Zero to Infinity: Buddy Emmons

This week we said goodbye to Buddy Emmons, one of the world’s great musicians — and the subject of three prior Zero to 180 pieces.  Here is but a 45-second demonstration of Buddy Emmons’ singular genius with the pedal steel guitar:

“Four Wheel Drive” (live)     Buddy Emmons     1965

It is a little distressing to see that 45Cat and Discogs.com (and YouTube) do not include any of the 45s Buddy Emmons recorded in the 1950s for almighty Columbia, nor his one outstanding 1960 single for Decca, “Blue Wind” b/w “Four Wheel Drive.”  This gaping historical hole is in stark contrast to the high regard in which Emmons is widely held:

“… world’s foremost steel guitarist” (Rolling Stone)
“… steel guitar innovator” (The Tennessean)
“… fabled steel guitarist” (CMT)
“… influential pedal steel guitarist” (Reuters)

How cool that my all-time favorite steel guitarist (Emmons) played with my favorite group (NRBQ) and guitarist (Duane Eddy).  Steel Guitar Forum, no surprise, already has a thread devoted to Buddy’s memory, while Edd Hurt writes a nice tribute to Emmons in  The Nashville Scene that talks about some of Buddy’s pedal steel technical innovations as co-founder, along with Shot Jackson, of Sho-Bud Guitars.

Buddy Emmons-aBuddy Emmons-bBuddy Emmons-c

Two essential/must-have Buddy Emmons recordings – The Buddy Emmons Collection & Redneck Jazz Explosion – I’ve noticed are both commanding high prices on Amazon, unfortunately.

Buddy Emmons-1Buddy Emmons-2

Steel Guitar Great Buddy Emmons Dies
Pedal steel player backed up artists from Ernest Tubb to Linda Rondstat
By Stephen L. Betts – Rolling Stone – July 30, 2015

Musician Buddy Emmons, widely regarded as the world’s foremost steel guitarist, hailed for his unique playing style and innovations with regard to tuning, has died at age 78.

Born Buddie Gene Emmons in Mishawaka, Indiana, and nicknamed “the Big E,” his guitar work was heard on countless recordings by acts ranging from Ray Price and Ernest Tubb, to Linda Ronstadt and the Carpenters.

At 11 years old, Emmons studied on lap steel guitar at the Hawaiian Conservatory of Music in South Bend, Indiana, learning to play country music by listening to the radio.  As a teenager, he joined his first bands, relocating to Illinois then to Detroit, before moving to Nashville in 1955 to join Grand Ole Opry star Little Jimmy Dickens’ band at 18 years old. Christened the Country Boys, Dickens’ band recorded several instrumentals, including three of Emmons’ original compositions.  After Dickens dissolved his band in 1956, Emmons and fellow guitarist Shot Jackson formed the Sho-Bud Company, which designed and built steel guitars.  Emmons also began extensive Nashville studio work, and joined Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours the following year, remaining with Tubb until 1958.

Four years later, Emmons became a member of Ray Price’s band the Cherokee Cowboys.  By 1967, he was living in California, and after joining Roger Miller’s band, landed more high-profile studio work in Los Angeles, appearing on records by Nancy Sinatra, Gram Parsons, John Sebastian and others.

A 1974 return to Nashville continued his studio work, on LPs by George Strait, Mel Tillis, Gene Watson, June Carter Cash, Ricky Skaggs and many more.  Emmons was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in 1981.  He toured with the Everly Brothers in the Nineties and would later be heard occasionally on radio’s A Prairie Home Companion.

Emmons retired in 2007 after the sudden death of his wife Peggy. In 2013, a tribute LP was released.  The Big E: A Salute to Steel Guitarist Buddy Emmons, featured Wllie Nelson, Little Jimmy Dickens, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, and several steel players including Randle Currie, from Brad Paisley’s band.  A rare bit of Emmons songwriting, “Are You Sure,” also appears on Kacey Musgraves’ Pageant Material as a hidden track duet with Willie Nelson.  As the story goes, he and Nelson penned the 1965 song together after a confrontation with a bar patron.

