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.

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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.

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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

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Photo above courtesy of the Steel Guitar Forum

“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

“BluEmmons”: Landmark Steel Guitar Jazz

Just as Louis Jordan’s pairing of jump blues with country-style steel guitar was seen as a radical move in 1947, Buddy Emmons’ decision to feature his masterful steel guitar stylings within a modern jazz context was considered equally bold in 1963 when Mercury released groundbreaking album, Steel Guitar Jazz.

“Bluemmons”     Buddy Emmons     1963

“BluEmmons” – a Buddy Emmons original – is the album’s kick-off track.

Buddy vs. Buddie?   Only his mother knows.

Steel Guitar Jazz LP“Buddy Emmons 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.  Although both he and the instrument are indelibly associated with country music, Emmons makes it work for several reasons.  He’s surrounded by some top players, including Bobby Scott, Jerome Richardson, Art Davis, and Charlie Persip; he also interacts with the band rather than overdoing the special effects available to him, especially the horn-like sounds obtained from his use of the slide.  Emmons also chose an intriguing mix of material.  Obvious highlights are the loping treatment of “Where or When,” featuring Richardson’s delicious soprano sax trading off with the leader, and Emmons’ hot playing of “(Back Home Again In) Indiana.”  Equally rewarding are the jazz classics:  Ray Brown’s soulful “Gravy Waltz,” an intricate romp through Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo,” and Horace Silver’s toe-tapping “The Preacher.”  This was pretty much a one-time affair for Emmons, who returned to country music, though he did record some additional jazz with guitarist Lenny Breau during the 1970s.  Although the instrument never really caught on in jazz, this highly recommended album, which was finally reissued on CD in 2003, is well worth checking out.”    —    Ken Dryden, All Music

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