JOHN HUGHEY (1933-2007)
BY DICK MCVEY
There are only a few musicians in Nashville that bring a unique and recognizable sound to a recording session. One of those musicians is John Hughey, perhaps best known for his 20 years with Conway Twitty, but in recording industry circles is one of the most respected and most recorded steel guitarists in the world. There’s no denying that “Hughey sound,” which is so recognizable that, when Hughey is not available, producers have often asked other steel players to give them some “Hughey licks.”
Hughey was born in Elaine, Arkansas on December 27, 1933, and grew up in a Helena, Arkansas where he became acquainted with Harold Jenkins, who later became Conway Twitty. Hughey gives Twitty the credit for his being in the music business. “There was a group in Memphis called ‘Slim Rhodes and His Mother’s Best Mountaineers’ who were pretty hot in a five state area,” relates Hughey. “In March of 1953, they were advertising for a steel player and Conway kept asking me to go up for an audition. I never thought about playing music for a living. We just played around home so I kept telling Conway I wasn’t good enough for that. He called and set up an audition for me and I got the job. I packed my clothes and left home and never went back there to live.”
It was with Rhodes’s band that Hughey did his first recording session in 1955 with Sam Phillips producing at the famed Sun Studios in Memphis. He remembers that first session, “They had a two track Ampex machine, and everything had to be done at once. If you didn’t do it right the first time, everybody had to do the whole song again. They miked everything and ran it through a board, but the singer and the background singers all used one mike. The reverb was a microphone and a speaker set up in the bathroom, so I guess that’s where that famous Sun slapback echo came from. I had to borrow a pedal steel guitar from a music store to do the session. Pedal steels had just come out and I didn’t even own one, so I borrowed a six string Multi Chord.”
An interesting highlight of Hughey’s recording career in Memphis was playing harmonica on a session for Isaac Hayes before he became famous.
Hughey continued to work off and on with Rhodes for 19 years, before joining Twitty’s band in 1968 and moving to Nashville in 1972. “I was living in Memphis, but started getting session work in Nashville,” he recalls. “I realized it was easier for me to be in Nashville.”
Hughey started doing sessions in Nashville in the late 50s. His first Nashville session was at Studio B with game show host, Wink Martindale, who at that time was a not-so-famous singer. Since that time, Hughey’s recording credits are a testimony to his skills. He has recorded on projects as diverse as rock group, “The Box Tops” to hard core country legend George Jones and his 40-year legacy spans recording projects from Elvis Presley to Shania Twain, Kitty Wells to Reba McEntire and Dean Martin to Bryan White.
Hughey also performed on most of hits in Conway Twitty’s country music career. “I played on ‘Next In Line’ which was Conway’s first number one record,” Hughey states, “and played on all his records up until he started doing a more pop sound that didn’t have steel guitar. The last few records I played on were ‘I Don’t Know A Thing About Love,’ ‘Tight Fittin Jeans,’ and ‘Don’t Take It Away.'” Hughey played on 40 number one records with Conway, not counting the duets with Loretta Lynn.
Hughey also recorded sound tracks for “The Longest Yard,” “Route 66,” “Six Pack,” and “Sugarland Express,” and done commercials for Coca Cola and others. He has received numerous accolades including “Super Picker” awards in 1976 and 1977, and was inducted in the International Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in August of 1996.
What are his most outstanding memories from all his accomplishments? Hughey answers, “I’ve been really fortunate to have done the things I’ve done. There are a lot of things that are important to me. I guess getting to record with these big artists. People I never dreamed I would ever work with. I did two albums with Elvis. I knew him before he got famous, but the fact that he asked for me to play on two of his albums after he got famous was great. Getting to be in the studio with Dean Martin, who was a big movie star at the time, was a great feeling. Playing on the Grand Ole Opry was a dream come true for me. I remember listening to the Opry as a kid with my mom and dad, and when I got to play there it was a dream. Doing network television, and of course, being inducted into the Hall of Fame was a big honor for me. I never thought anything like that would happen to me.”
Hughey thought about retirement at one time. “I was about to hang it up,” Hughey says, “I wasn’t doing a lot. I had sessions here and there, but I really thought about retiring from the road. Things weren’t happening and I thought ‘Well, I guess it’s over’ and then Vince (Gill) called me to go to work for him. That really gave me a lift and I really felt like I was getting a second chance. It really helped my session work, and right now things are about as good as they ever were.”
Hughey has some interesting comments about today’s recording sessions. “I really liked recording the old way with a ‘live sound’ where everybody is in the studio at the same time,” remarks Hughey. “The musicians play off each other and the session has a better feel. I played on the last George Jones album, and we did it all live — everybody there at one time — even the background singers, and I think it came off great. I also like to use my speakers in the studio when we can isolate it. I like the speaker sound on a recording. I don’t mind going direct, but I prefer using my amp if I can.”
Does he have a favorite record he’s played on? “You know there were so many great records it would be hard to say,” he answers. “I don’t really think I’ve played on anything where I was impressed about my playing. A couple of the things that other people told me they liked were my solos on Vince’s ‘Look At Us’ and Conway’s ‘Lost In The Feelin.’ Those are the things that other people seem to be impressed with.”
As for the future, Hughey says he will continue to play “as long as I can carry the guitar and as long as people will listen to me. I don’t want to retire, when people retire they die and I’m not ready for that. I’ll probably retire from the road before too long. As long as Vince will have me and I am physically able to work, I’ll probably be there.”