Ralph Mooney, the pioneering steel guitar player who recorded and toured with Waylon Jennings for two decades, died on Sunday night from complications of cancer in Kennedale, Texas. He was 82.
Mooney recorded on numerous hits for Merle Haggard, Wanda Jackson, Wynn Stewart, Buck Owens and others. But he was best known for his work with Jennings, as well as his early contributions to the Bakersfield country sound that provided a rougher, more soulful alternative to the slick, string-laden style of the Nashville establishment.
“Ralph Mooney made his greatest impact at a time when Nashville was on the Countrypolitan path,” said noted country music critic Holly Gleeson. “He was a key ingredient of the California country sound; he made it tangy and twangy.”
Born in Oklahoma in 1928, Mooney moved as a teenager to Southern California, where he played relentlessly and formed a band with Stewart in the early 1950s. He contributed to a plethora of Owens’ early hits such as “Foolin’ Around” and “Under Your Spell Again” and recorded with Haggard on “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers.” He was a top session player for Capitol Records in the ’50s’ and ’60s and co-wrote “Crazy Arms” with Chuck Seals. It became a smash hit for Ray Price and was later covered by Jerry Lee Lewis and Willie Nelson.
In 1970 he joined outlaw country figurehead Jennings’ band the Waylors, with whom he played well into the 1990s. His distinctive playing was a featured element on Jennings’ hits “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” (with Nelson) and “Rainy Day Woman.”
Though he spent the vast majority of his career backing up other stars, Mooney recorded an instrumental album, “Corn Pickin’ and Slick Slidin’,” with James Burton for Capitol in 1968. He most recently recorded an instrumental version of “Crazy Arms” for Marty Stuart’s “Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions.”
Mooney is survived by wife Wanda, two children, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
(Steve Gaydos contributed to this report.)