To listen to the wind blowing through the tops of the pinion pine and scrub oak trees, the splashing of water from a fast-moving stream, and the distant yapping of a pack of coyotes…all are reminiscent of growing up on a small cattle ranch in northern California. Combine this with listening to Buck Owens, Ernest Tubb, Bob Wills, Kitty Wells, Connie Smith, and Red Foley from an old tube radio on the back porch of the house, and you can get a fairly good idea of what influenced Mike Kirkley’s early years.
His Mother taught him some basic chords on a guitar, and his first public performance was him and his Mother playing and singing “You Are My Sunshine” for a group of people at a Masonic Lodge. He was 13 at the time.
As the teenage years passed, his influences became more focused on listening to and learning about the music, more so than the words. The steel players of the day, like Tom Brumley, Lloyd Green, and Leon McAuliffe, have fascinated him since a very early age, and continue to do so to this day.
After graduating from High School in the early 1970’s, Mike’s next step was going into the Armed Forces. While in the service, he continued playing in various bands, and finally, in the early 1980’s, bought his first pedal steel guitar, a MSA double twelve.
This was a good guitar, but was really more than an amateur steeler could deal with. So, he sold it, and shortly thereafter got the Sho Bud Pro II Custom that he still plays today. He played in several bands during his years in Europe while in the military. One of these bands, El Dorado, did very well on the military club circuit, playing at all the major military club venues in Germany, England, Belgium, and the Netherlands.
After separation from the military in the early ‘90s, he moved back across the USA from North Carolina to his native California, where playing was still available, but not as much as it had been when he was in the military. He played as much as he could with local bands, but from time to time, using either recorded songs to play along with, or, recording rhythm tracks with an acoustic 12-string on a cassette player, he would play alone.
He has developed the ability to “wrap the notes of the steel around the singer’s voice(s)”, to a fine art. The haunting sounds of Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” and “D.I.V.O.R.C.E.”, Buck Owens’ “Together Again” and “Cryin’ Time”, and Alan Jackson’s “Midnight in Montgomery” are the true classic “crying steel guitar” tunes that come immediately to mind concerning this type of steel guitar/vocal mixing, and Mike has learned the style very well, and it makes up a good portion of his musical repertoire on the pedal steel. He is a completely self-taught steel guitar player. He has also played bass guitar, rhythm guitar, and a bit of lead guitar work as well, and is actively pursuing mastery of the dobro. This is a natural manifestation of his enjoyment of bluegrass music as well as traditional country and western styles.
In 2003, a chance encounter in a computer chat room introduced him to the love of his life, and his soulmate, Jo. The thing about this was, he was living and working in Los Angeles, California, and she was living and working in Sydney, Australia. Well, time passed, and now, he’s living in Sydney, and his beloved Jo is now his fiancé. He’s still playing the steel guitar, and loving life.
His love of country music hasn’t changed a whit from what it was back in his early years. He still listens to it, and he still puts that old Sho-Bud together and plays it several times a week, and he’s still finding things about the instrument that amaze him, even after having been playing for almost three decades. If Mike has anything to say about it, he’ll be playing the old Sho-Bud for a long time to come.
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