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Steel Guitar Legend Ralph Mooney Dies at 82

Ralph Mooney photo courtesy of Marty Martel.

Steel Guitar Hall of Fame member Ralph Mooney has passed away at the age of 82. According to the LA Times, Ralph passed away at his home in Kennedale, Texas following complications from cancer. His most recent recording was Marty Stuart’s 2010 release Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions. He was one of the key developers of the Bakersfield sound in the 1950s and co-wrote “Crazy Arms,” which became a No. 1 hit for Ray Price in 1956.

Born September 16, 1928 in Duncan, Oklahoma, Ralph became interested in music as a child. When he relocated to California to live with a sister, he was taught to play guitar, mandolin and fiddle. He was 12 years old when he first saw a steel guitar and became interested in learning the instrument after he heard Leon McAuliffe’s recording of “Steel Guitar Rag.” He picked up a knife to use as a bar and learned to play the song on his flat top guitar.

Ralph first played in amateur bands and worked for a time for the Douglas Aircraft Company. After playing with local band Lindsey And His Oklahoma Nightriders, he joined Skeets McDonald’s band and made his first recordings. With the help of Jesse Ashlock, he refined his skills, playing a self-built steel guitar. In 1950, he was a regular on Squeakin’ Deacon’s radio show where he met Wynn Stewart and gained session work. He played on early Buck Owens’ tracks such as “Foolin’ Around” and “Under Your Spell Again” and also played lead guitar on Wynn’s first recordings for Capitol Records.

In 1961, Ralph moved to Las Vegas with Wynn, where he performed in Wynn’s club and met Merle Haggard. He played on Merle’s first Tally recordings and remained in Las Vegas for another six years, playing for Wynn and other artists. He also worked with Merle, by this time fronting his own band, but he decided to discontinue due to the heavy travel schedule but played on several of Merle’s hit records like “Sing Me Back Home,” “Swingin’ Doors,” and “The Bottle Let Me Down.” After another stint with Wynn, he joined Waylon Jennings’ band, the Waylors, where he remained for more than 20 years.

Although Ralph played on numerous records, he did not make many solo recordings. However, he had a hand in co-writing a few classics. His co-written “Crazy Arms” became a number one hit for Ray Price and also a Top 20 hit for both Marion Worth and Willie Nelson. “It has been recorded by so many different people,” he once said of the song. “I would starve to death if it wasn’t for those royalty checks.” Ralph also co-wrote “Foolin,’” a Top 5 hit for Johnny Rodriquez in 1983. He was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame that same year.

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