Legendary Steel Guitarist Herb Remington Looks Back
“I’m full of names that everybody now has never heard before,” says Herb Remington.
The 91-year-old Houstonian steel guitar player has been recovering from a vertigo-induced fall. But while his back is hurt, his memory is sharp as ever as he rattles off the names of musicians from decades past, names like Spade Cooley, Judy Lynn and Ray Whitley, plus one many have indeed heard before: Bob Wills.
In 1946, 20-year-old Remington auditioned for Wills in a Hollywood hotel room crammed with musicians. Wills liked the young steel guitarist so much, he hired him on the spot as a member of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.
Remington would spend four years touring with the Western swing kings before falling in love with a Houston girl and, in the early 1950s, moving to the Bayou City. In the decades that followed, Herby, as he’s known, became a living legend, writing standards including “Boot Heel Drag” and “Remington Ride,” and later selling custom-built instruments from his headquarters, still located in Gulfgate.
Nevertheless, outside of country music circles, today few people know Remington’s name, and as the popularity of the steel guitar wanes, he seems to be pondering his legacy. He tells a story about meeting a young Glen Campbell, who died in August, at Houston’s now-shuttered Parker Music, before mentioning steel guitar player Buddy Emmons.
“He passed away just recently, and it didn’t even make the news,” Remington says. “I had to hear it through the grapevine.”
Not that a chat with Herby is all doom and gloom—the man’s full of jokes and road stories, including an account of the time, during a set, when he dropped his bar, which he needed to play his instrument, and watched it roll into the audience. “I’m not very talkative today,” he deadpans after an entertaining hour of conversation in which he can’t help but show pride for his own preternatural talent. After all, it’s just a fact.
“He’s a genius, that guy,” says dobro and steel player Cindy Cashdollar, who met Remington after joining Asleep at the Wheel in the early 1990s, when the Austin-based band was recording a tribute to Wills with members of the Texas Playboys.
“I walked into the studio, and the producer said, ‘Oh, we have you set up right next to Herb Remington,’” she remembers. “And I could feel my stomach drop like 10 feet. That’s great, but it’s also very frightening. But he could not have been nicer.”
Cashdollar went on to take lessons from Remington and perform with him whenever she could. “Herb was the rock star of the evening, no matter who I hired to do a show,” she says. “People would go crazy. Because he’s cool! Herb is endlessly cool.”
Country music wasn’t Remington’s first love. Growing up near South Bend, Indiana, he learned to play guitar the way many Depression-era kids did, from door-to-door instrument salesmen and mail-order music lessons. It was at the local movie theater where Remington first heard the steel guitar, played in a style known as hapa haole—essentially, Hawaiian music written for white audiences.
“I loved the standard guitar, but then I heard this instrument going errrrrrrrrrrrrrrr, I thought ‘I gotta do that,’” Remington remembers. “I was there in snow and ice in South Bend, and I’d see these palm trees and hula girls, and that was very inviting.”
After a couple of years in the U.S. Army, Remington headed west with hopes of joining a hapa haole band but instead found himself auditioning for Wills and, that same day, playing his first gig with the band at the Santa Monica Pier. “They gave me this hat that came down over my ears, and cowboy boots,” recalls Remington. “Of course, that was all alien to me.”
It was during the late 1940s that Remington met a girl named Melba at a show. The two had instant chemistry, and Remington quit the Playboys so they could move to Houston and get married.
Within a few years, the couple had formed their own band, a Hawaiian group called The Beachcombers, with her on keyboard and singing. They toured the country through the 1960s and early ’70s, playing luaus and tiki-themed restaurants, and also took a year-long standing gig at The Golden Nugget in Las Vegas.
“What’s unique about Herb’s playing is, it’s really a combination of swing music and Hawaiian,” says Andy Volk, who’s written several books on the history of steel guitar. “He made a lot of great Western swing records with Bob Wills and afterward, but he never lost that sense of melodicism that you hear in Hawaiian music.”
Cashdollar agrees that Remington’s sound is unique. “Herb’s playing had a style that I think is interesting for a listener, because it really makes you notice the steel guitar,” she says. “His playing was intellectual but approachable. It’s friendly to the ear, but as a musician when you sit down and pick apart actually what he’s doing, it’s really phenomenal.”
In the 1980s, the Remingtons quit the road and started making and selling steel guitars together. He occasionally played in local bands and took on a handful of students. And time marched on. In 2015, Melba passed away after a long illness, after 63 years of marriage to Herby. “We were together every day, on the road,” he says. “Those are wonderful memories for me, but the hardest in the world to forget. So I quit forgetting and started remembering.”
There’s no question that today, both man and instrument still have their devotees. “Herb is very loved and respected in the steel guitar community,” says Volk. “People appreciate his legacy and his long career.” Those who’ve covered “Remington Ride” include not only Cashdollar but jam band String Cheese Incident and blues musician Freddie King.
People might not know Remington’s name, but they do know his work. “I’m sad that he’s not more widely recognized, although certainly, the song is,” says Cashdollar. “It’s a perennial song—Herby’s legacy lives on in that song.”