Cindy Cashdollar has five Grammys from her 81/2 years of playing steel guitar for Asleep at the Wheel, but the statuettes didn’t come easily. “I was completely petrified that first year (1993),” says the Woodstock, N.Y., native, who has made Austin her home for 14 years. “I was in way over my head.” Although an accomplished dobro player who backed Leon Redbone the previous five years, Cashdollar was a mere dabbler at steel when she joined the veteran western swing band known for its virtuosity at every position. At Cashdollar’s audition to replace John Ely, Wheel boss Ray Benson went pre-Simon Cowell on her, saying, “Well, you’re obviously not a steel player.” But Benson, impressed with her dobro work and willingness to learn the language of western swing, gave Cashdollar a six-month tryout. It didn’t hurt that the striking blonde with a closet full of vintage western threads was that rare female steel guitarist.
A novelty no more, the air-sweetening Cashdollar has become not only one of the most in-demand session players in Austin, but an instrumentalist recruited nationally to play on records by Bob Dylan (“Time Out of Mind”), Ryan Adams and the Cardinals (“Cold Roses”), Graham Parker (“Struck By Lightning”) and many more. She’s also toured the past couple years with Van Morrison and Rod Stewart and has an open invitation to sit in with the “Prairie Home Companion” house band, with host Garrison Keillor usually pulling Cashdollar – he loves to say her name – out into the spotlight for a number or two.
“When I get a call about working on a project, they always say, ‘We want your sound,'” says Cashdollar, who’s been playing with James Hand lately. “But I really can’t tell you what my sound is.” Reviews have used such descriptions as “lush,” “atmospheric,” “emotive” and “diverse.”
Cashdollar’s sound is a combination of things, says guitarist Redd Volkaert, who often volleys solos with Cashdollar when she sits in with Heybale. “She’s a master of the nonpedal steel guitar,” he says of her main instrument, which looks like the traditional steel guitars you see at honky tonks, but the only pedal she uses is for volume control. “Most steel players can only do one thing – the lap steel players are more into rock and blues, and the pedal steel guys do all that corny country stuff – but Cindy can play it all.” Her 2004 debut album “Slide Show” displayed her range, from Hawaiian-style pieces to hardcore western swing and airy pop numbers.
“I’ve tried to play the pedal steel guitar, but it’s too mental, too mechanical,” Cashdollar says. “I like to keep it simple, if not a little left of center.”
And she’s learned that the key to progression is keeping an open mind. “When I was making that double album with Ryan Adams, he said he wanted to make my amp settings sound like Jerry Garcia’s,” Cashdollar says, “and I really didn’t understand what he was going for. Jerry Garcia was a great pedal steel player – just listen to the steel on ‘Teach Your Children.’ But our styles are so different.” After “Cold Roses” came out, a fellow musician told Cashdollar he liked her work on it. “I didn’t think you played pedal steel,” he said. Cashdollar smiled. Adams was right.
Cashdollar gets burnt out sticking with one style of music too long. That’s what happened when she left Asleep at the Wheel in 2001.
“I went to Ray and said, ‘I’m sorry, but I just can’t do this anymore,’ and he said, ‘What took you so long?'” The average stint for a steel or fiddle player in the hard-touring band is about six years.
But once liberated from the nightly salute to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Cashdollar found herself in a slight state of panic. Now what? The life of a freelancer can be an insecure one.
She soon picked up a gig with BeauSoleil on its 25th anniversary tour. The western swing upstart who joined the Wheel had become a novice of Cajun music, playing in that genre’s most distinguished band. But if anything, Cashdollar’s a quick study, with an insatiable desire to learn different styles.
“She’s as eager now as she was 15 years ago,” says Volkaert. “Cindy listens to everything and is constantly asking questions.”
It’s funny to think that if Levon Helm had not accidentally shot himself in the leg practicing pistol techniques for a movie role in the mid 1980s, Cashdollar might never have taken up the steel guitar. Helm couldn’t play drums while he was recuperating, so he started an acoustic group with former Band bandmate Rick Danko and Cashdollar on dobro. After Helm’s leg healed, he went back to the drums with a vengeance and turned his acoustic group into a rockin’ bar band.
“You couldn’t hear the dobro at all, so Rick lent me an antique six-string lap steel to play in that group,” says Cashdollar, who grew up on a dairy farm not far from the Band’s famous “Big Pink” house.
She had started to play the guitar at age 11, but was so shy and insecure those first few years that she’d only play in the closet. When Cashdollar was 12 she went to her first concert, whose opening act was her guitar teacher Billy Faier. The headliner was Van Morrison.
The next time Cashdollar saw Morrison in concert, she was behind him, seated at her nonpedal steel guitar. Having seen her in Asleep at the Wheel, Morrison hired Cashdollar in 2006 to tour in support of “Pay the Devil,” his country departure album. “That tour was great,” she says, “very challenging.” For starters, Morrison wanted Cashdollar, who is used to well-timed fills, to play constantly. Then, when Morrison canned the horn section in mid-tour, Cashdollar and fiddler Jason Roberts (another Wheelster) had only four days to learn how to cover for the missing horns.
Perhaps the highlight of Cashdollar’s massive résumé was her time in Dylan’s studio band for 1997’s highly acclaimed “Time Out of Mind.” When she got the call, at first she thought someone was goofing on her but then realized that no one could be that cruel. “I don’t know how Dylan knew of me,” she says. “They just told me, ‘Well, we finally tracked you down.'”
Cashdollar’s name (it’s real) has made it to the top of the preferred-players list for the nonpedal steel guitar. She’s even released a trio of instructional DVDs. And to think that she used to be so insecure about her steel playing that she’d talk in her sleep about string gauges and tunings.
“I was just so determined to make it work,” she says of her tryout with the Wheel. Indeed, this player has always had a lot of pluck.