Published Mar 01, 2006It seems fitting that Bob Egan's current residence is just steps away from Kitchener's train station. The well-travelled multi-instrumentalist and singer/songwriter purchased the century home last fall to renovate it. "I bought it while I was on the road in BC," he says. This may sound like the wheelings and dealings of a rock star, but as conversation turns to music, it becomes clear that such a spontaneous attitude is what has endeared him to the Canadian roots music community since he was offered the steel guitar player's chair in Blue Rodeo in 1999 after several years in that role with Wilco and Freakwater.
At that point, the Illinois native was living in Mississippi, trying to kick-start a solo career and selling off his guitar collection to survive. He admits that joining one of Canada's most revered bands changed his life for the better, and he has been lending his talents to virtually every roots act in the country since. "I wasn't really aware of how popular Wilco was up here, so to get all those offers right away was really special. My view is, if people think enough of my playing to want me on their record, I take what they do seriously."
Egan is largely known as a pedal steel guitarist, a skill that is always in demand given the relative short supply of competent players outside of the country music establishment. For that reason, he has always taken a different approach to the instrument. "I never wanted to be a country steel player, because I realised that no matter how much I practiced, I'd never be as good as [Nashville session ace] Buddy Emmons. My dad actually encouraged me to play Hawaiian music when I was 16, but instead I started playing slide in an Allman Brothers cover band. I got into country rock and country swing and learned pedal steel, which got me a lot of gigs on weekends at Elk Lodges with guys who had their names plastered across their guitars in big letters. But I've always gone back and forth between steel and slide. One of my biggest role models is David Lindley. He's got a unique approach to all forms of slide, and it's led him to work with a wide variety of artists. And the coolest thing about him is that he only uses pawn shop guitars."
While living in Chicago, Egan ran a guitar repair shop and this fostered an interest in oddball instruments. He estimates he's owned upwards of 80 guitars over the years, but today limits himself to a handful. "I've always just bought things that I liked. But my rule is: if it's not being played, it's for sale. My main guitars for writing that I'd never sell are my 67 Gibson Hummingbird, my 1929 National, and my 1933 Greenfield, which was a gift from the Tragically Hip. For amps, I keep about a half a dozen small ones for recording, and a couple bigger ones for playing live. I've learned not to get emotionally attached to things like that. They're all tools, and being able to sell stuff has got me through the times when I haven't been working."
With Blue Rodeo's schedule becoming less demanding, Egan has once again thrown himself into his solo career. His next album of songs, entitled The Glorious Decline, is scheduled to appear in late spring, to be followed by an all-instrumental pedal steel album recorded with Weakerthans drummer Jason Tait. "Things were different this time because since I got a Mac and a ProTools rig, I was able to record at my leisure over the past year and a half. Jason and I started out recording hours and hours of stuff for what I planned on being the instrumental album, but some of that morphed into other songs. I ended up putting down a lot of stuff on the road: backstage areas and hotel rooms and people's cottages. My two primary goals were to make a record that has a consistent flow to it, and is also really sad."
In the meantime, Egan continues to settle into his new surroundings by regularly sitting in with figures on the local scene, and recent highlights include a Neil Young 60th birthday tribute night and a star-studded night with the Sadies at the same venue that served as a preview of their upcoming live CD/DVD. It all goes back to the satisfaction that comes with doing a great job as a sideman. "I used to love reading rock magazines as a kid and seeing discographies for guys like Lindley and Ry Cooder and Lowell George. They got to be a part of so many great recordings, and that's what I set my mind to do early on. It really just comes down to a love of playing music. I really see it as a gift to play on other people's records. It's all I ever wanted to do."