A Salute To Steel Guitar Pioneer Buddy Emmons

A salute to steel guitar pioneer Buddy
Emmons

Award-winning musician Buddy
Emmons sits at the 1957 Sho-Bud steel guitar he donated to the Country Music
Hall of Fame Nov. of 1983. A co-founder of Sho-Bud with Shot Jackson, Emmons
originally came to Nashville with Little Jimmy Dickens, and has recorded with
Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, John Anderson, Linda Ronstadt and John Conlee, to
name but a few.
In June of 1955, the best band in country music
belonged to one James Cecil Dickens, better known then and now as Little Jimmy Dickens.
On the first day of July 1955, that band got better, thanks
to the addition of an 18-year-old, Midwest-reared hotshot pedal steel guitar
player named Buddy Emmons. Dickens found Emmons while on tour in Detroit,
and quickly hired him to replace another outstanding steeler, Walter Haynes, who
had given notice that he wanted to get off the road.
Dickens sent a telegram to Emmons in Detroit with travel
arrangements, flew the kid to Nashville, picked him up at the airport and took
him out to WSM’s Studio C for the “Friday Night Frolics.” By
the time Dickens played the “Grand Ole Opry” that Saturday night, word was out.
“It
was like a lightning bolt struck,” says Steve Fishell, the steel
guitarist who has just produced a multi-artist tribute album called “The
Big E: A Salute to Steel Guitarist Buddy Emmons.” “You can see
photos from that day with Dickens onstage and other steel players like Jimmy
Day waiting in the wings, watching Buddy. His execution was flawless, and his ideas
were brilliant. It was like nothing ever heard before on the ‘Opry’
stage. Buddy was dropped into the hottest band in country music, and it was an
incredible launching pad for him.”
Already, Dickens’ Country Boys ensemble was known for
its fleshed-out sound, its rhythmic presence and its virtuoso flights. But the addition of Emmons kicked things into another
gear.
Emmons and
guitarists Howard Rhoton and Spider Wilson created sophisticated, triple
harmony instrumental arrangements of the likes that wouldn’t be
approached until The Allman Brothers Band came along in 1969.
And if
Emmons’ only contribution to music was elevating Dickens’ Country
Boys into the stratosphere, that contribution would be of significant value and
import. But, as “The Big E” makes clear in its performances and in
Fishell’s extensive liner notes, Emmons was, and is, so much more.

Steel
guitar pioneer

One major
contribution benefits all steel players: Emmons re-imagined the pedal steel
itself, and his name is on the patent for the complex, groundbreaking,
“guitar tone changing device” that remains a staple for pedal steel
design. And Emmons co-founded the now-famed Sho-Bud Guitar Company in 1956 and
the Emmons Guitar Company in 1964.
Most of
Emmons’ other triumphs came on stages and in the recording studio.
He recorded
the first serious steel guitar jazz album in 1963, he toured and recorded as a
key member of Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours and Ray Price’s
Cherokee Cowboys.
In the late
1960s, he moved to Los Angeles and recorded with Ray Charles, Judy Collins
(including her smash, “Someday Soon”), Gram Parsons, the Everly
Brothers, Linda Ronstadt and many more.
Emmons and
wife Peggy returned to Nashville in 1974, and in Music City he recorded with
George Strait, Willie Nelson, J.J. Cale, John Hartford, k.d. lang, Trisha
Yearwood and dozens of others. He also toured with the Everly Brothers for 12
years.
“If I
were in charge of things, I would have a huge statue of Buddy Emmons carved in
the finest granite and placed in a prominent place along Music Row in
Nashville,” slide guitar great Mike Auldridge once said. “I
don’t even have to mention his tone or taste or the fact that he’s
an actual musical genius. … All steel players know this is true, almost
beyond belief.”

An
inspiration

Perhaps
Fishell’s “The Big E” is a more fitting tribute than a
statue: Granite is impressive, but it makes for lousy listening.
Made
possible by contributions to a Kickstarter campaign, the album features
instrumental wizardry from steelers Fishell, Doug Jernigan, Greg Leisz, JayDee
Maness, Paul White, Tommy Franklin, Roosevelt Collier, Mike Johnson, Randle
Currie, Norm Hamlett, Gary Carter and Dan Dugmore, as well as electric guitar
from Duane Eddy and Albert Lee and vocal turns from singers including Vince
Gill, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Willie Nelson, Raul Malo, Chris Stapleton
and Joanie Keller.
Oh,
and 58 years after their fabled first meeting, James Cecil Dickens. Little
Jimmy sings “When Your House Is Not a Home,” a song Emmons used to
perform with Price, and one that reminds the steel player of his late and
beloved wife, Peggy. (Proceeds from “The Big E” will go to the
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in the name of Peggy Emmons.)
“Buddy
refers to ‘When Your House Is Not a Home’ as his sentimental
favorite,” Fishell says. “He admitted to me that he became misty
when he heard the track. It brought back a flood of memories.”
One
Kickstarter pledge came from Warner Music Nashville president John Esposito,
who eventually set up national distribution through Warner. Esposito is, at
heart, a music fan, and as such he’s well aware of Emmons’
indelible mark on American music.
Emmons, who
was not involved in the creation or promotion of the tribute album, by all
accounts remains thankful to James Cecil Dickens for bringing him into the big
time. And the big time remains thankful to Emmons.
“He’s
always been poignant and heartfelt on ballads, and devastating when it’s
time to play those hot licks,” Fishell says. “Buddy Emmons is
someone we all look towards as inspiration, to be better at what we do.”
(c) by Peter Cooper 
Submit by Marty Martel

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