I'm a firm believer that musicians are ultimately in charge of their own shelf life and pedal-steel guitarist Norm Hamlet is as good a representative of that theory as it gets.
For a musician like myself turning 50 next year, the 87-year-old Hamlet's career is a clinic in maintaining longevity. He's maintained an arc of quality playing along with a healthy gigging schedule that would be the envy of musicians — at least — half his age.
It feels there's been a resurgence in appreciation for traditional country music especially among younger generations who find inspiration in the music that others may have either forgotten, ignored or taken for granted.
Hamlet recently played at the second Pioneers of The Bakersfield Sound concert held in the Mission Bank Neon Plaza at the Kern County Museum. That event, put together by Zane Adamo, the bandleader for the vintage swinging country and western music revivalist The Soda Crackers, featured Hamlet, drummer Jimmy Phillips and guitarist Tommy Hays. (Disclosure: I perform with The Soda Crackers.)
That performance celebrated the three storied musicians and their roles in the development and birth of the original Bakersfield Sound. The show that Hamlet will play on Saturday at 18th Street Bar & Grill, however, will revolve around Hamlet himself and showcase his effortless excellence on his pedal steel. Phillips will once again join Hamlet along with musician Bruce Cox and some players from Southern California rounding out the bill.
While living in his hometown of Woodsville in Tulare County, Hamlet was a session player for Capitol Records in the 1950s, commuting and contributing to the recordings of acts like the country duo The Farmer Boys and the fiery Americana singer Rose Maddox. Phillips, to his credit, was quite a prolific session drummer for Capitol Records as well.
That and a variety of work, including some TV work along with Red Simpson and Kay Adams for the Dave Stogner Show, led Hamlet to relocate to Bakersfield in 1965 where he soon began an almost-five decade-stint with the Strangers as pedal steel player and musical director for Merle Haggard. It was a position he held up until Haggard's death in April 2016.
It was almost like there was a Bakersfield music gang going on.
"Oh yeah, we had a bunch of 'em," Hamlet said via a phone interview. "And, of course, there were a lot of great musicians around Bakersfield. That's one thing: Talking about the Bakersfield Sound, there were a lot of great pickers here. That's where a lot of the good music came from."
He stayed busy performing with Haggard's sons Ben and Noel Haggard and has spent the last seven years touring almost nonstop with Portland, Ore.-based "Honkytonk Rebel" — and stellar musician — Mario Carboni.
"You learn a few things over the years, for sure." Hamlet said, sharing the direction given to him by Haggard to impart to any new band members to "Just play what the song needs."
Hamlet and Carboni recently performed at the six-day Outlaw Country West Cruise that featured bands like Social Distortion, X, Los Lobos and more.
"There were a whole bunch of different bands," Hamlet said. "We had a hell of a good time, boy. Some of them would come in when they'd get through with their show (and) if we were still playing, some of them (like musician Deke Dickerson) would even come in and sit in with us."
Although Carboni will not be at Saturday's performance in Bakersfield, the Rebel and the Stranger will reunite soon to perform on another ship, this one starting in New Orleans heading to Mississippi.
As to what the all-ages audience can expect from Hamlet's latest gig?
"I really don't know," Hamlet said. "I'll be playing pedal steel. It's going to be whatever the singers want to sing, I guess. We'll just jump in there and do it."
But spontaneity and following one's muse, rising to a musical challenge is Hamlet's M.O. He's kept on swimming in a way that would make a Pixar fish proud and, through it all, retained a consummate professionalism, humility, curiosity and skill with his instrument. He knows his role: He's an entertainer to the core.
Given Hamlet's instrument, I can't help but think of the loss of Larry Petree, another prominent steel guitar player and architect of the Bakersfield Sound, who died this summer.
That loss feels like it adds a sense of gravity to the proceedings. Rather than a pallor, the feeling is like an echo resonating in those weeping strings of the haunting, lyrical instrument both Petree and Hamlet chose to play.
"I met Larry years ago even before I moved to Bakersfield," Hamlet said. "We used to work quite a bit in Rosamond, and there was a club between Rosamond and Lancaster called the County Line Club and we played there a lot. He was a good player."
"Both of us being steel players, of course, we'd try to play licks. If I learned a new one, as soon as I got with him, I'd try to show it to him and if he learned some new ones, well, he'd try to show them to me. That's the way we done things back in those days, 'cause if someone knew a new lick on those things we wanted to be able to try to see if we could play them too."
Will he be playing any of those licks this week?
"Well, I don't know. I hope so," he said.
Along his almost supernaturally smooth facility and uncanny musicality, Hamlet sure knows how to tell a great story. When I first met him in 2018 at a local recording session, Hamlet was in the control booth telling a story about his time in Haggard's band. He was summoned to overdub a pedal steel solo for a particular song. He played three takes, each with a different approach and each done in first takes. It took less than 10 minutes.
He made it back to the control room and finished his story. Just like the man himself, obliterating the concept of a shelf life by demonstrating both quality, humility and just how many more stories he has to tell.
Speaking of stories, ask him to tell the one about giving Barbara Mandrell steel guitar lessons when she was teenager and how good of a saxophone player she was. It's so very good.
Try to get a copy of this gig flyer this Saturday. There should be some available to take home that night. They're quite spiffy.
"I'm just happy to still be playing, you know?" Hamlet said. "Like I said, I was in the right place at the right time for a lot of things.
"People would ask me, 'How did you stay with (Merle) for 49 years?' And I'd say, 'Well, the reason I was with him for so long was because he made me the bandleader and I just never could get up the nerve to fire myself."
Norm Hamlet & Friends (featuring Jimmy Phillips), presented by NashWest Productions, 8 p.m. Saturday, 18th Street Bar & Grill, 816 18th St. Free admission. 661-748-1368.