Fellow steel player Steve Fishell, who cites “The Big E” as a chief inspiration and is currently on the road with Emmylou Harris, summed up Emmons’ death to Rolling Stone Country as nothing short of a tragedy:  “It’s a towering loss in the pedal steel community and to music lovers everywhere.”

Highly Selective Discography of Buddy Emmons on Steel Guitar

Nancy Sinatra     Country My Way     1967

Gary Burton     Tennessee Firebird     1967

The Dillards     The Wheatstraw Suite     1968

Judy Collins     “I Pity the Poor Immigrant”     1968

John Phillips     John, The Wolf King of L.A.     1970

Denny Doherty     Watcha Gonna Do     1970

∞ John Sebastian     “Rainbows All Over Your Blues”     1970

Sandy Denny     “Crazy Lady Blues”     1971

Rowan Brothers     Rowan Brothers     1972

Odyssey     Odyssey     1972

Roger McGuinn     “Water Is Wide”     1973

Gram Parsons     GP     1973

Judee Sill     Heart Food     1973

Henry Mancini Orchestra     Country Gentleman     1974

Benny Martin     Tennessee Jubilee     1975

John Hartford     Nobody Knows What You Do     1976

Hargus “Pig” Robbins     Country Instrumentalist of the Year     1977

Ian Tyson     “Turning Thirty”     1978

Ricky Skaggs     Sweet Temptation     1979

Levon Helm     American Son     1980

= k.d. lang     “Shadowland”     1988

Emmons steel guitarsEmmons steel

Photo above courtesy of the Steel Guitar Forum

Roy Lanham: Country Meets Jazz

Yesterday’s piece about Noel Boggs made reference to Roy Lanham, who would later play guitar in the Sons of the Pioneers to pay the bills, yet sought much more fulfilling challenges in his own music’s attempt to straddle two distinct musical styles – country and jazz – despite the frustration of being considered too country for jazz fans and too jazzy for the country crowd.

“Eager Beaver”     Roy Lanham     1958

Roy Howard Lanham:  Lead Guitar
James Leon P. ‘JimmieWidener:  Rhythm Guitar
Arthur DouglasDougDalton:  Mandolin
DonaldDustyRhoads:  Bass

Rich Kienzle, in the liner notes for the Roy Lanham two-album CD reissue for 1958’s Sizzling Strings and 1963’s The Fabulous Guitar, points out Lanham’s unique contribution that set him apart from the other country-jazz guitar giants:

“The Lanham style, harmonically richer, combined both single-note passages with luxuriant chord melodies.  The vibrant four-part harmonies he created for his chord solos were his own idea, an improvement upon three-part harmonies he heard Western swing guitarist Sheldon Bennett play.”

From Kienzle’s liner notes I learned the following fascinating facts:

−  In 1943 Lanham would be drawn to Cincinnati’s 50,000-watt powerhouse, WLW, where he would work as a staff musician for the station’s various acts and later befriend Joe Maphis, Merle Travis, and Grandpa Jones.  Lanham would augment his income as a staff musician by playing on King recording sessions, most notably the Delmore Brothers, with “Freight Train Boogie” being the preeminent track.

−  WLW would also bring Roy Lanham together with Chet Atkins, and the two would unite in 1946 for a ‘Chester Atkins’ one-off single release, “Guitar Blues” b/w “Brown Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain,” on Nashville’s new indie label, Bullet.  Says Billboard, in its Nov. 30, 1946 edition:  “Majority of ‘Guitar Blues’ side allotted to guitars, with melody carried by twin guitars playing in bass and treble clef respectively.  It’s a swingy, pungent side for folk music, the brief sax solo adds little.”

−  Roy Lanham would also replace a hot-headed Jimmy Bryant, who had stormed off the Hometown Jamboree television show in 1955 for the last time.  Lanham would play instrumental duets from Bryant’s long-time partner, Speedy West, on “Hometown Jamboree,” but sadly, the two would never record together.

