It’s Sept. 13, 2013, at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center. Patti Maxine stands behind her lap steel guitar with her long-flowing silver hair tied back into a ponytail, and her plain white button-up shirt adorned with a single Hawaiian lei. It’s her 75th birthday, and she is surrounded by several of her close musician friends on stage, and a sold-out crowd. She’s as calm and cool as always, but underneath her striking locks is the glint of a smile.
After a brief, softly spoken intro, she and her band go into a lively country, bluesy version of Brenda Lee’s 1959 rock ’n’ roll classic “Sweet Nothin’s.” You can almost hear the shock in the crowd when she starts singing—it’s like she’s channeling the classic juke-joint blues greats.
She fills most of the songs with licks from her lap steel guitar, an instrument she’s played since she was a 14-year-old kid living in the mountains of southwestern Virginia. Before she was old enough to vote, she’d developed a knack for making it sing like an angel with almost no effort.
Maxine moved to California in the early ’70s, eventually settling later in the decade in Santa Cruz, where she became the local go-to lap steel guitarist. In all this time, she’s played the lap steel (and occasionally guitar) in roughly 10 bands and has accompanied more singer-songwriters and bands than she can even recall.
This night is different. She’s not accompaniment, not off-to-the side providing flawless, rehearsal-free lap steel sliding notes. She’s at center stage, with the other musicians there to accompany her. It’s Patti Maxine’s name on the marquee, a rare treat for folks in Santa Cruz.
She plays nearly three hours of music, a range of songs spanning old country hits to Hawaiian tunes to jazz standards to Western swing classics. She sings, plays the guitar, and of course plays plenty of the lap steel guitar. Her steel solos are particularly intoxicating. For Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” she may as well have attached the strings to her heart—rarely does a solo move an audience like this.
Even on her 75th birthday, she doesn’t hog the spotlight; several other players get a solo during “Caravan.” And for “Bird in a House,” written by semi-recent bluegrass band Railroad Earth, local guitarist Rhan Wilson sings lead, with Maxine and longtime local musician Pipa Piñon singing harmonies. Maxine’s lap steel solo adds a trippy element that can best be described as the aural equivalent of floating through space.
So why does this have to be so rare? Why doesn’t a musician as well-known, respected and loved locally as Maxine play more shows as a headliner?
“It feels a little overwhelming to me. People are paying to hear you, and you’re supposed to have this big show going on,” she says, then gives the question some more thought. “It’s a lot of love coming at you. It’s just beautiful. I try to make sure I keep that in check. Not let it go to my head or something.”
Maxine certainly doesn’t seem overwhelmed on stage, and after six decades in music, maybe she deserves to let it go to her head once in a while.
But for someone with such a deep resume, she’s remarkably humble. When I interviewed her, she downplayed a lot of her accomplishments, and even the notion that among local musicians, she’s a bit of an icon.
However, Maxine’s longtime partner Marilyn Marzell also sat in on the interview and was more than happy to set the record straight. For instance, Marzell told me that a young man who recently jammed with Maxine said that doing so was an item on his bucket list. Maxine then said she had no idea it was that important to him.
“She’s very humble,” says Marzell. “But Patti is in demand. People know Patti.”
Maxine’s talents have been long recognized, but even more so recently. Locally, there’s been a shift toward traditional forms of country music, and bands like Miss Lonely Hearts and the Carolyn Sills Combo have risen to the top of the scene.
Sills’ group plays Western swing, and she greatly admires Maxine. She tells me that when she and her husband moved to Santa Cruz eight years ago, they were mainly playing to folks in their 50s and 60s. Now there are a lot of younger people coming out to their shows.
“It seemed the younger folks were more into bluegrass and faster punk-country,” Sills says. “Bars are now doing country nights. People are coming out. I’m sure Patti’s noticed. I feel like she has this younger cult following, and it’s rightfully deserved. She’s such a badass lady. She’s done such cool stuff over the years.”
