Zero to Infinity: Buddy Emmons

This week we said goodbye to Buddy Emmons, one of the world’s great musicians and subject of three prior Zero to 180 piecesHere is but a *45-second live demonstration (beginning to end) of Buddy Emmons’ singular genius with the pedal steel guitar:

Four Wheel Drive” (live)     Buddy Emmons     1965

Still image from (deleted) video clip
[courtesy Steel Guitar Forum]

[*Earnestly hoping this stunning live clip returns one day to YouTube]

“Four Wheel Drive” (studio recording)     Buddy Emmons     1959     

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Billboard‘s April 4, 1960 edition awarded three stars (i.e., “good sales potential”) to the original Decca 45 release and praised “Four Wheel Drive,” an original composition, for its uniqueness of sound:

“Four Wheel Drive” — A swinging instrumental, has a country and jazz quality.  Ununsual item for jocks.

“Blue Wind” — This one with a Hawaiian flavor plus a touch of blues orientation.

Only image of this 45 I can find online — scary

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It is disappointing that (as of 2021) Discogs and 45Cat are both bereft of entries for Emmons’ outstanding sole Decca single [link to PragueFrank‘s session info].  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)

Three years prior to Emmons’ stint with Decca, Cash Box had seen fit to review “Silver Bell” b/w “Border Serenade” in their May 25, 1957 edition (two years after a head-on collision with a truck), the second of two singles recorded for Columbia as “Buddie” Emmons:

“Silver Bell” [grade: B] — The Buddie Emmons outfit takes hold of the delectable evergreen and wraps it up in a happy-go-lucky, quick beat instrumental fashion.  Bright side for deejay programming.

“Border Serenade” [grade: B] — Flip features more top-flight, light-hearted instrumental wax by Emmons and the crew.  An enticing melody and Latin beat rounds out a dandy coupler.

Music Reporter ad — Nov. 2, 1963 — Name Checks 1963 CUTTING-EDGE ALBUM

According to Rich Kienzle’s notes for Amazing Steel Guitar: The Buddy Emmons Collection, Emmons, who was a native of Mishawaka, Indiana (hometown of fellow steel wiz, Herb Remington), had been playing a lap steel for four years when he ordered his first pedal steel guitar — a triple-neck Bigsby — in 1952 when he was just fifteen, “a pure custom job, complete with an onboard ashtray, cigarette lighter and Buddy’s name emblazoned across the front.”     

Three years later in 1955, Emmons made a big splash with the addition of his Bigsby to the trademark twin lead guitar sound of Jimmy Dickens as a member of his backing band, The Country Boys, points out Kienzle, who got the opportunity to display their considerable musicality at Nashville’s Music City Recording Studio in January, 1956 on such blazing instrumentals as “Country Boy Bounce,” “Raisin’ the Dickens,” and “Red Wing.”

A partnership with Shot Jackson led to the founding in 1957 (possibly 1955) of Sho-Bud Guitars, a top name in pedal steel, especially after Bigsby stopped their steel production.  Emmons left the running of the company to Jackson in the late 1950s so that he could join one of country’s finest backing bands, The Texas Troubadours, an experience that led to the oddly ambiguous recording session with Owen Bradley on October 5, 1959 that produced the extraordinary “Four Wheel Drive” and “Blue Wind” 45 for Decca (plus two unissued tracks).

Kienzle notes a tragic missed opportunity to work with legendary jazz figure, Quincy Jones, on 1963 landmark album, Steel Guitar Jazz, where Emmons collaborated with Jerome Richardson (saxophone), Charlie Persip (drums), Art Davis (bass), and Bobby Scott (piano):

Emmons stayed with [Ernest] Tubb until 1962, when he made two major changes:  leaving the Troubadours and, after disagreements with Shot Jackson, leaving Sho-Bud.  He and North Carolina inventor Ron Lashley formed the Emmons Guitar Company shortly after that, creating a steel that included many of Emmons’ design ideas that Shot had rejected.  Early that year, when Jimmy Day left Ray Price’s Cherokee Cowboys, Emmons replaced him in the band.  Again, Buddy was working with one of the premier country road bands.

