The sound of the pedal steel is seductive, but it doesn't come easily.
Gibson Hartwell always wanted to learn to play it. Like most guitar players, he was intimidated by the instrument. With potential for multiple necks and its foot pedals and knee levers, it resembles a guitar as imagined by an eccentric basement inventor obsessed with country music.
Yet Hartwell was drawn by the instrument’s “mystifying sound," he said. "I think everybody loves it, even if they don't know what it is."
It wasn't until 2005 or so, when Hartwell was past the midpoint of his 30s, that he knew he should start on it if he was going to learn at all.
"Someone told me it takes about 10 years to learn how to play it pretty well, so I realized the timeline was getting tight," he said recently at his practice space in the Masonic Building. He thought, "I better get down to it so I can still carry the thing around and have some good gigging years in me."
The instrument, one of the signature sounds of country, is a descendant of the lap steel, an electric version of the Hawaiian guitar. You can use it to play slide guitar runs, but it also can bend individual notes within large chords in a way that guitars never can. By using a pedal to fade the volume, the instrument can transform standard progressions into panoramas of sustained, clean tones that softly emerge and recede from view.
His longtime collaborator, songwriter Tom Catmull, said Hartwell pushes himself past safe ideas. Hartwell might play something that only seems spur of the moment, but "it's maybe not the first time he's been searching in that direction melodically," Catmull said.
Hartwell said it's important to give "the song space and know when your playing is taking away from the song versus adding something," a hard task on instruments that lend themselves to overplaying.
Hartwell tries to write "signature melodies or counter-melodies" and give them a home within a song, he said. That philosophy is audible on “Mean to Stay,” an album released earlier this year by local songwriter Caroline Keys and her band, the LaneSplitters. On songs like “Golden Zipper” and the title track, he fits in hooks in the background of the vocal hooks that add a layer without distracting.
He was strictly a guitar player when he moved from his native Washington in 1991 for a job at the state fire lab in Missoula, thinking it would be a good place to work and play music.
"I was right. It worked out. I got lucky, so I haven't really thought about leaving ever, seriously. Considered it, but usually changed my mind pretty quickly," he said.
To support himself, he developed a second career as a consultant on environmental planning and restoration. His current employer is the Ecosystem Research Group. Among other projects, he worked on the open space plans for Missoula and Helena.
Among his notable projects in the '90s was an alt-country and folk outfit called Tarkio, led by a college student from Helena named Colin Meloy. The band was together for two or three years, and you can hear the seeds of Meloy's style that he would make famous with the Decemberists, the group he formed after moving to Portland.
Kill Rock Stars, a respected indie label in Olympia, re-released Tarkio's catalog as "Omnibus," in 2006.
In August, when the Decemberists held Travelers Rest, a curated music festival, out at Big Sky Brewing, Meloy invited Keys and the LaneSplitters to play. During one of the Decemberists' sets, he invited Hartwell out on stage and the two played a duo version of an old Tarkio song, "Save Yourself."
After Hartwell decided to learn pedal steel, he couldn't find any private instructors, and he still doesn't know of any in either Montana or Idaho.
"I probably would've had to drive to Portland or Seattle to get lessons," he said. At the time, there wasn't a plethora of online tutorials, so he ordered VHS tapes of lessons from the instrument's heyday in the 1960s and '70s.
The mechanical complexity, combined with the chord theory required, means the pedal steel can humble guitar players, he said.
A non-musician can learn a song on acoustic guitar in a week, he said. The steel, meanwhile, takes a significant investment of time and money before you're able to perform in public.
David Horgan, who plays guitar and pedal steel with the Big Sky Mudflaps, said "it's a hill to climb" that many guitar players abandon. If you're really drawn to the sound, though, the hours of practice are enjoyable instead of a trial.
Even for veteran players, intonation is a constant source of anxiety and spur to practice. To stay in tune with the other instruments, the steel guitarist needs to keep the bar aligned as precisely as possible above the frets. That's a simpler task on the lower notes, where the frets are spaced farther apart. As the frets move up the neck, they become closer together, creating more opportunities for error.
"The higher you go, the less room you have to be just a little off," Hartwell said.
One of the paradoxes of the instrument is that its sound is seemingly ubiquitous, particularly in country, yet few people play it. Hartwell is one of only three or four people in Missoula who gig on the pedal steel, although there could be more who indulge privately.
That means that Hartwell has had a busy career here in western Montana. He currently plays with Catmull, country/honky-tonk group the Idle Ranch Hands, and songwriter Keys' band, the LaneSplitters.
There are always more projects than time, too. He's been talking with songwriter Martha Scanlan about a collaboration for awhile. The Shiveries, a band led by Cindy Marshall, is revving up again. He's also working on music for "A Place, Sort Of," local filmmaker Andy Smetanka's found-footage homage to the Garden City's past.
If you count his time at solo gigs in the Union's old restaurant, through to Catmull and then proceed through to the Ranch Hands, he's been a regular at the bar for almost 20 years.
"I feel like there's places on that stage where my footprints are worn in, you know?" he said. He still gets excited to play there, one of the few bars with a large dancefloor where crowds actually dance.
While many of his groups play gigs like the Union, he's also branched out into other kinds of projects, such as art-folk group Stellarondo.
In 2012, they collaborated with Montana-based author Rick Bass on a self-titled album. The band wrote and arranged long compositions for Bass to read his stories over. Instead of improvising, they arranged music to match the plots and characters, and recorded in single, live takes.
"He's such a good writer. We were all really sensitive about not trivializing his writing by not thinking through what we were doing," Hartwell said.
They've toured with Bass, and along the way he picked up a piece of advice that he keeps in mind:
"Rick always says, 'You gotta do what you love and you gotta do a lot of it, because the worst that can happen is that you're going to get tired,' " he said.