Speedy West & Roy Lanham use Fender guitars exclusively

Roy Lanham with Speedy West−  In 1959 Roy Lanham would overdub guitar parts onto a tape previously recorded by three Seattle high school teens, the Fleetwoods, accompanied only by car-key percussion.  This song, “Come Softly to Me,” would put the tiny Dolton label on the map.

−  Lanham, who had found plenty of work throughout his life as a session guitarist, once played a recording session with The Monkees.  Lanham would also perform on the final album of Tex Williams before his death in 1985.

Roy Lanham played in the Sons of the Pioneers from 1961 through 1986

Roy Lanham with Sons of PioneersDueling Fender guitars:  Roy Lanham’s 7-string vs. Andy Tielman’s 10-string

Roy Lanham 45

“Pony Tail”: Red Rhodes on the Crown Label

How inspiring to see that Orville J. “RedRhodes – the legendary steel guitarist who, by the late 1960s, was one of the most in-demand session musicians on the West Coast – got his start on Crown.

           Once a day – 1961                blue blue day – 1962           Steel Guitar Rag – 1963

Red Rhodes - Crown aRed Rhodes - Crown bRed Rhodes - Crown c

Pony Tail,” from 1965’s Guitars Go Country LP, sounds – most intriguingly – like some long-lost Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant number:

[Pssst:  Click on the triangle above to play ”Pony Tail'” by Red Rhodes.]

Red Rhodes - Crown LP

Red Rhodes would go on to release a live album on indie label, Happy Tiger, in 1969 — Red Rhodes & the Detours + Live at the Palomino — and his backup band, interestingly, would include Jerry Cole, another Crown alumnus.

Everyone Loves Red:  A Selected Red Rhodes Sessionography*

The Ventures in Space – The Ventures – 1964
Begin – The Millennium – 1968
Notorious Byrd Brothers – The Byrds – 1968
The Wichita Train Whistle Sings – Michael Nesmith – 1968
Bubble Gum, Lemonade & Something for Mama – Cass Elliot – 1969
Instant Replay – The Monkees – 1969
It’s Not Killing Me – Mike Bloomfield – 1969
John Phillips – John Phillips – 1969
Hand Sown, Home Grown – Linda Ronstadt – 1969
Nancy – Nancy Sinatra – 1969
Weeds – Brewer & Shipley – 1969
The Blue Marble – Sagittarius – 1969
Magnetic South – Michael Nesmith – 1970
Loose Salute – Michael Nesmith – 1970
Sweet Baby James – James Taylor – 1970
Tom Rush – Tom Rush – 1970
Nevada Fighter – Michael Nesmith – 1971
Possum – Possum – 1971
Lead Free – B. W. Stevenson – 1972
One Man Dog – James Taylor – 1972
Rhymes and Reasons – Carole King – 1972
Son of Schmilsson – Harry Nilsson – 1972
A Song for You – The Carpenters – 1972
Summer Breeze – Seals & Crofts – 1972
Tantamount to Treason – Michael Nesmith – 1972
And the Hits Just Keep on Comin’ – Michael Nesmith – 1972
Willis Alan Ramsey – Willis Alan Ramsey – 1972
Five & Dime, 1973 – David Ackles – 1973
Pure Country, 1973 – Garland Frady – 1973
Pretty Much Your Standard Ranch Stash – Michael Nesmith – 1973
Valley Hi – Ian Matthews – 1973
Calabasas – B. W. Stevenson – 1974
L.A. Turnaround – Bert Jansch – 1974
Black Bach – Lamont Dozier – 1974
The Prison – Michael Nesmith – 1974
Diamonds & Rust – Joan Baez – 1975
Marriott – Steve Marriott – 1975
Midnight on the Water – David Bromberg – 1975
Sweet America – Buffy Sainte-Marie – 1976
Frolicking in the Myth – Steven Fromholz – 1977
Road Songs – Hoyt Axton – 1977
The Way I Am – Billy Preston – 1981
Tropical Campfires – Michael Nesmith – 1992

*Proof of popularity courtesy of Wikipedia

“Killer Joe”: Nashville Super Pickers in Austin

In this 1979 performance from TV’s Austin City Limits, Buddy Emmons (steel guitar) and Phil Baugh (electric guitar) take the Nashville Super Pickers for a test drive using the Benny Golson jazz standard, “Killer Joe,” as their vehicle:

[Pssst: Click the triangle to play “Killer Joe” as interpreted by The Nashville Super Pickers.]

