In the early ’90s, Paul Niehaus had an encounter that tuned him in and turned him on to a different realm. Rather than a Matrix-shattering red pill, it came in the form of six raised strings. “I was working at a bagel shop on West End with a steel player named Steve Blazek,” Niehaus recalls. “He would tout the virtues of steel guitar all the time, but I just didn’t get it. He said, ‘You should at least get a lap steel. Steel is the rockin’est thing that you could imagine.’
“I eventually took his advice. I went down to Gruhn Guitars and I found a cheap, old Airline lap steel for 60 bucks. I didn’t know how to tune it; I just made up my own open tuning and would play blues, and I got a delay and would do my Pink Floyd impersonation.”
Although he didn’t realize it at the time, Niehaus had taken his first step down the rabbit hole of steel guitar-dom, a realm that dominated his career for the next two decades. Through his steel guitar work with artists as varied as Lambchop, Paul Burch, Yo La Tengo, Vic Chesnutt, Silver Jews, Bobby Bare Jr., Calexico, Iron & Wine, and many others, he has been at the forefront of a younger generation of steel guitarists who have brought the ethereal sound of steel to a new prominence.
Growing up in Florissant, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis, Niehaus played music in school, but his musical passion didn’t fully manifest until college. “I went to the University of Missouri at Rolla’s engineering school to major in physics, but I missed playing music a lot. After the first year, I took an old guitar that had belonged to my dad, and I just started learning chords out of a Mel Bay chord book. Pretty soon I knew I didn’t want to be in physics anymore.”
Niehaus moved to Nashville in August of 1983 to pursue music-related studies at Belmont. “At first I was thinking I could somehow use my knowledge of science and physics as a recording engineer,” Niehaus says, “but I ditched that idea pretty quickly and fell in love with performing.”
Niehaus joined the blues and cowpunk quintet PJ and the Dusters in the spring of 1984. Two years later, piano-pounder Jerry Dale McFadden left the band for a solo career and Niehaus followed him as his lead guitarist. For the next few years, Niehaus worked with various bands in Nashville (in addition to the bagel shop) until experiencing his steel epiphany.
Niehaus’ eureka moment came when Kurt Wagner invited him to a practice session for the band Posterchild, who were on the edge of transforming themselves into the alt-countrypolitan WTF assemblage Lambchop.
“Kurt already had a couple of guitar players,” Niehaus says, “so I brought the lap steel. The band was going through a change and the lap steel seemed to really fit in.”
In addition to the way out flights of steel he was playing for Lambchop, Niehaus also soon received a schooling in classic honky-tonk style. “I started playing with Greg Garing at Tootsie’s in the fall of ’94,” Niehaus says. “I had to learn some proper tunings on the lap steel. It was a crash course in honky tonk, but it really helped me a lot. I played that for about four years and then got the nerve to get a pedal steel.”
Niehaus quickly discovered the complexities of the pedal steel. “It’s more of a full body coordination that you have to get used to,” he says. “With guitar you’re mainly using your hands to translate to the fret board, but with the steel you’re also using both feet and your knees. You’re using all parts of your brain. I’ve heard some people describe it like flying a helicopter, which I have no desire to do. I’ll stick with the steel.”
Although he was mastering the pedal steel, he never abandoned regular guitar playing, and his ability to switch between the two has been particularly valuable for his long-running gig with the country Tex-Mex mariachi mash-up band Calexico and his recent work with singer and songwriter Justin Townes Earle.
“It goes back and forth,” Niehaus says. “With Justin it’s a little more guitar heavy, but it’s a challenge to play both. When you concentrate on one, the other seems to slide a bit in your mind and in your fingers. I’m constantly woodshedding on one or the other to get the groove back.
“I think most people know me for my steel work. I’ve been told that I have a style, but I’m not sure what that is. Some people say ‘ethereal.’ I just try to take it to somewhere else. I try to step outside my roots. It’s almost a spiritual idea of plugging into a different plane and finding something that resonates.”
Since settling in East Nashville in 1998, where he shares a home with his wife Katja and their 8-month-old son, Niehaus has fallen in love with the East Side. “I found a house close to the Diesel College that I really loved,” he says. “It had a big yard, a nice basement and was in amazing original condition. Where I live, there are still a lot of old timers living there, and I love that. One of my neighbors is 60 and was born in the house he lives in. He’s lived in East Nashville his entire life. He has such great stories. I hate to see the whole thing change.”
Although changes to the neighborhood may be as inevitable as the slide of a steel guitar, Niehaus’ experience in the constantly changing Nashville music scene has taught him that what’s good can continue to resonate.
“There were so many times when it seemed like the whole Nashville scene had run out of steam.” Niehaus says. “You had to make something happen yourself. That’s why I liked playing with Lambchop. The early and mid- ’90s was a slow time in Nashville. It didn’t seem like there was a whole lot going on. So we hunkered down in our own little world, and we made some pretty cool and weird records that are really beautiful.”