Some kids prime themselves for musical stardom with a hairbrush, a radio, and the bathroom mirror. Not Jon Rauhouse. As a teenager in Phoenix, Arizona, he fell in with "this insane bluegrass band." After mastering the banjo, Rauhouse graduated to pedal steel and Hawaiian guitars. While the rest of the country was doing the Bump and the Hustle, he was poring over Pure Prairie League and Marshall Tucker Band LPs, and studying licks by steel guitar vets like Sneaky Pete Kleinow.

Today, the 46-year-old Rauhouse (who opens for the Old 97's this Tuesday, October 19, at the Showbox) is one of the best-known steel players around, having contributed to nearly 50 albums by such alt-country mainstays as Neko Case, Sally Timms, Howe Gelb (Giant Sand), and Kelly Hogan--all of whom appear on his second solo release, Jon Rauhouse's Steel Guitar Rodeo (Bloodshot). Featuring ace guitar picker Tommy Connell, the disc picks up where his 2002 debut, Jon Rauhouse's Steel Guitar Air Show, left off, with a fiery blend of country, rock, and Western swing.

Alongside a passel of originals, Rauhouse and Connell tackle a couple of ambitious covers, most notably the madcap "Powerhouse," a breakneck composition by Raymond Scott, who wrote music for classic Warner Bros. cartoons. Bloodshot head honcho Rob Miller had suggested Rauhouse try adapting a vintage punk number, but the steel player balked, "I was pre-punk." But if Miller submitted an alternate with comparable speed and energy to something by the Ramones, Rauhouse promised he'd give it a whirl; "Powerhouse" was what landed on his plate. "All right... throw the glove down, buddy," he chuckles in retrospect. Suffice to say, Miller met the challenge.

Another one of the disc's triumphs is "Indian Love Call." If you're familiar with this ditty at all, it's probably via the 1936 film Rose Marie, starring operetta sweethearts Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald. Rauhouse and Connell recast it as a swing number, borrowing an arrangement discovered on an old Artie Shaw LP, and roping in Howe Gelb on vocals. "On that Shaw record, they've got this old guy singing the vocals. He's really old and gravelly... which immediately made me think of Howe."

If the notion of a primarily instrumental album invokes echoes of Emerson, Lake & Palmer-style excess, fear not. "Some people put out instrumental records and just wank away. That's not what you need to do. When B. B. King plays, he plays two notes and you know it's him," Rauhouse asserts. Working with vocalists like Kelly Hogan, who joins him on his current tour, has reinforced his less-is-more aesthetic. "If I've got somebody like Hogan singing 'Smoke Rings,' do I even need to play?"

Public response to his solo work has been a pleasant shock. "I'm really surprised at how many people love this record," Rauhouse admits. "But then, I've never had my finger on the pulse of society... becoming a steel player and a banjo player." Trends be damned; let's hope he inspires some young pups to rip down their Beyoncé posters and follow his lead.

kurt@thestranger.com

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