Nashville Super Pickers at ACL

Buddy Emmons:  Steel Guitar & Vocals
Phil Baugh:  Lead Guitar
Russ Hicks:  Rhythm Guitar & Steel Guitar
Johnny Gimble:  Fiddle & Vocals
Charlie McCoy:  Harmonica & Vocals
Henry Strzelecki:  Bass & Vocals
Buddy Harmon:  Drums
Hargus Robbins:  Piano

This television soundtrack album was originally released in 1979 on Flying Fish, home of Buddy Emmons, Vassar Clements, John Hartford, Doug Dillard, Mason Williams, Peter Rowan, Sweet Honey in the Rock & New Grass Revival, among many others.

Buddy Emmons flanked by Phil Baugh (left) and Russ Hicks (right)

Buddy at Austin City Limits

“C Jam Blues”: From the Father of Hillbilly Jazz

I had a nice laugh when I realized that this fiery little instrumental in the key of C was, indeed, not the world’s first waltz to be played outside of 3/4 time but instead an error in the track listing on the album jacket.  Thus, despite this song being listed as “Gravy Waltz,” I’m pretty certain this is actually the next track in the album’s running order — the jazz standard, “C Jam Blues” by Duke Ellington:

[Pssst:  Click the triangle above to play “C Jam Blues” as interpreted by Vassar Clements & Friends.]

Track comes from 1974’s double album, Hillbilly Jazz, by the “Father of Hillbilly Jazz” himself, Vassar Clements – who first appeared on the Grand Old Opry in 1949 fiddling with Bill Monroe – joined by D.J. Fontana on drums, Doug Jernigan on steel, David Bromberg on guitar, and other musical friends.

Hillbilly Jazz LP

Vassar Clements:  Fiddle, Viola & Vocals
D.J. Fontana:  Drums
Doug Jernigan:  Steel Guitar, Resonator Guitar
David Bromberg:  Guitar
Michael Melford:  Guitar, Mandolin & Piano
Ellis Padgett:  String Bass
Kenneth Smith:  Electric Bass
Benny Kennerson:  Piano
Gordon Terry:  Vocals

Hillbilly Jazz was issued on Flying Fish.  While Clements’ music mostly enjoyed release on independent, folk-oriented labels (Rounder, Old Homestead, Mind Dust, Flying Fish), Vassar did manage to release a few 45s on a couple major labels of note:

Vassar Mercury 45 IVassar Mercury 45 IIVassar MCA 45aVassar MCA 45b

Danny Gatton & Buddy Emmons: Kings of Steel

DC Week (actually, fortnight) concludes its special run with a joyous instrumental romp from the Federal City’s formidable guitarslinger, Danny Gatton, joined by pioneering pedal steel virtuoso, Buddy Emmons, from their short-lived incendiary partnership, The Redneck Jazz Explosion:

This performance of Buddy Emmons’ composition, “Raisin’ the Dickens,” was recorded live at DC’s legendary Cellar Door between the years straddling 1978-79 (i.e., New Year’s Eve show – ain’t I a stinker?) with bassist, Steve Wolf, and drummer, Scott Taylor, rounding out the rhythm section.

Redneck Jazz Explosion - Live

The roots of The Redneck Jazz Explosion were laid in Nashville where the Danny Gatton Band went to record in 1977 and were joined by Emmons in the studio for “Rock Candy” – inspired by Brother Jack McDuff’s 1963 recording featuring a young George Benson on guitar.  The inclusion of this one track on Gatton’s subsequent 1978 LP, Redneck Jazz, garnered strong word-of-mouth from players and fans alike, as well as enthusiastic praise from the likes of Guitar Player magazine and the Washington Post, who would write in their review, “In sheer technical terms, Gatton has few peers on the electric guitar … in good company, he is asserting his position as the preeminent guitarist of the post-World War II generation.”

