There just aren't many musicians out there who name Hal Rugg, Alban Berg, Lightnin' Hopkins and Sor Juana de la Cruz as influences, but Susan Alcorn does. And it makes sense.
Alcorn is a pedal steel guitarist, and yes, she's well versed in the work of masters like Rugg, Pete Drake, Lloyd Green and the rest. She's played the country circuit to make a living, but ever since a childhood love of Muddy Waters intersected with a John Coltrane record, she's had other ideas about what the instrument could do. And why not? It's incredible that musicians have at their disposal a machine that can change the tuning of one or two strings at a time (or more, of course) at a pre-set interval, with dozens of combinations possible, and not want to mess with it. But other than the British steel player B.J. Cole, nobody besides Alcorn seems to have been tempted.
Nor has anyone else, to my knowledge, gone the route she has. Inspired by Paul Bley, the Canadian jazz pianist, she began to experiment not only with her instrument, but with her approach to performance, and has gone on to become the only steel guitarist in the world of free improvisation, leading to collaborations with the likes of Henry Kaiser and Pauline Oliveros, another of Houston's gifts to the American avant-garde. It's impossible to predict what will happen when Alcorn starts to play (she herself admits that she doesn't know), but you can bet it won't be like any steel guitar music you've heard before.
Alcorn plays July 16 at Ruby Green Contemporary Art Center with David Maddox and Brady Sharp.
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