When pedal steel guitar great Buddy Emmons died this week, we lost more than an exceptional musician from the country music landscape. Like the legendary artist who discovered him, Little Jimmy Dickens (when he died last year) the passing of Emmons is the passing of an era.
Buddy Emmons was the father of modern pedal steel guitar. No artist did more in his lifetime to advance, innovate, and stylize the instrument then Emmons. He influenced nearly everyone who has picked up the instrument since he laid down his first tracks in Nashville in 1956.
When Emmons arrived in Nashville in 1955, Little Jimmy Dickens fronted the hottest band in country music, The Country Boys. When Dickens found Buddy Emmons in Detroit, he was 18 years old. The young steel player’s entrance sent waves of excitement through Nashville. Over the years he became known for originality and inventiveness. His attack was unusual, his playing more imaginative and unpredictable than other steel guitarists. He gave the instrument a deeper voice, a sweeter resonance, and a broader scope.
The trail he blazed was there for other players to follow. His style of playing spread throughout country music because he inspired rather than intimidated with his genius. With a wink and a smile, he opened the door and invited others in with a good-natured, musical welcome.
His warmth, inspiration and accessibility of his playing has resulted in recent comments by the generation of steel guitar players who followed Emmons.
According to Marty Rifkin (Springsteen, Beck), “Being the greatest at an instrument quite often makes other players want to throw in the towel. Buddy Emmons changed that. He played with a musical voice that all of us knew we could never come close to. But instead of quitting, we worked harder to try to get better because of how he inspired us. He was a great ambassador for the pedal steel. I am sad to hear of his passing and selfishly sad to know we won’t be able to hear any more new music from this true genius.”
Dan Dugmore (Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor) agrees. “Buddy Emmons did more for the pedal steel guitar than any other human on this planet,” he says. “He came up with the tuning that most all pedal steel players use today, and he made some of the best music ever played on the instrument. I was a huge fan of his and I will miss him.”
Greg Leisz (Clapton, Buddy Miller) sums up the loss of Emmons: “I’m deeply saddened to hear of the Big E’s passing. Though I never met Buddy his influence on me was immeasurable. I started playing pedal steel after hearing him on recordings. His exquisite playing and deep musical sensibility have been and will continue to be a beacon.”
From his earliest recordings, Emmons showed an uncommon flare on his instrument. It can be heard on the 1956 recording of the song “Raisin’ Dickens,” which has become a standard among players of the instrument. It was during this time that his stature grew in Nashville as an in-demand session musician. He also became a designer and builder of steel guitars as he started the business Sho-Bud Company with guitarist Shot Jackson.
After Dickens’ band broke up in 1956, Emmons joined Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours. This was when he adapted the nickname “Big E,” for his height and his musical ability. In 1957, Emmons created the ‘split pedal’ for the steel guitar which is now standard steel guitar equipment. It enhanced and sharpened the instrument’s sound, and made it more elastic and flexible. The first recording using the split pedal is Tubb’s “I Have Half a Mind (to Leave You).” The song has become a standard, with several re-recorded versions by Tubbs, George Jones, and many others. One listen to the original recording reveals how Emmons completely changed the role of the pedal steel in country music.
In 1962, Emmons joined Ray Price as his band leader. His steel playing can be heard on several of Prices’ hit songs, including “Please Take Her Off My Hands,” where he added two strings to the steel guitar, enlarging the sound again. This innovation also became standard use for future steel guitars.
Along with his pioneer work in the technical and stylistic end of pedal steel guitars, Emmons also pushed beyond country music. He later played with Roger Miller’s band which led to a move to California. By the mid-’70s, he was back in Nashville recording for Emmylou Harris, John Hartford, and Mel Tillis. Throughout his career, Emmons was known in the industry for his session work. He became an anonymous but respected figure who added texture and elegance to such recordings like Judy Collins’ hit song, “Someday Soon.” His name was synonymous with pedal steel guitar. If an artist couldn’t get Buddy Emmons for their session, they wanted someone who sounded like Buddy Emmons.
In 1963, he recorded the album “Steel Guitar Jazz,” and for the first time brought a country sensibility to modern jazz. It was a bold move. It created a new sensation and was an early rumbling of today’s Americana music movement. The album is an energetic and bright splash of jazz with the steel guitarist sitting in, adding his own mark to the sound. According to Greg Leisz, Ray Price helped to fund Emmons the album and the trip to New York City to record it.
Emmons began to slow down in 1997. He returned to touring during the ’90s and early 2000s, when he joined the reunion of The Everly Brothers. But, his session work and touring came to a halt when his wife, Peggy, died in 2007. He officially retired the same year.
During my recent conversation with guitar legend Duane Eddy, he referred to Emmons several times. In 1963, they recorded a underrated gem, “Twang a Country Song.” Emmons’ presence is so dynamic on the record that since its release, according to Eddy, it’s become the “Bible for Pedal Steel Players.” Eddy reflected on his old friend, saying sadly, “He stopped playing music several years ago. He told me when his wife died, she took the music with her.”
The lasting impact of an artist like Buddy Emmons cannot be measured. It can be felt in all of the moments captured in the studio which represent his legacy. There is a personal stream that runs through his story: His early days of passion and discovery; the intensity of his genius as he created breakthrough inventions for the pedal steel; his wild days and loss of control in California during the late ’60s. He finally found his focus and re-gained his drive when he met his wife Peggy. He kept his stride over the years mainly in studio sessions. But, also with occasional solo albums, notably Steel Guitar Jazz, Redneck Jazz (1978) and Sings Bob Wills (1976).
Over the years, the honors and tributes to Emmons came raining in. He was most likely the proudest of his induction into The Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in 1981. Over the last decade, he occasionally performed on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion. But his crowning moment was the 2013 release, The Big E: A Salute Steel Guitarist Buddy Emmons. The included past collaborators like Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill, Willie Nelson, Duane Eddy, and Little Jimmy Dickens. His friends and fellow steel players, Greg Leisz, Dan Dugmore and Jay D Maness participated in the sessions as well.
While the era of Buddy Emmons has passed. his influence continues. He’s already proved his timelessness based on his body of work. It is also the warmth, accessibility, and hospitality at the core his music which has made the pedal steel guitar such an essential place in construct of the country song. Without him and the elegant imagination of his music over the last 60 years, country music wouldn’t have been the same. Whenever an artist like this leaves the planet, I always wonder about music and mortality. Where does all that beautiful energy go? If it does go to heaven, then today he is reunited with his beloved wife and I know God must be smiling down listening to some mighty fine steel guitar.