Off the road, he often played jazz with other musicians around Nashville.  When Ernest Tubb’s son Justin, a successful singer in his own right, heard Buddy at one of these jam sessions in 1963, he suggested that Emmons try an all-jazz steel guitar album and soon interested Mercury Records in the concept.  Jazz arranger, Quincy Jones, working as head of pop A&R at Mercury, suggested some tunes, and was originally set to produce the session.  Jones couldn’t do it, but Buddy, who’d wanted to record in Nashville, was set to record in New York on July 22, 1963 with a jazz rhythm section.

Record World‘s November 21, 1964 report on the 1964 Country Music Association convention (the one where Dizzy Dean was made an honorary member of the Grand Ole Opry and receiving a standing ovation) rhetorically asked, “Who can ever forget the jam sessions held in the Sho-Bud room or the Emmons Guitar room?”

That same year – in a fascinating historical side note, courtesy of a news item published in the May 30, 1964 issue of Music Business – we learn that Emmons’ wife was also part of the music industry:

A. Halsey Cowan, international attorney for Nashville’s Pamper Music, conducted a seminar on copyrights for publishing firms at the Library of Congress May 15 [1964] attended by pubbery reps from a wide area.  Other speakers included … Mrs. Buddie Emmons and Walter Haynes, Moss Rose pubbery … 

Emmons’ tenure with Ray Price’s backing band, The Cherokee Cowboys, was an artistically fertile time – with frequent jam sessions on the tour bus, says Kienzle – that peaked with the recording of the Western Strings LP for Columbia in 1965.  Price would subsequently make a conscious effort to de-emphasize the country elements in his live band, however, a move that impelled Emmons to join Roger Miller (himself an ex-Cherokee Cowboy) in relocating to the West Coast, where he began playing steel as a session player.  

Buddy Emmons-aBuddy Emmons-bBuddy Emmons-c

How cool that my all-time favorite steel guitarist played with one of my top groups (NRBQ) and guitarists (Duane Eddy).  Steel Guitar Forum, no surprise, already has a thread devoted to Buddy’s memory, while Edd Hurt penned a nice tribute to Emmons in The Nashville Scene that talks about some of Buddy’s pedal steel technical innovations, such as extra strings and pedals that raise the fretboard.

Two essential/must-have Buddy Emmons recordings – Amazing Steel Guitar: The Buddy Emmons Collection & Danny Gatton’s Redneck Jazz Explosion – are both commanding high prices on Amazon, unfortunately.

Buddy Emmons-1Buddy Emmons-2

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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.

part of all-star ensemble on Katz Kobayashi‘s undated one-off album

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 Willie 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.”