Danny Gatton's Redneck Jazz LP

Danny and Buddy reunited for two nights in Nashville at Randy Wood’s Old Time Pickin’ Parlor on July 28-29, 1978 joined by Buddy Spicher on fiddle, Bucky Barrett on guitar, Dick Heintz on keys, and Steve Wolf & Dave Palamar on bass and drums, respectively.

                             Emmons       spicher      Palamar       Wolf      gatton

Redneck Jazz ExplosionAs Steve Wolf recounts in “Some Gatton History” on the Rockabilly Hall of Fame website:

“The Redneck Jazz Explosion quartet traveled the East Coast from Boston & New York, to Atlanta and consequently attracted the interest of Atlantic Records. A serious offer was made by Atlantic, but for his own reasons Danny chose not to accept it. Those negotiations in part, prevented the release of the live Cellar Door sessions at the time.  A trio version of the band, minus Buddy, also performed regularly around the DC/Baltimore area.”

New York Times critic, John Rockwell, on February 6, 1979 wrote:

“Sunday night Mr. Gatton was at the Lone Star Cafe for a single evening and drew a big crowd.  Partly that’s because his latest band … includes Buddy Emmons, the pedal street guitarist who’s something of a cult figure at the Lone Star.  But Mr. Gatton deserves his own cult.”

As Brawner Smoot (Gatton’s manager/booking agent) details in the CD liner notes of the Cellar Door concert:

“Carol Posnick [booking agent for DC’s sadly-defunct Cellar Door], a devoted Gatton supporter, always graciously scheduled the band for a three-to-five-day stay (unusual as most artists made a one- or two-day appearance there).  She also allowed me to add the guitar duo of the aforementioned Tom Principato and another hometown picker, Pete Kennedy to share the bill as the opening act.  The combination created cohesive and magical evenings showcasing the area’s finest guitar talents.”

The title track of the Redneck Jazz album, it bears pointing out, was written by vocalist/guitarist, Evan Johns, who coined the term and was joined in the Danny Gatton Band by John Previtti on bass and Dave Elliott on drums.

Danny Gatton                                          Evan Johns

Danny Gatton & Evan Johns II

 Steel Guitar Jazz vs. Redneck Jazz

Buddy Emmons, as Ken Dryden points out in his AllMusic review, “wasn’t the first musician to be featured playing a pedal steel guitar in a jazz setting, but it is unlikely that anyone else recorded an entire date playing one prior to this 1963 session.”  Brawner Smoot, in the liner notes to the Redneck Jazz Explosion Live at the Cellar Door reissue adds that “Buddy Emmons was no stranger to the [jazz] idiom having recorded his instrument’s first jazz album in New York City on July 22, 1963 for Mercury Records.”

Steel Guitar Jazz - Buddy Emmons

Texas Troubadours: Backup Band Extraordinaire

Perhaps it’s not fair to single out a backing band in country music, since there are so many outstanding ones – The Texas Playboys, The Cherokee Cowboys, The Drifting Cowboys, The Golden West Cowboys, The Brazos Valley Boys, The Western Caravan, The Buckaroos, The Strangers – and yet I am unable to stop myself from nominating Ernest Tubb’s 1960s incarnation of The Texas Troubadours as one of the all-time great backing bands in country music.

This live rendition of “Rhodes-Bud Boogie” knocks me out every time:

For extra fun, click here to enjoy Willie Nelson backed by the Texas Troubadours, with help from fiddler, Wade Ray, and a beehived chorus on “My Window Faces the South (Blues).”

