This Pennsylvania Pumper Shows His Passion for Classic Country Music

Rodney Loeb opens the doors of his septic service shop to a popular gathering of pedal steel guitar players.

This Pennsylvania Pumper Shows His Passion for Classic Country Music

Some of the steel guitar players show off their skills.

Rodney Loeb has the satellite radio in his vacuum truck permanently tuned to Willie’s Roadhouse so country music of the 1950s and ’60s is his constant companion, whether he’s up at dawn on the way to a pumping job or coming home from the disposal plant in the evening. Familiar artists like Johnny Cash, George Jones and Mel Tillis have provided the soundtrack to his life in the hills of eastern Pennsylvania.

“It’s what I grew up on, basically. We went to picnics when I was a kid where the music was played. My parents listened to it when we were on the farm, and it just stuck with me,” Loeb recalls. “What the kids listen to today, I’ve just learned to block it out.”

I imagine a lot of pumpers about Loeb’s age — he’s 60 and on the downward side of life, as he describes it — have a similar story to tell and a shared love of the “real” country music of those days. And I can relate to these pumpers of a certain age.

When I was a young boy, my dad pulled the car over on vacation and took the whole family into a roadside pole building to see Loretta Lynn, the Coal Miner’s Daughter. I went in kicking and screaming but came out with a seed planted for a lifelong love of honky-tonk music.

So when I read a story about the garage at Rodney Loeb Septic Service being transformed into a gathering spot for the Steel Guitar Jammers, I had to call Loeb and learn all about it. As it turns out, Loeb pulls his pump trucks out of the garage every few months to host a group of pedal steel guitar players — and neighbors can make out the unmistaken amplified twang wafting over the countryside. 


You may or may not know much about the steel guitar. It’s a tabletop electric guitar that produces a crying sound that was once a trademark of country music. The instrument is impossibly difficult to play, requiring the use of both hands on the strings, both feet operating pedals and both knees pushing levers that bend notes to create that distinctive sound.

Pumpers have to perform many tasks at once for their jobs — control the suction, wrangle a hose and agitate thick sludge — for example. But making the steel guitar sing? Well, Loeb will tell you that’s a different kind of challenge. He should know. He’s been trying to learn a little since he first plugged in an amplifier a few years ago.

“I only know two or three songs right now. I’m slow at it, and I don’t get much time to practice,” he says. “If I get frustrated while I’m doing billing at night, I’ll go into the room where I have it set up and doodle around.”

Loeb’s neighbor and lifelong friend, Tommy Vollmer, is a well-known pedal steel player in the region. He offered to give Loeb lessons and found him a good instrument to play. One day Vollmer told Loeb he’d lost his space for a group of players to meet and share tunes. Loeb had an idea.

“I told him we’ve got a big shop. We can have them there if you don’t mind playing around septic trucks,” Loeb recalls. “Well, that won’t bother these guys,” Vollmer replied.

So Loeb cleans up the 40-by-40-foot; Vollmer brings some pizzas; Loeb’s wife, Janice, throws hot dogs and sauerkraut in a crockpot; and the players bring the beer. The most recent Thursday meeting drew 15 steel players from as far away as Delaware and Long Island, New York — most of them professional players on the weekends — as well as a drummer, bass player, guitar player and some singers. Among the crowd of players and friends, a reporter came from the local newspaper to write about the Steel Guitar Jammers.

“They pick a song, and then they go around the room and each plays their own version of that song,” Loeb says. This might be the biggest gathering of steel guitar players in one spot. They’re rare these days as country music has gone rock ’n’ roll and many bands have left the pedal steel behind. “It’s just amazing. One guy, the more he drinks, the better he plays. Someone said he was a really good player and I said, ‘He’s going to get another beer. Just listen, he’ll get better.’”


Loeb may not be an accomplished pedal steel guitar player yet, but he has a great pumping success story to tell. Laid off from his job as an overhead crane operator at a steel company in 2002, he was doing odd jobs — one of which was pumping septic tanks. An old friend, Lester Miller of Millers Sanitary Service in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, eventually talked Loeb into buying his spare truck and starting his own company.

“For the first six months, I was scared to death; I’m not going to lie about it. I didn’t eat or sleep. How was I going to make it? I could have fallen flat on my face,” Loeb recalls. “Lester said it would take three years to go full time, and he was right.”

Loeb built the business mostly by providing residential and some commercial pumping and mostly through word-of-mouth referrals. There are enough regular customers to keep him as busy as he wants to be, especially in the summer months. In fact, this year he’s cutting all advertising and isn’t concerned about enough calls coming in.

Loeb is well-suited for a one-man operation, as he has a background as a truck mechanic and is willing to put in long hours when needed. At the shop on his 14-acre property, Loeb keeps two trucks running: a 1998 Western Star carrying a 3,500-gallon steel Imperial Industries tank and Masport pump and a 2007 Freightliner with a 2,300-gallon Pik Rite steel tank and Masport pump.

The Freightliner has turned out to be a go-to rig for a couple of reasons. First, customers who don’t want heavy weight over their long residential driveways request the smaller of the two trucks. And Loeb has learned to appreciate the ease of running routes with the truck that has an automatic transmission from Allison Transmission. “It’s so handy to get around, and I love driving that little truck. It’s got plenty of pep for what I need,” he says.

Over the years, Loeb attended the Pumper & Cleaner Environmental Expo — now the Water & Wastewater Equipment, Treatment & Transport (WWETT) Show — several times and has enjoyed his unexpected career move into the wastewater industry. He wants to work another three years and then look to a young buyer to take over the business.


Loeb did recall that Miller first approached him when he was a young man and talked to him about getting into the pumping business. He didn’t want to do it at the time.

“If I’d have started back then, where would I be today?” he asks.

You might say the same thing about Loeb starting pedal steel guitar lessons so late in life. But he is content to host the players and sit back and enjoy the music he’s loved his whole life.

“I guess I’m living the dream right now,” he says. “I can’t complain. The business has been good to me, and I enjoy the jams.”


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