1964 SINGLE — “With Buddy Emmons & the Nuggeteers”

Buddy Emmons 45s & LP Discography

— song titles in boldface link to streaming audio

The Country Boys     “Country Boy Bounce”     1956

Buddie Emmons     “Cold Rolled Steel”     1956

Faron Young     “Sweet Dreams”     1956

June Carter     “Strange Woman”     1956

∞ “Little Jimmy Dickens     “Me And My Big Mouth”     1958

Ernest Tubb     “Half a Mind”     1958

Buddy Emmons     “Four Wheel Drive”     1959

Buddy Emmons     “Rose City Chimes”     1961

Duane Eddy     “Fireball Mail”     1962

Shot Jackson & Buddy Emmons   Singing Strings of Steel Guitar & Dobro   1963

Buddie Emmons     Steel Guitar Jazz     1963

Ray Price     “Night Life”     1963

Dolores Smiley     “Leaving By Request”     1964

Skeeter Davis     Blueberry Hill And Other Favorites     1965

Ray Price’s Cherokee Cowboys     Western Strings     1965

Buddy Emmons     “B. Bowman Hop” (recorded live with George Jones)    1965

Johnny Paycheck     “Heartbreak Tennessee”     1965

Willie Nelson     “One In a Row”     1966

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

The Fifth Avenue Band     “Good Lady of Toronto”     1969

Buddy Emmons    “Witches Brew”     1969

Buddy Emmons     Emmons Guitar Inc.     1970

Roger Miller     A Trip In the Country     1970

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

Denny Doherty     Watcha Gonna Do     1970

Dewey Martin & Medicine Ball     Dewey Martin & Medicine Ball     1970

Longbranch/Pennywhistle     Longbranch/Pennywhistle     1970

∞ John Hartford     Iron Mountain Depot     1970

∞ John Sebastian     “Rainbows All Over Your Blues”     1970

Michael Parks     “Lonely and Blue”     1970

Buck Owen & the Buckaroos     “Cajun Steel Guitar”     1970

Buddy Emmons    “Wichita Lineman”     1970

Ray Charles     “Wichita Lineman”     1971

Sandy Denny     “Crazy Lady Blues”     1971

69ers     “The Christian Life”     1971

∞ John Stewart     “The Road Shines Bright”     1971

∞ Jimmy Wakely     “Detour”     1971

Russ Giguere     Hexagram 16     1971

Paul Siebel     Jack-Knife Gypsy     1971

Rosebud     Rosebud     1971

Larry Murray     Sweet Country Suite     1971

Shot Jackson & Buddy Emmons     Famous Sho-Bud Guitars     1971

Rowan Brothers     Rowan Brothers     1972

Everly Brothers     Stories We Could Tell     1972

∞ John Stewart     Sunstorm     1972

∞ Jim Pulte     Out the Window     1972

Nev Nicholls & the Country Playboys     “Take My Heart”     1972

Odyssey     Country Tune     1972

Linda Ronstadt     “In My Reply”     1972

Roger McGuinn     “Water Is Wide”     1973

The Carpenters      “Top of the World”     1973

Gram Parsons     GP     1973

Doug Dillard     Duelin’ Banjo     1973

Judee Sill     Heart Food     1973

Phil Everly     Star Spangled Springer     1973

Don Everly     Sunset Towers     1974

The Cats     The Love in Your Eyes     1974

The Carpenters     Now and Then     1974

Henry Mancini Orchestra     Country Gentleman     1974

Johnny Bush    “Home in San Antone[Curly Chalker on 2nd steel]    1974

Brewer & Shipley     “It Did Me In”     1974

Kenny O’Dell     “Soulful Woman”     1974

Sheepskin Pat     From Nashville     1975

Ronee Blakley     Welcome     1975

Dottie West     Carolina Cousins     1975

Benny Martin     Tennessee Jubilee     1975

Bobby Bare     Hard Time Hungrys     1975

Buddy Emmons     Steel Guitar     1975

Billy Walker     “Don’t Stop In My World”     1975

Jeanne Pruett     “Honey On His Hands”     1975

Jackie DeShannon     “Bette Davis Eyes”    1975

Mayf Nutter     “Goin’ Skinny Dippin’”     1976

Marty Robbins     “Among My Souvenirs”     1976

Connie Smith     I Don’t Wanna Talk It Over Anymore     1976

Rosemary Clooney     Look My Way     1976

Roy Head     A Head of His Time     1976

John Hartford     Nobody Knows What You Do     1976

David Allan Coe     Longhaired Redneck     1976

Kenny Valeck     “Country Lady” b/w “Trailer Full of Love”     1976

Hargus “Pig” Robbins     Country Instrumentalist of the Year     1977

John Hughey     On and Off Stage     1977

Merle Haggard     My Farewell to Elvis     1977

Mickey Newbury     Rusty Tracks     1977

Dennis Weaver     Dennis Weaver     1977

Ray Price & the Cherokee Cowboys     Reunited     1977

The Capitals     The Capitals     1977

The Osborne Brothers     From Rocky Top to Muddy Bottom     1977

Dillard/Hartford/Dillard    Glitter Grass from the Nashwood Hollyville Strings    1977

