How Steel Guitar Made Its Way Into the Super Bowl

Travis Toy (left), Chandler Walters (right)

Country music is on a winning streak. And though it may have been the Kansas City Chiefs who hoisted a trophy at the end of the 2024 Super Bowl, country fans scored a victory too as the instrument that is most indicative of the country sound found its way into the opening festivities, and in a prominent manner.

We knew going into the Super Bowl presentation that country queen Reba McEntire would be performing the National Anthem. What we were surprised by is Post Malone showing up with an acoustic guitar, a turquoise bolo tie, and giving a countrified treatment of “America The Beautiful” backed solely by a pedal steel guitar. When Reba sang “The Star Spangled Banner,” the steel guitar remained, giving country fans something else to cheer about.

No, these steel guitar parts were not played live on the field, though both the performances by Post Malone and Reba McEntire were sung live in real time. The two sang to pre-recorded tracks produced by Adam Blackstone, who is known for producing major music events for television. Though Blackstone is mostly from the hip-hop/R&B/pop realm, he envisioned a more country sound for the Super Bowl’s opening performances, and used the steel guitar to bring that to life.

Steel guitar player Travis Toy has played steel guitar for just about everyone in country music, from Alan Jackson and Loretta Lynn, to more contemporary acts such as Luke Bryan and Rascal Flatts. It was around 2017 when touring with Rascal Flatts that Toy met Adam Blackstone. When Blackstone needed a steel guitar player, Travis Toy got the tap on the shoulder.

“He emailed me, and I was in Vegas, probably around New Year’s and said, ‘Hey, Reba’s doing the National Anthem, and I need steel guitar…'” Travis Toy tells Saving Country Music. “It was super top secret at that time. I played the part a couple of weeks ago, just went into the studio, and recorded some stuff for it. I’ve been super blessed in my career, played on just about every TV show, but haven’t done anything Super Bowl related, so that was super cool.”

During Post Malone’s performance, the steel guitar was played by Chandler Walters, who was discovered by throwback country artist Ernest through Tik-Tok. Ernest first saw him playing to a Josh Turner track.

“I sent him a message. ‘Where are you?’ and he goes, ‘Nashville,’ and I was like ‘OH MY GOD, you’re in my band now.'” Ernest told CMT in 2022. “He immediately sent me a video of him playing the steel solo on ‘Flower Shops.’ Last year, this kid graduated high school, moved to Nashville, bought a steel guitar, and taught himself how to play. He has been a guitar player, but he wanted to stick out. Now, he is hopping on our tour bus. I don’t know how many times that has happened, but that is what it’s all about right there.”

Walters has since become one of the most buzzed about steel players in country, and is one of the young guys trying to resurrect the instrument in the modern era. Meanwhile Travis Toy is one of the steel guitar survivors, who lived through the near evaporation of the instrument in country music in recent years to now be part of its revival as country music embraces the steel guitar sound once again.

“I’ve been able to survive because I’ve been willing to play pop,” Toy tells SCM. “Sometimes it leads to things that aren’t your favorite thing to play, but I have a kid to put clothes on. I’ll play whatever it takes. But I’ve played more steel solos in the last two years than I played in the prior ten. Which is great, I love it.”

Travis Toy continues, “When things take a turn back towards traditionalism, I’m a fan, because it allows me to do more, and play more of the things at my heart that I love. So as things shift back towards traditionalism, I’m certainly a fan.”

Along with his touring and studio work, Travis Toy also gives steel guitar tutorials, helping to teach the next generation of steel guitar players.

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Saving Country Music also reached out to Chandler Walters, but did not hear back before the time of this post.

© 2023 Saving Country Music