Steel guitarist “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow died January 6 in Petaluma, California of complications from Alzheimer’s Disease. A founding member of the Flying Burrito Brothers, Kleinow held a legitimate claim as one of the creators of the genre known as “country rock”.
Along with future Byrd Clarence White, who in 1963 was growing bored with the bluegrass music he performed with the Kentucky Colonels, Kleinow experimented in the pre-Laurel Canyon L.A. club scene with a new kind of music. In “Hotel California,” Barney Hoskyn’s seminal biography of the Southern California music scene, Sneaky Pete had this to say:
We were fooling around there with country rock, but we didn’t know what to call it … there wasn’t a label for it at the time.
Later, the Byrds formed, Dylan went electric and released “John Wesley Harding,” Don Henley and Glenn Frey moved to Los Angeles, and everything changed. But Kleinow was an early trailblazer for musicians looking to revolutionize country in the way the Beatles shook up rock.
Were it not for the troubled psyche of Gram Parsons, the Flying Burrito Brothers might have been a legendary band, rather than a touchstone for rock historians trying to pinpoint where it all began.
Parsons died in 1973 of a heroin overdose; drugs were always a factor in the Burritos’ music. Kleinow told Hoskyns that there wasn’t a Burritos show that didn’t embarass him. That had a lot to do with their inability to break through commercially.
Sneaky Pete, however, kept the flame alive after Parsons’ passing, touring with various versions of the Flying Burrito Brothers. He released two albums with “Burrito Deluxe,” which formed in 2000 and included the Band’s Garth Hudson and ex-Amazing Rhythm Ace Jeff “Stick” Davis.
He mostly worked as a studio musician, contributing to a wide array of efforts. Frank Zappa, the Bee Gees, John Lennon and the pre-Stevie Nicks incarnation of Fleetwood Mac all relied on Kleinow’s signature sound.
On Jackson Browne’s second album, “For Everyman,” Sneaky Pete’s elegiac, soaring bridge between “Take It Easy” and “Our Lady of the Well” was particularly mesmerizing. I was 16 when the album came out. It was as if I’d never heard the steel guitar until that moment; it opened my eyes to country music, a genre I’d always associated with bigots and simpletons.
“Sneaky” Pete Kleinow died at age 72, after spending a lifetime married to Ernestine Kleinow; they married when the guitarist was 18. They had five children.
Fittingly, a memorial service is planned in Joshua Tree National Park later this month.
The final Burrito Deluxe album, which Kleinow ceased working on in 2005 when he was diagnosed with Alzeimer’s, will be released February 27. It is tentatively titled “Disciples of Truth.”