Texas Troubadours Discography

– LP STEREO ALBUMS –

  • Ernest Tubb Presents the Texas Troubadours  [1964]
  • Country Dance Time  [1965]
  • Ernest Tubb’s Fabulous Texas Troubadours  [1966]
  • The Terrific Texas Troubadours  [1968]

– 45 RPM SINGLES –

  • Decca 31699  “New Panhandle Rag” / “Rhodes-Bud Boogie”  [1964]
  • Decca 31770  “Honky Tonks and You” / “Cains Corner”  [1965]
  • Decca 31837  “Highway Man” / “Leon’s Guitar Boogie”  [1965]
  • Decca 32065  “Walking the Floor Over You’ / “E.T. Blues”  [1966]
  • Decca 32121  “Gardenia Waltz” / “Honey Fingers”  [1966]
  • Decca 32185  “Almost to Tulsa” / “Oklahoma Hills”  [196?]

Texas Troubadours Personnel Over the Years

– Bill Drake (circa 1947)
– Billy Byrd (lead guitar, circa 1949-1959)
– Buddy Charleton (steel guitar, 1962-1967)
– Buddy Emmons (steel, 1960-1961)
– Cal Smith (rhythm guitar, 1961-1967
– Dickie Harris (circa 1956)
– Hal Smith (circa 1947)
– Jack Drake (bass guitar, circa 1945-1967)
– Jack Greene (drums, 1962-1965)
– Jimmie Short (circa 1943-1948)
– Johnny “Boy” Sapp (circa 1945)
– Leon Rhodes (lead guitar, 1960-1967)
– Leon Short (circa 1945)
– Ray “Kemo” Head (circa 1945)
– Rusty Gabbard (rhythm guitar, circa 1956)
– Tommy “Butterball” Paige (circa 1947)

“Caravan”: Ferlin Husky’s Band Cuts Loose

Reissue label Razor & Tie did a public service in 1999 when they rescued a wonderful instrumental that had remained unissued for over 30 years – just sitting on a master tape of a 1965 Nashville recording session by country singer, Ferlin Husky.  Very little is known about the musicians who did this blazing hillbilly jazz version of “Caravan” except that the steel player is almost certainly Curly Chalker.  Surprisingly tight arrangement and crisp ending for something that was simply considered a between-song “jam”:

This previously unissued recording courtesy of Swing West – Volume 2:  Guitar Slingers.

1954: An Explosive Year for Music

We all know that 1954 was the year of Elvis Presley’s famous and influential Sun recordings, but 1954 was also highly noteworthy for the combined impact of these 3 particular tunes — all instrumentals:

1.  “Stratosphere Boogie” by Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant:  phenomenal, blazing twin guitar work – rock and roll by any other name (although some might call it “hillbilly jazz“).  Recorded September 2, 1954.  Bryant is using a “Stratosphere Twin” double-neck guitar with 6-string and 12-string necks.  The 12-string neck, curiously, is tuned in thirds, thus sounding like twin lead guitars playing lines in harmony.

Stratosphere Twin - Jimmy Bryant

“Stratosphere Boogie”     Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant     1954

2.  “Space Guitar” by JohnnyGuitarWatson:  unhinged guitar paired with playful production (and unpredictable reverb) – as Larry Nager so adroitly dubbed it, “punk blues.”  Recorded as ‘Young John Watson’ in Los Angeles on February 1, 1954 and released on Syd Nathan‘s Federal Records.

“Space Guitar”     Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson     1954

Space Guitar 453.  “Pork Chop Stomp” by Grady Martin and His WinginStrings – crisp production,       great chops (so to speak) and a little humor go a long way.  That’s Bud Isaacs on pedal steel, with Grady Martin and Hank Garland both playing lead on this spirited piece of western swing – recorded January 13, 1954.

“Pork Chop Stomp”     Grady Martin & His Wingin’ Strings     1954

Grady Martin doubleneck guitarApproximately 12 Years Later:

Johnny Echols of seminal Los Angeles folk-punk band, Love, would be seen playing one of those rare Stratosphere double-necks originally made famous by Jimmy Bryant:

Johnny-Echols-with-Stratosphere