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

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