As a pedal steel guitar player, Joel Ferguson has never been the frontman. At 66 years old, Ferguson waited more than four decades to put out his own solo album, but now, he’s finally found the confidence to share his own stories under the name Mighty Joe King.
“This is kind of an unusual thing, I know, to put out my first solo CD, but the timing was right, and all the stars lined up,” Ferguson explains.
He’s played with countless locals, like Kristen Hertzenberg, The Rhyolite Sound, Paige Overton and Justin Mather. He has also participated in the Smith Center’s lauded Composers Showcase, a regular gathering of Vegas artists sharing original music with one another and their audience.
“That was a big turning point in me getting my confidence to the place where I was like, ‘Oh, people like my original instrumental music,” so it inspired me to do more,” Ferguson says. “I had never played any of my music in public and I always had just kind of been a sideman or been in a band, so that was very inspiring. It kind of fired me up to get more happening.”
Mighty Joe King’s October album, The Human Revolution, came together with help from friend and Million Dollar Quartet star Ben Hale, along with a group of studio musicians. Hale, who had moved to Nashville, was in the midst of a six-month engineering class at Blackbird Studios. As his final project, Hale offered Ferguson a chance to record at the renowned Nashville recording studio.
“I had to hire the musicians and book a flight and find a place to stay,” Ferguson says. “The hardest part was me becoming organized and being a producer. Everyone was looking at me to make the decisions, so it was quite a growing-up process.”
Always a musician at heart, Ferguson began playing the banjo at age 6 before switching to the drums at 8. During college, Ferguson got into the pedal steel and began loaning his gritty, bluesy take on the often-folky instrument in a number of bands.
“I have a blues and Southern-rock background—that’s my wheelhouse,” Ferguson says. “I’ve played a lot of country music, and that’s been good to me, but when I sit down at the steel guitar I hear Southern rock slide guitar; I don’t hear country music.”
The Human Revolution is a reflection of that sentiment. As Mighty Joe King, Ferguson shows off the pedal steel guitar in a different light, blending jazz, rock and blues into a cohesive sampling of his expansive talents. And while it’s primarily an instrumental album, it does spotlight Ferguson’s twangy vocals and lyrics on a handful of tracks, like “Voodoo Doll,” a song showcasing his Southern rhythm and blues influences.
For Ferguson, releasing an album has given him a new outlook on his craft. “It’s helped me believe that I was as good as I wanted to be,” Ferguson says. “We have this constant, ‘I wish I was at this level or that level.’ Going through this has helped me believe what other people have been telling me.”