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Pedal Mettle

After years gigging in suburban country bars, steel-guitar ace Ken Champion finds a niche in the indie rock scene.

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Ken Champion likes to joke that he hasn't worked a day since 1969--the year he became a professional musician. In the 70s he played guitar in barnstorming bar bands, and in the 80s he was a journeyman pedal steel player gigging six nights a week; since the mid-90s, improbably enough, he's been in demand as an indie-rock sideman.

"This guy completely blew me away," says Sea and Cake guitarist Archer Prewitt, who recently hired Champion to play on his new solo album, Wilderness. "He was not only adept at creating a Nashville or country sound, but he did these beautiful atmospheric passages that I was really interested in. Just the consummate pro."

Prewitt first heard Champion after producer and experimental guitarist Jim O'Rourke "discovered" him in the mid-90s and used him on several discs for Drag City, including three of his own. A quiet, unassuming 56-year-old, Champion has never sought out the spotlight or led his own group, but his work with O'Rourke, Prewitt, and others has helped make him an elder statesman to a small community of alt-country artists and underground rockers.

Champion, who grew up in Oshkosh, picked up his first guitar at 12 and developed an interest in jazz a few years later. Though he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin at Madison as a physics major in 1967, within a year he'd started playing in a variety of jazz and R & B outfits, and by '69 he was making enough money gigging that he decided to drop out of school. Two years later he and several other Madison musicians formed a 50s rock revival group called Dr. Bop & the Headliners. "It started as a joke," says Champion, "but it was so successful and so well received we decided to do it full-time."

Nostalgia for the 50s was at a peak--it was the era of American Graffiti, Sha Na Na, and Happy Days--and Dr. Bop became a popular regional and national touring act. The band played a weeklong stand at the Whisky in LA in 1973, and in its heyday shared stages with Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, the Eagles, and Bob Hope--a fledgling Cheap Trick even opened a few shows.

During his years of touring with Dr. Bop, Champion bought his first pedal steel guitar. "I'd be out playing on the road, but I had a steel guitar set up in my hotel room that I'd practice on," he says. After the band's original lineup split in 1977, he began teaching guitar and became a member of a series of Madison-based country acts--among them the Horsefeathers Cowboy Band, which backed a number of minor country stars, including Ernest Tubb's son Justin, and between 1980 and '82 made several appearances on Tubb's Midnite Jamboree radio show in Nashville. But rather than move to Music City, in 1985 Champion decided to come to Chicago.

"There was a really big live country music scene at the time, a lot of clubs and a lot of work," he says. "So it was attractive to move down here." At venues like the Sundance Saloon, the A & J Lounge, and the Bar R R Ranch--where the legendary Sundowners held court for 30 years--house bands played three or four sets a night, five or six nights a week. Champion took a gig with the band at the Country Music Inn in the northwest suburb of Prairie View, then moved to the Nashville North in Bensenville.

In these smoky honky-tonks Champion developed his voice on pedal steel: it combines the dexterity of Buddy Emmons, the swing of Curly Chalker, the "talking" style of Pete Drake, and the soulfulness of Lloyd Green. Regular jobs at country bars were the core of Champion's livelihood for nearly a decade, but in the early 90s the scene fell into a decline from which it never recovered. Champion took on more students and freelanced as a steel player and as a solo jazz pianist at wedding receptions and restaurants.

Champion was part of the Schubas house band for the club's Buck Owens birthday tributes in the late 90s, backing a cast of singers that included Otis Clay, Buddy Miller, Mavis Staples, and Jon Langford. Langford has worked with plenty of steel players, in both the Waco Brothers and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, and sees Champion as an unsung hero. "Ken was part of the city's country-and-western scene when nobody paid any attention, the pre-Bloodshot era," he says. "He's an unbelievable player. He's an old smoothie, he is."

A year or so after the first Owens bash in 1995, Champion got a call from O'Rourke. "I guess he'd heard about me somehow. I'd never heard of him," Champion says. O'Rourke asked him to play on Smog's Red Apple Falls, which he was producing for Drag City. Champion had done some demo work, recorded a few singles, and put out a live album with Dr. Bop, but he'd always been principally a stage musician--this would be his first significant studio experience.

"Ken was fast and good and had a great attitude, told funny stories," says Smog's Bill Callahan. "And we were all blown away when he first laid down his tracks."

Champion would go on to add subtle steel and piano contributions to three O'Rourke solo albums, 1997's Bad Timing, 1999's Eureka, and 2001's Insignificance, and in 2002 he reunited with Smog for the Callahan-produced Supper. During the sessions Champion asked if anyone had ever reviewed Red Apple Falls. "They sent me a big pack of reviews, and one of them was from Rolling Stone, which had given the CD four stars," says Champion, laughing. "I had no idea--I guess I was a little out of touch with the indie-rock scene."

Since then indie musicians have continued to seek Champion out. In 2001 drummer Mike Reed, a coordinator for Chicago's Emerging Improvisers organization, enlisted him to join the Treehouse Project for the ambitious three-CD set The Picture Show, which pairs jazz and roots music. In the past year Champion has recorded tracks for Prewitt, singer-songwriter Dave Crawford, and Ness, the current band led by Fig Dish's Rick Ness.

Champion still devotes the bulk of his time to teaching guitar. He has two dozen students in the Chicago area, ranging in age from 10 to 65. This past summer one of his former pupils, Eric Chial of local power-pop quartet the Bon Mots, recruited his mentor for a new outfit called Decoy Prayer Meeting. The band is working up original material to record and has been gigging around town regularly: on Thursday, April 21, it plays at Bad Dog Tavern in Lincoln Square, and on Saturday, April 30, it opens a Martyrs' benefit for Bell Elementary School with the Pine Valley Cosmonauts and Pat DiNizio of the Smithereens. For now the group is doing mostly classic country and rock covers--Faron Young, Webb Pierce, Carl Perkins--and is very much a showcase for Champion's playing, which he says is still evolving.

"Steel guitar is not something that anybody gets overnight," says Champion. "I started playing it in '73, and I'm still learning new things. That's one of the things I enjoy about teaching and playing with younger musicians. It keeps me on my toes."

Decoy Prayer Meeting with Ken Champion

When: Thu 4/21, 10 PM

Where: Bad Dog Tavern

Price: Free

Info: 773-334-4040

When: Sat 4/30, 8:30 PM

Where: Martyrs'

Price: $20

Info: 773-404-9494 or 800-594-8499

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.

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