Jeff Pickering was the kind of guy whose steel guitar-playing you could recognize without even seeing him.
The soulful way he plucked his strings occasionally brought tears to people’s eyes, say people in the Wichita music scene.
He was the kind of guy that – when he was sick – attracted bands of bluegrass musicians to jam by his bedside.
He had that kind of effect on people, his friends say.
Mr. Pickering, 58, died last week after a protracted battle with brain cancer, and there will be a celebration of his life at 2 p.m. Saturday at Abode Venue, 1330 E. Douglas.
In lieu of flowers, guests are asked to contribute to a Youcaring page to help his family cope with the loss without the burden of his medical bills and final expenses.
Mr. Pickering was an avid steel guitar and banjo player who played with bands including Oklahoma Sunshine and Swiftkick and, in recent years, with well-known local musician Bucky Fowler. At various times over the decades, he shared the stage with Hank Williams Jr., Merle Haggard, George Strait and the like.
Oklahoma Sunshine, in the late 1970s, was on the cutting edge – a crossover country/rock act.
“We played traditional country music, outlaw country music, also Southern rock, and Jeff fit right in,” said Vince Baker, co-founder of Oklahoma Sunshine. “Even when we were playing six nights a week, he was still going to WSU to get a degree. He would bring his homework with him and he would do his homework on our breaks. I’d see him sitting in a booth reading his books and doing his homework in nightclubs and bars.”
That was indicative of Mr. Pickering, his friends say – a musician, but also a thinker.
“I always respected him because he was such a great musician and he had such a great mind for music,” Baker said. “He was a very smart man. Everybody in the band has differences, but we never had any real differences. We all took each others’ ideas and made what we could out of them, and Jeff had a lot of good ideas.”
Mr. Pickering had retired from the live music scene many years ago, and was focusing on his songwriting, friends say.
He released a solo album in 2011, “Retrospect,” some tracks from which are on YouTube.
But that doesn’t mean he didn’t still play, often jamming with friends and their various bands.
Richard Crowson, of Pop and the Boys, was one of Mr. Pickering’s frequent jam buddies in recent years.
Crowson stressed that Mr. Pickering was more than just an excellent steel guitar player – he was a gifted songwriter.
“I would consider him probably a musical genius,” Crowson said. “I’ve always said I think he was the best steel guitar player west of the Mississippi River. But that was just part of what he did.”
Jeff Pritchard was also one of his friends in recent years, and the two met for lunch at Little Saigon – one of Pickering’s preferred lunch spots – every couple of weeks.
“He was one of the top (steel guitar players) in the market,” Pritchard said. “He was a real intelligent guy, real likable guy. Just a real shame that we lost him like we did.”
Carter Green, owner of Wellington-based Greenjeans Studios, where Mr. Pickering cut his solo album, said his steel guitar playing occasionally brought people to tears.
“Every time he laid down a steel guitar track, it had a massive effect on anyone who heard it,” Green said. “He played steel guitar on a track of (Robin Macy’s), and everyone had tears welling up in their eyes, his steel guitar solo was so beautiful.
“He really had a way of touching people with his music. It was very honest, no pretense or anything like that. He was the real deal.”
In recent years
In the last two years, Mr. Pickering had been playing with the Bucky Fowler Band – a gig he rather enjoyed, given his affection for classic country acts like Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and the like.
Fowler said he “wooed” Mr. Pickering out of his retirement from playing live music.
“I said, ‘We do things a little different with the Bucky Fowler Band.’ We don’t play until 1 or 2 in the morning, which is basically what he was trying to avoid,” Fowler said. “We were blessed to have him on our stage the last two years. We really, really enjoyed him.”
Shortly after he joined up with the Bucky Fowler Band, Mr. Pickering received his cancer diagnosis.
That didn’t stop him from playing with the band and jamming as often as possible, though.
When his condition worsened late last year, his musician friends began paying visits to bring the jam sessions to him.
Fowler remembers one jam session with Crowson by Mr. Pickering’s bedside.
“It was really, really difficult to see him struggle here in the late stages,” Fowler said. “Jeff would try to sing laying in his bed, but he could barely talk at that point. You could see his lips moving along with our lyrics.
“That was kind of a special adios to him on our behalf.”
Mr. Pickering’s loss has been tough on many of his friends, as he was “immensely respected by every musician who ever encountered him and heard him play,” Crowson said.
“He was a very, very gifted man,” Fowler said. “He was truly a legend in the country rockin’ music scene in Wichita and the surrounding area.”
Celebration of Jeff Pickering
When: 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: Abode Venue, 1330 E. Douglas