Maxine has also been recognized in recent years for her amazing work playing the lap steel guitar for Hawaiian music. In 2015, she was invited to the Maui Steel Guitar Festival in Hawaii, where she was treated as one of the greats of her instrument. She’s been invited back every year since. She’s one of a very small group of people from the mainland who is treated with this level of respect as a Hawaiian music lap steel master.
“When Hawaiian musicians come to town, they know to call ‘the lap steel player.’ She’s known in that community,” Marzell says. “Everybody knows Patti, because she’s everywhere. She’s always playing. She doesn’t need rehearsals most of the time.”
Getting Into It
Maxine recalls singing whenever she had the chance as a young child. It was one of the few trouble-free ways she and her family were able to connect. The lap steel guitar became her instrument of choice almost by chance. At 14, she went to take guitar lessons at a local music school, and the teacher, Elmer Ridenhour, talked her into studying the lap steel instead since he was low on students.
The lap steel is a guitar that’s played horizontally, with a metal slide. It’s most associated with the classic breezy Hawaiian music and the twangy sound of traditional country, honkytonk and Western swing. The tuning is different than a standard guitar, and the strings are not pressed to a fret, which gives the guitar its dreamy, sliding sound.
Maxine took to the instrument right away.
“I loved it. It was very natural. I just fell into it and really loved it,” she says. “The teacher was a really good teacher. What he told me was you need to listen for a while and then start playing. He was so easy, non-judgmental. Really supportive. He’s like a father figure.”
He also got Maxine her first batch of gigs—only six weeks after her first lesson—which she did mostly as a duo with him at Elks Clubs and firemen’s halls. The lessons continued for five years, by which point she was an in-demand player. She landed a spot in Virginia country band Doug Wilson and the Trail Dusters, who even had their own local TV show. As incredible as the experience was, it lacked something critical for Maxine.
“It’s really different being on TV,” she says. “It’s like playing for no audience. There’s nobody there. Just camera staring at you. Not my favorite. I like the feedback of people.”
Maxine landed in California in 1970, after a bartender in her hometown of Roanoke invited her to join him on his trip to one of the ski resorts in Lake Tahoe. Once out here, she gigged anywhere she could.
She hopped around from town to town for a while, but it was Santa Cruz that really spoke to her. She first checked it out because people were talking about a jam rock band that played here, frequently called Sons of Champlin, though she never did get a chance to see them. By 1978, she had made Santa Cruz her home.
“When I drove into Santa Cruz, it’s when they closed Pacific Avenue and had a spring fair. I drove in and saw that people were dancing in the streets, just having a great time,” Maxine says. “To me that was really different from what my life was like in Virginia.”
On the West Coast, Maxine gained a reputation in no time. As Marzell was leaving Eugene, Oregon to come down to Santa Cruz in 1979 to form a dance theater company, some of her friends told her to look up this amazing musician everyone was talking about down there named Patti Maxine.
Not much has changed, Marzell says.
“When Patti and I are walking around, it’s like being with a celebrity. People are really moved by their experience of listening to her music. I stand back and watch her receive it very graciously,” she says.
One of Maxine’s closest friends is singer-songwriter Piñon, who also came to Santa Cruz in the late ’70s, and currently lives in New Mexico. She recalls the first time she saw Maxine performing at a coffee shop in town—just her and her guitar on a stool under a red spotlight.
“Patti can really move you with her music. She really gets into the song. I was just in awe of her,” Piñon says. “She can bring her lap steel in and play any type of style; country to jazz to avant-garde to rock to country-swing. She’s a musician through and through. She’s genuine and she’s been that way her whole life.”
Throughout the ’80s, Piñon and Maxine also did a lot of theater. They would write music, perform, and Maxine would act. Maxine also showed off her acting chops in the Altared Christmas production written and put together by local musician Rhan Wilson. In one song, Maxine sings a dark, reflective version of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” She plays up the odd vibe with deadbeat perfection, making it a hilarious rendition of the normally goofy, upbeat song.
Maxine’s talents are diverse, but she most often plays in someone else’s band, or adds something to the work of a singer-songwriter. As in-demand as she is, she’s very generous with her time. Chances are, if she has the date free, she’ll say yes to nearly anyone that asks her to play with them.
