Pedal steel guitar

I can't hear pedal steel guitar without thinking of getting my hair cut with my dad.

In the 1970s, I was growing up in Kearney, Nebraska. My dad and I would hop in his car, a sporty 2-door Chevy Monza, and put on the AM radio. Some catchy song like "Tie A Yellow Ribbon" would be on. At Galen's Barber Shop, he always had the country station playing. This wasn't the polished country-pop music of the 1990s. It was slower and sadder.

When we arrived, dad would get his hair cut first. Galen was a massive man with a gentle voice. My dad, a physician, knew Galen and, it seemed, everyone else in our plains metropolis of 20,000 because they were his patients. People came to him with their health problems and he went to them for his car repairs and hardware and insurance. Not groceries: almost all the places to buy food in town were by now big supermarkets, though there was a standalone butcher shop for steaks, because you couldn't get Nebraska beef at Hinky Dinky. Dad knew everyone by name. "You might as well go visit the people in their place if they come visit you in yours," he said.

When dad's haircut was finished Galen fired up his massage machine, a vibrating motor with two handles attached to a rectangular red leather pad, and rubbed down his shoulders for a few minutes. Then it was my turn.

The first time I ever went to the barber shop I was scared of the big barber and I cried. But now as a big boy I felt bad that I had judged Galen like that and hoped I hadn't hurt his feelings. I sat in his chair as he got out his scissors. Each time I came in now, he adjusted the chair and remarked how tall I was getting. I leaned back; relaxed. Conversation stalled and the music on the radio pushed through to fill the room. The ghostly keen of a pedal steel guitar penetrated me with its mysterious sorrows. I didn't even know what the instrument looked like, so the cutting electric warble was pure disembodied emotion. This wasn't for music for singing along with, this was music to make you sad. Why would you want music like that?

I knew that people sometimes just needed to see my dad for a rash, but sometimes it might be something more serious like diabetes or arteriosclerosis. Sometimes he just needed a haircut, but sometimes he needed to replace the washing machine or get the roof fixed. And surely there were even more serious things still, things I knew nothing about, things that made you feel like they feel in the country songs.

Sitting in the barber shop I knew that some day Galen would adjust the seat all the way down and my shoulders would be big enough for the massage machine. Some day I would know people's names, people who weren't my family or close friends, and I would depend on these people and they would depend on me.

And some day I would understand the big feelings that I heard in that pedal steel guitar.

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