "Crazy Arms." Ray Price's 1956 hit version spent 20 weeks topping the country charts, became his biggest all-time hit and a country standard, After leaving Waylon, Mooney appeared at steel guitar conventions and did occasional recordings. His last notable recorded appearance was performing an instrumental rendition of "Crazy Arms" on longtime friend Marty Stuart's acclaimed 2010 album Ghost Train-The Studio B Sessions. Mooney and Stuart also co-wrote "Little Heartbreaker" for the album.
Here's a video clip of Waylon with Mooney from the 1980's, performing Rainy Day Woman" on a Swedish TV program. Jennings made a point to feature "Moon" onstage, once even suggesting the audience "listen to the Moon," This clip captures Mooney at his peak, playing some of the licks that made him famous, and hearing Waylon cut loose on his famous leather-veneered Fender Telecaster is a reminder he was no slouch as a guitarist. Listening to Mooney, one understands the last line on his plaque in the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame: "So uniquely original he remains unduplicated."
That last sentence may be a shade awkward, but the sentiment is spot-on.