“It doesn’t matter so much what the level of musicianship is,” Marzell says. “She’ll play with people who are just coming out as musicians and people that have been around for a long time.”
Until recently, she was playing in the local band Sherry Austin with Henhouse, which was well known in town and played regularly. More recently, she’s playing in Wilson’s new group Jazz the Dog, which plays at Michael’s on Main every other Friday.
“It’s a little looser now,” Maxine says of her schedule. “I am playing a lot, but it’s different now. I have a hard time saying no [to someone], but I’m trying to learn it a little bit. Unless it’s something that I absolutely do not have a heart for, most of the time it’s ‘Sure, I’ll be there.’ I almost always get something from it.”
She’s Got Soul
Her lap steel chops are not the only reason Maxine is a favorite among other musicians. Sills says it’s also because of what a fun person she is to be around.
“She’s a blast. She can keep up with me drink for drink for sure. It’s always fun to have Patti Max around, hanging out,” Sills says.
Maxine is also a thoughtful player, one of the least celebrated but most important skills a musician can possess. She’s got a lot of tricks up her sleeve, but she’s careful to give the song exactly what it needs rather than showing off everything she can do on the lap steel.
“She doesn’t dominate,” local musician Andy Fuhrman says. “Sometimes you’ll have somebody play with you and they’re just loud and take over. They just fill up all the space. She doesn’t do that. What a fantastic person she is. Her personality and the type of person she is—that’s a significant piece of why people love her and want to play with her.”
Her generosity has led her to donate her talents to important causes—though, again, she doesn’t mention this herself. Marzell says that in particular Maxine is always willing to show up for feminist, progressive and LGBTQ events.
“She contributes her singing and her music, not so much standing on a soapbox. It’s huge. Music is transformation,” Marzell says.
One of the most interesting campaigns Maxine was involved in was called the Patti Maxine Living Wig Foundation, which was a collaboration between her and Wilson. People have long obsessed over Maxine’s silver hair, so she and Wilson decided to use it to raise money for WomenCare, a local organization that supports women with cancer.
“People would always either ask me, ‘Are you going to cut your hair?’ or say, ‘Do not cut your hair.’ Those were my only two choices,” Maxine says, laughing. “We talked about that, and played around with the idea and came up with the Patti Maxine Living Wig Foundation.”
They took a photo of Maxine with her hair on full display. Then for $25, folks could have Maxine’s hair photoshopped onto them. This money was donated to WomenCare. They raised $2,000 total.
“Everyone looks like an old hippie,” says Marzell of the results. “It’s pretty amazing,”
Everyone I interviewed made a point to say that although Maxine may be known as the local go-to lap steel player, she is also an incredible singer. And it’s true—she’s soulful, precise and natural. Not only that, but like her gift with the lap steel, she can handle a diverse style of songs. “Sweet Nothin’s” may have showed off her ability to belt out a rough and rowdy rock ’n’ roll song, but she can also sing tender ballads, or lighthearted country-pop tunes. When she sits in with other musicians, she’ll often add vocal harmonies, too, sometimes to the surprise of the musicians that invited her to accompany them.
The way it showcased her voice is one of the reasons that her Kuumbwa show five years ago was so special. It turns out she is currently working on a live album using the audio from that night. It’ll be her first-ever solo album, aside from a compilation of odds and ends she put together sometime back for friends. She plans to release it in September, at her 80th birthday party show. Since her 65th birthday party, she’s gotten in the habit of headlining shows once every five years. That first one was a surprise party for her put together by Marzell.
This record is really special because while Maxine’s likely gigged more than just about every musician in town, there’s not much recorded material of hers out there to show her wide range of talents. It promises to be a memento of everything she’s contributed to here in Santa Cruz.
“It’s a gift to be given,” Maxine says of her musical talents. “I’ve definitely seen people come and go. I’ve watched as some people just starting and learning to play would come to my gigs, or bands that I’m in, then they started putting their own bands together. So now they’re playing, and they’re inviting me to sit in with them. I really enjoy that.”