Russ Hicks & Jimmy Crawford     Chicken Pickin’ Good     1977

∞ Buddy Emmons & Buddy Spicher     Buddies     1977

Nashville Bar Association     Nashville Bar Association     1977

Pat Garrett      “A Little Something On the Side”     1977

∞ Gove Scrivenor     “Sugar Bear”     1978

Ian Tyson     “Turning Thirty”     1978

Bobby Hicks     “Panhandle Rag”     1978

Marcia Ball     Circuit Queen     1978

Bryn Haworth     Grand Arrival     1978

Larry Gatlin     Oh! Brother     1978

Guy Clark     Guy Clark     1978

Steve Young     No Place to Fall     1978

Danny Gatton     Redneck Jazz Explosion [“Rock Candy“]    1978 [1995*]

Buddy Emmons with Lenny Breau     Minors Aloud     1978

Margo Smith     Don’t Break the Heart That Loves You     1978

Donna Darlene     Girl on the Cover     1979

Mel Tillis     Are You SincereMr. Entertainer   1979

Ricky Skaggs     Sweet Temptation     1979

Thumbs Carllile     Guitar WizardJazz Carllile Style    1979

Nashville Superpickers     Killer Joe” (live)     1979

George Jones with Waylon Jennings    “Night Life”     1979

John Hartford/Pat Burton/Benny Martin   “Slumberin on the Cumberland”   1979

Denny Laine with Paul McCartney     “Send Me the Heart”     1980

John Starling     “Long Time Gone”     1980

Levon Helm     American Son     1980

Sonny Curtis      Love Is All Around     1980

John Hartford     You And Me at Home     1980

∞ Willie Nelson & Ray Price     San Antonio Rose     1980

Curtis Potter with Darrell McCall & Ray Sanders   Texas Dance Hall   1980

The Ozark Mountain Daredevils     Ozark Mountain Daredevils     1980

Tammy Wynette     You Brought Me Back     1981

John Anderson     I Just Came Home Today to Count the Memories     1981

Tompall And the Glaser Brothers     Lovin’ Her Was Easier     1981

J.J. Cale     Grasshopper     1982

Lenny Breau     When Lightn’ Strikes     1982

Razzy Bailey     The Midnight Hour     1983

Arthur Blanch     What Do Lonely People Do     1983

John Cody Carter     When It Rains It Pours     1984

Ray Pennington & Buddy Emmons     Swingin’ From the 40s – 80s     1984

Ray Charles     Do I Ever Cross Your Mind     1984

Skeeter Davis & NRBQ     She Sings, They Play     1985

Scott Mohoric     Pancho Y Lefty’s     198?

Billy Apollo     “Coast Guard Blues”     1986

Gary Burton     “Faded Love”     1987

Buddy Emmons     Christmas Sounds of the Steel Guitar     1987

Ray Price     The Heart of Country Music     1987

John Anderson     10     1988

∞ k.d. lang     “Shadowland”     1988

The Geezinslaws     The Geezinslaws     1989

∞ Ray Pennington & Buddy Emmons     Swingin’ Our Way     1990

∞ Ray Price & Faron Young     Memories That Last     1991

∞ Lionel Cartwright     “Waitin’ for the Sun to Shine”     1991 

∞ Randy Travis     “Allergic to the Blues”     1991

Trisha Yearwood     “For Reasons I’ve Forgotten”     1992

∞ George Jones & Willie Nelson     “I Gotta Get Drunk”     1992

∞ George Strait     Pure Country (soundtrack album) + Holding My Own   1992

∞ Carlene Carter     Little Love Letters     1993

∞ George Strait     Lead On     1994

Jill Sobule     “(Theme From) The Girl in the Affair”     1995

Michael Ballew     You Better Hold On     1995

∞ Gene Watson     The Good Ole Days     1996

∞ Larry Carlton     The Gift     1996

∞ Ray PenningtonBuddy Emmons     Goin’ Out Swingin’     1997

Manhattan Transfer     “I Know Why And So Do You”     1997

The Bishops     “A Satisfied Mind”     1997

Tammy McRae     Tammy McRae     1997

Steve Wariner     Burnin’ the Roadhouse Down     1998

Jimmie Crawford     Steel Crazy     1998

Mark Chesnutt     I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing     1999

