CD Review: Various Artists – The Big E: A Salute to the Steel Guitarist Buddy Emmons (MPI, 2013)
Steel guitarists are often remembered for their spotlight instrumentals and flashy solos, but the lines they weave around verses and choruses more often define a song’s emotional texture. Players like David Keli’i, Leon McAuliffe, Don Helms, Ralph Mooney and others were (quite literally) instrumental in defining the sound of the bands they played in, the singers they backed and the sessions in which they recorded. Among the long list of hall-of-fame steel players, Buddy Emmons stands especially tall. His credentials include the founding of both the Sho-Bud and Emmons lines of steel guitars, innovative designs (including the invention of the revolutionary split-pedal setup), new tunings, instrumentals that quickly became standards, and a lengthy catalog of breathtaking performances that chartered new territory as they stretched from country to jazz to pop and beyond.
Emmons was a pillar of bands fronted by Little Jimmy Dickens, Ernest Tubb, Ray Price and Roger Miller, and the first-call studio player in both Nashville and Los Angeles. His creativity and technical virtuosity sparked innumerable recording sessions and influenced both his peers and subsequent generations of steel players. Thirteen of those players (including legends Norm Hamlet, JayDee Maness and others) have gathered with a stellar list of vocalists to pay tribute through songs from the guitarist’s career. The material is drawn from Emmons performances with Ernest Tubb (“Half a Mind”), Little Jimmy Dickens (“When Your House is Not a Home”), Floyd Tillman (“This Cold War With You”), Ray Price (“Night Life”), Gram Parsons (“That’s All it Took”), John Sebastian (“Rainbow All Over Your Blues”), Ray Charles (“Feel So Bad”), Judy Collins (“Someday Soon”), Roger Miller (“Invitation to the Blues”), as well as his solo albums (“Wild Mountain Thyme”) and live repertoire.
Also featured are two of Emmons’ compositions: “Buddy’s Boogie,” originally cut with Little Jimmy Dickens in 1955, and recreated with the hot-picked steel and six-string of Doug Jernigan and Guthrie Trapp, respectively. “Blue Jade,” a western-tinged instrumental originally recorded in 1967, is given an extra helping of twang from Duane Eddy’s guitar and Dan Dugmore’s steel, with Spooner Oldham’s piano providing graceful backing. Each player on the album adds their own twists, but Emmons’ original ideas anchor each extrapolation. Greg Leisz states Emmons’ contemplative solo reading of “Wild Mountain Thyme” before expanding on the theme with guitar, mandocello and lap slide, and JayDee Maness adds new turns to the famous solo on John Sebastian’s “Rainbow All Over Your Blues.” As intentional as this celebration may be, it’s the germination of Emmons inventions in each player’s style that’s the biggest tribute of all.
A sampling of Buddy Emmons’ albums:
A sampling of Buddy Emmons’ original performances: