Pewee Charles - The call that changed everything

Ed Ringwood (Pewee Charles) toured around the world playing steel pedal guitar as a memeber of Gordon Lightfoot's band.

Waterloo Region Record

Local steel guitar player Ed Ringwald honoured for his life’s work

By Greg Mercer 

With a steady gig on national TV and chance to play with some of country music's biggest stars, Ed Ringwald had it pretty good. Then came the call from Gordon Lightfoot.

Lightfoot, the now-legendary Canadian folksinger, needed a steel guitar player for his upcoming album. And he had heard about a young Kitchener musician who had mastered the instrument after being mesmerized by it during a concert at the Aud a few years earlier.

The two had a common connection. Red Shea, Lightfoot's lead guitarist, also played on the same Ian Tyson Show as Ringwald. But Ringwald didn't know much about the singer with the baritone voice on the other end of the line.

"I didn't know him. I just knew he was the guy who had that hit, Sundown," said Ringwald. "He called and said I'd like you on my next album."

Ringwald, a 64-year-old grandfather of three who still lives in Waterloo Region, was recently honoured with his fifth steel guitar Player of the Year award by the Canadian Country Music Association. The award put him in the organization's Hall of Honour for his life's work.

Today, the local musician is an icon in the world of steel guitar. He was instrumental in convincing the CCMA to reverse a decision to eliminate the steel guitar as a separate award category.

As country music continues to evolve, Ringwald believes more young musicians will begin using its signature sound again.

"The instrument has been around for so many years. It's defined the sound of country music," he said. "When I heard they were going to do this, I was so upset. So we got a little petition going and stirred up some stuff."

George Canyon @ Class Act Dinner Theatre-Whitby,Ontario.Nov.25,2012. Classic country tunes performed with vintage video footage of performers in the background as George and the band played..Ed Ringwald (Pee Wee Charles) on pedal steel guitar. (formerly with Gordon Lightfoot) - Folsom Prison Blues

Looking back, joining with Lightfoot was a pivotal leap forward in Ringwald's career. But at the time, back in 1974, it wasn't an obvious move.

Ringwald had a good job in the house band on The Ian Tyson Show, a national TV program featuring some of Nashville's top country acts. Every week, he got to play with the likes of Merle Haggard to Chet Atkins to George Jones.

Leaving that to back up with Lightfoot, an up-and-coming folk artist with a handful of hits to his name, was a bit of leap. His father encouraged him to go for it.

Ringwald had to adapt his playing style to make the steel guitar fit more naturally with Lightfoot's acoustic sound. Instead of being front and centre like it often is in traditional country music, he softened the steel guitar into the song's mournful backbone.

"It's the sound of rock-bottom loneliness. It's the musical glue that holds together the emotions in a song," he said.

Lightfoot was already a star when Ringwald joined the band, and would only get bigger.

Ringwald, still in his early 20s, was soon playing on front of crowds of 40,000. He'd become known as "Peewee Charles" — because of his tall and skinny frame — and the moniker would stick throughout his career, giving him relative anonymity here at home.

While his wife of 40 years, Kathy Ringwald, raised their two kids back in Kitchener, he hit the road and would tour with Lightfoot for 16 years. His steel guitar work can be heard on some of Lightfoot's biggest songs, from "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" to "Rainy Day People."

"I remember hearing the first record I'd ever made on the radio, "Rainy Day People." There it was, something you'd worked for your whole life. And you're hearing it on the radio," said Ringwald, who dedicated his CCMA award to his wife.

It's a classic mix of country jazz on tap every second Tuesday at the Commercial Tavern in Maryhill, Ont., as the Western Swing Authority rips into a songbook of Americana standards. Western Swing Authority is: Paul Chapman (guitar, vocal), Ed "Pee Wee Charles" Ringwald (steel guitar), Charlie St.

"It's so special to know that when I'm no longer around, that music will still be played. It'll be etched in history forever. That's what's wonderful about music, that you can leave that with people."

Backing Lightfoot, Ringwald played iconic concerts at Royal Albert Hall, Saturday Night Live, the L.A. Amphitheatre, Carnegie Hall and Maple Leaf Gardens as part of Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue.

Soon after joining Lightfoot, Ringwald got a request to fly down to New York to play with a new band that was cutting an album. In the middle of a 10-night gig at Massey Hall, he had to turn down the offer.

That band? Just a little country-rock group called The Eagles.

Lightfoot was a quiet, reserved boss who treated his musicians well, Ringwald said. But if you messed up, the singer wouldn't hesitate to tell you.

"I was a lucky guy, just being in the right place at the right time," he said. "That experience taught me a lot about life. Those guys were like a second family to me."

Ringwald was introduced to the steel guitar by his father when he was a teenager. But he didn't really fall for its unique sound until he saw a Ray Price and Connie Smith concert at the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium in the mid-1960s.

Price and Smith, the American country stars, were accompanied by the pedal steel guitar, played in a way he'd never heard before. Unlike lap steel guitars, this electric steel guitar stood on legs and was fitted with foot pedals and knee levers.

"The sound that came out of it, when I first heard it, I was like, 'I want to play that.' I just loved it," he said.

After that, everything changed.

By 20, he was driving his Buick down to Texas for private lessons with steel guitar master Reece Anderson. For seven months, he spent countless hours practicing by himself in a one-bedroom apartment in Dallas. Ringwald emerged from those sessions a lifelong disciple of the instrument.

He'd go on to have a successful career in music, backing Lightfoot to country-rock outfit Great Speckled Bird to George Canyon. Today, he's as busy as ever, recording a new album with his band Western Swing Authority and doing studio work for artists across the country.

And he did it all without leaving Waterloo Region, where he grew up and wanted to raise his own family.

"I never had any doubt that's what I wanted to do. And I was going to make it happen," he said.

gmercer@therecord.com , Twitter: @MercerRecord

Greg Mercer covers news and baseball for the Waterloo Region Record. Follow on Twitter @mercerrecordor on his Kitchener Panthers baseball blog.