John Prine & Melba Montgomery     “Milwaukee Here I Come”     1999

Ingela Söderlund     Vågar Jag Fråga     1999

Josh Graves     Sultan of Slide     2000

∞ Gene Watson     From the Heart     2001

∞ Ray Price     Time     2002

Memarie     Memarie     2003

∞ Albert Lee     Heartbreak Hill     2003  

∞ Albert Lee     Road Runner     2006

∞ Vince Gill     “This New Heartache”     2006

George Jones & Friends     God’s Country     2006

∞ Willie Nelson/Merle Haggard/Ray Price     Last of the Breed     2007

Emmons steel guitars

Rare Solo Buddy Emmons!
YouTube audio clip (posted Dec. 2019) that features these early recordings

Song List:
【00:00】- “Four Wheel Drive” (1959)
【01:54】- “Red Wing” (1956)
【03:54】- “Raisin’ the Dickens” (1956)
【05:55】- “Cajun Steel Guitar” (1962 or 63)
【07:46】- “Silver Bells” (1957)
【09:59】- “Border Serenade” (1957)
【12:35】- “Cold Rolled Steel” (1956)
【14:40】- “Flint Hill Special” (1956)
【16:35】- “Blue Wind” (1959)
【19:15】- Buddie’s Boogie” (1956)
【21:39】- “Lily Dale” (1962 or 63)
【24:14】- “Country Boy Bounce” (1956)
【26:17】- “Rose City Chimes” (1961)

Great Value for the Money:
“Cold Rolled Steel” & Friends

1992 CD compilation Movin’ Country Instrumentals kicks off with “Cold Rolled Steel” — Buddy Emmons’ debut Columbia 45 from 1956 — along with other elusive tracks from some of country music’s finest pickers, including Joe Maphis (“Fire on the Strings“), Herby Remington (“Remington Ride“), Harold Bradley (“Sugarfoot Rag”), Charlie McCoy (“Orange Blossom Special“), Grady Martin (“El Paso“), Jerry Reed (“I’m Movin’ On“), Jerry Byrd (“Memories of Maria“), Carl Perkins (“Spanish Harlem”), and Arthur Smith (“Guitar Boogie“), the last song listed — originally recorded in 1946 while stationed in Washington with the Navy — renowned as part of a select group of candidates for “first rock ‘n’ roll recording.”

Did You Know?

Buddy Emmons was one of the featured musicians (along with Hank Garland and The Jordanaires) who performed on an LP of jingles –Ballantine Presents Music to Sell Ballantine Beer By — issued in 1960.

Link to Zero to 180 pieces tagged as Music in advertising

“Barnyard Boogie”: Jump Blues + Lap Steel Guitar

I have to confess – I’ve been listening pretty closely for several decades now, and I still can’t tell what makes [insert name of “first rock & roll record” here] the first recording with the rock & roll beat, whether it be 1951’s “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston (backed by Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm) or Fats Domino’s “Fat Man” (his 1949 debut single) or Jimmy Preston’s “Rock the Joint” (also from 1949) or Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith’s, er, “Guitar Boogie” (from 1948) or Louis Jordan’s rollicking “Saturday Night Fish Fry” (1949).

Speaking of Louis Jordan, belated thanks to the music programmer at Annapolis, Maryland’s once mighty (get this) free-form, progressive commercial radio station (WRNR) who once quietly blew my mind years ago when he played a Louis Jordan boogie from 1947 — “Barnyard Boogie” — that unexpectedly featured a steel guitar solo:

“Barnyard Boogie”     Louis Jordan & His Tympani Five     1947

Could this be the earliest boogie tune (or “fox trot”) to feature country-style steel guitar?

Endless gratitude to Old School Music Lover for hipping me to The Muppets’ own charmingly idiosyncratic take on this barnyard classic: