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From MPI Records and Warner Music Nashville

The BIG E:

A Salute to Steel Guitarist BUDDY EMMONS

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The Big E: A Salute to Buddy Emmons

 

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Buddy Emmons, who in the 50's and 60's single-handedly set the standard for technical excellence on the pedal steel guitar, is celebrated on August 20, 2013 with a CD of newly recorded material entitled The Big E: A Salute to Steel Guitarist Buddy Emmons featuring artists like Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Little Jimmy Dickens, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Duane Eddy, John Anderson, Raul Malo, Chris Stapleton and top steel players like Greg Leisz, Paul Franklin, Dan Dugmore, JayDee Maness, Doug Jernigan, Tommy White, Mike Johnson and Norm Hamlet.

The recording is a not-for-profit project launched with funding through Kickstarter by Steve Fishell, steel guitarist for Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell. All the profits from the album will be donated - at Buddy's request - to the Country Music Hall of Fame in the name of Peggy Emmons, Buddy's late wife. Buddy retired from playing the day Peggy passed away in December of 2007.

The album showcases top steel players paired with great voices singing songs originally recorded by Buddy Emmons and his ground-breaking steel licks.

 

Please show your support for this non-profit project by "liking" THE BIG E Facebook page HERE. Thank you!

 

Historical liner note essay by Steve Fishell

THE BIG E: A Salute to Steel Guitarist Buddy Emmons

Not unlike Steve Wozniak’s invention of the first desktop computer or Walt Disney’s advancements in modern animation, Buddy Emmons’s brilliant innovations on the pedal steel guitar - both as a player and as a designer-engineer - brought never-before-imagined levels of musical and mechanical sophistication to this most challenging of instruments, widening its stylistic reach while sealing its rightful place as a cornerstone of modern country music. Emmons’s transformative contributions to both the pedal steel’s musical vocabulary and to its physical tuning and mechanical setup revolutionized how the pedal steel - a horizontal electric instrument with raised strings tuned chordally and played with a metal slide - sounds today. He forged de facto standards that have remained unchanged since 1962.

Emmons’s fiery, complex single-string solos; his cascading, imaginative chordal work; and his virtuosic technical facility set standards by which all other steel players measure themselves.  Yet, in spite of his super-human technical abilities, Buddy’s impeccable musical taste never allowed him to overstate his melodic intentions when accompanying an artist. Says legendary guitarist Duane Eddy: “Music is not a sport, it’s an art form,” a maxim Emmons always followed. Judy Collins describes Emmons’s steel work on her 1969 pop hit “Someday Soon” in this way: “They are some of the tastiest licks on any song that I’ve heard. They are classic, they are seamless, they fit the song like a glove.”

Playing the pedal steel is akin to playing three-dimensional chess. On the piano, notes never change; a middle C is always in the same spot. But the modern-day pedal steel - with its open chordal tuning and its complex mechanism that allows a player to alter specific notes - can, in some cases, play the same exact note in over a dozen different places. Layers of complex musical chords morph on pedal steel - with the help of its foot- and knee-activated pedals and levers - into a Rubik’s cube of endless new chordal shapes and combinations.

Despite this complicated, confounding technical backdrop, Buddy Emmons flourished, discovering he could communicate as easily with his steel guitar as he could with speech. Before Emmons emerged on the national scene in 1955, pedal steel was typecast as a backup instrument for hillbilly, country and swing music. Emmons expanded the instrument’s vocabulary, forging a sophisticated style that extended the instrument’s reach into modern country music as well as into modern jazz and bebop. He was the first steel player to record a serious jazz album, traveling to New York in 1963 to make Steel Guitar Jazz for Mercury Records. Though Emmons felt his performance on the sessions was flawed, the album was applauded by tastemakers like renowned jazz critic Leonard Feather and by the often harsh gatekeepers in the jazz press like Downbeat magazine, who gave the album a respectable two and a half stars. Exclaimed Downbeat’s review:  “Don’t let the steel guitar scare you away - this is honest music. Emmons’s playing sometimes has a country-and-western flavor, but, basically, it seems to be very much in the Charlie Christian tradition.”

On country sessions, Emmons’s virtuosity was so overwhelming that seasoned veterans sometimes would tune in a little too closely. Duane Eddy remembers how Buddy shined during the 1962 Nashville sessions for his album Twang A Country Song. “We were recording Hank Williams’s ‘Weary Blues.’ I took the first part then Buddy played this gorgeous, beautiful solo. He grinned at me and I grinned at him. Then suddenly the song just stopped and trailed off. I was so upset. I looked at the control room and said, ‘What the hell’s going on?’ Singer Anita Kerr walked over to me and said, ‘Duane, I believe you were supposed to come in after the steel solo.’ And I just turned bright red. I was just so immersed in Buddy’s playing, it was so beautiful and perfect.”

Recalls Grand Ole Opry star Little Jimmy Dickens, who first hired 18-year-old Emmons in 1955: “Buddy and [guitarists] “Spider” Wilson and Howard Rhoton were playing three part [solos] on a lot of my stuff, and I’d catch myself listening to them [onstage] and not paying attention to what I was doing. They warped my head a lot.” (see sidebar conversation with Little Jimmy Dickens and Buddy Emmons below)

By the time “Little Jim” - as Buddy now refers to his old friend - discovered Emmons in Detroit in June of ‘55, Emmons already had the chops to dazzle an audience with his new state-of-the-art Bigsby pedal steel.  Subbing for Dickens’s regular steel player, Walter Haynes, one night in Detroit, Buddy blew everyone away, and Dickens made sure to get the kid’s phone number. A month later, Dickens called and invited Emmons to join his red hot band, the Country Boys, when Haynes quit.

The nervous, lanky teenager made his national debut on Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry stage on July 4th weekend 1955, with his parents watching proudly from the Ryman Auditorium’s balcony seats. Buddy and his hot-lick pedal steel hit Nashville like a big bolt of lightning that night, and the town would never be the same.

Born during the Great Depression to Donald and Mary Emmons in Mishawaka, Indiana, on January 27, 1937, Buddy Gene Emmons was raised in nearby South Bend, where the family moved in ‘39 (Buddy’s name was misspelled “Betty Jean” on his birth certificate, a mistake that went unnoticed for 17 years, until Buddy applied for a marriage license. Says Buddy, “I had been a girl for 17 years”).

Donald worked as a machinist at the Bendix Corporation Manufacturing plant - a leading builder, among other things, of auto and aviation braking systems - founded in South Bend in 1924. He bought Buddy his first lap steel guitar at age 11, and the boy studied formally at South Bend’s Hawaiian Conservatory of Music but dropped out after butting heads with the instructor. Headstrong at an early age, Buddy preferred teaching himself; he listened endlessly to 78s featuring lap steel masters like Joaquin Murphey and Herb Remington - and later to Little Roy Wiggins, Jerry Byrd and Speedy West. Soon, Buddy wore down the vinyl record’s grooves to a grey strip over all of the best solo sections, mastering them one by one.

His father brought to the household a sense of mechanical adventurism, the feeling that anything could be built with the right tools.  This carried with Emmons throughout his life, as he endlessly tinkered with his steels, constantly re-inventing and improving on their complicated mechanical designs and their tone-generating qualities.

Soon enough, young Buddy’s talent for playing became so pronounced that his parents bought him a Fender triple-neck “Stringmaster” non-pedal steel, and he began playing in the local honky-tonks near South Bend. He quickly outgrew the Fender and set his sights on a new Bigsby pedal steel just like one of his heroes, Speedy West, played. With the help of his parents, Buddy ordered a new Bigsby in 1952, joining the two year long wait list for the new guitar.

In late 1953 a haunting new sound arrived on the country’s jukeboxes and radiowaves that would change the course of pedal steel history.

Country star Webb Pierce’s heartfelt ballad, “Slowly,” featured innovative steel player Bud Isaacs, whose haunting, bending chordal intro, solo and fills mesmerized listeners and helped catapult the song to the top of the charts in February 1954, making it the first hit to feature pedal steel. “Slowly” was inescapable on the nation’s radios and jukeboxes and it became ground zero for all steel players. Non-pedal steel players everywhere scrambled to emulate Isaac’s captivating sound, resorting to improvised contraptions made from coat hangers and gas pedals to crudely raise notes on their lap steels.

Buddy heard the sound and knew he had to have it. He called Paul Bigsby in Downey, California, and asked him to install the Isaacs tuning on his nearly finished triple-neck eight-string Bigsby pedal steel.

Buddy took to the nightlife immediately, dropped out of high school at 16 and moved to Calumet City, Illinois - once dubbed the original American “Sin City” - near Chicago, to play with Stony Calhoun’s band. Eventually he moved on to the bright lights of Detroit.

Legendary vocalist and Country Music Hall of Fame member Ray Price says he first heard about young Emmons in 1953 from Detroit-area country star and disc jockey Casey Clark, who convinced 16-year-old Emmons to move to the Motor City that year to join his band. Remembers Price: “The first time I ever played Detroit I was staying at Casey Clark’s house because we weren’t making enough money to stay at a hotel. I was trying to sleep at night and I kept hearing this strange noise, and I got up and thought someone was playing the radio somewhere. I never could figure it out. The next morning Clark asked me, ‘Did you sleep all right?’ And I said, ‘No. Somebody had the radio playing all night, but it wasn’t loud enough to tell what it was.’ And Casey said, ‘Oh, that was Buddy Emmons. He’s living downstairs in the cellar, and he turns off the night lights and unplugs the amp and plays the steel guitar....in the dark.’ This was before he went with Jimmy Dickens in Detroit. Buddy was working on it that hard back then. He was practicing - not looking at the frets - and he knew where it all was - in the dark. I knew then that Buddy Emmons was going to be a big ‘un.”

Once Buddy moved to Nashville in July 1955 as a member of Jimmy Dickens’s backup band, the Country Boys, he  immediately became the player to watch - known not only for his superb staccato single-note solos, brilliant chordal phrasing and his confident stage presence, but also for his endless experiments with tunings and pedal setups.

Several extraordinary elements converged for young Buddy Emmons to create what pedal steel great Paul Franklin calls “the perfect storm.” First, Emmons had ordered a state-of-the art Bigsby pedal steel - with its two year waiting list - in early 1953, at least one year before “Slowly” hit the airwaves with its game-changing pedal steel voicings. Also, Emmons wisely asked Bigsby to put the new “Slowly” pedal change and tuning on the front neck of his nearly finished triple-neck steel. Finally, Little Jimmy Dickens fatefully heard Buddy wail on his new Bigsby in June of ‘55 and brought him to an international stage on WSM’s Grand Ole Opry radio show.

Says Paul Franklin about Buddy Emmons: “His genius for playing stood out even before pedals became the trend. Pedals actually became the special effect of the day and you either ignored it - thinking this won’t last - or you jumped onto it. Buddy - with his explorative mind - jumped onto pedals and it was off to the races. He had it all: technique, emotion, note choice, a creative imagination, and in my opinion his contributions mark the start of the modern steel guitarist.”

If you’ve ever peered underneath a pedal steel guitar, you’ve seen a miniature cityscape of moving metal: dozens of rods, bell cranks, springs, pulleys and co-operating linkages, all somehow working together to change the musical pitch of separate strings up top. Few steel players back in the fifties - or even today - would ever think of disassembling their instruments in order to understand how they work and perhaps find new ways to improve them.

But Buddy Emmons loved working “under the hood” of his pedal guitar. Nearly every week during his first years in Nashville “The Big E,” as the over six-foot-tall musician came to be known, would try something new as he searched for a better tone: first a wooden neck, then a metal one, then a new neck sporting a wood-grained Formica fretboard without any frets at all. He experimented constantly with new pickups, tunings, string gauges and pedal setups - even using tunings with low bass strings and mandolin-spaced strings in octaves - anything to find new sounds to help him stand apart from other players.

Jimmy Dickens convinced his label, Columbia Records, to sign his band, the Country Boys, to a record deal. After an evening session on January 9, 1956, that yielded four new Jimmy Dickens recordings - including “Big Sandy” - his band recorded four instrumentals between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m., including three of Buddy’s originals. Two of the resulting tracks, “Raising the Dickens” and “Buddy’s Boogie,” received sizeable regional radio airplay and quickly become steel guitar standards.

One of Emmons’s first recording sessions in Nashville was for Faron Young’s version of “Sweet Dreams.” The song reached #2 on the country charts in 1956, and Buddy’s reputation spread quickly.

Emmons fell in with other young Nashville steel players like Jimmy Day - who played on Ray Price’s #1 country smash “Crazy Arms” in 1956 - and Ben Keith, who toured and recorded with Faron Young and Patsy Cline. (Keith, who later became a mainstay of Neil Young’s music, played on Cline’s “I Fall To Pieces” in 1960.) Soon the three steel players were as thick as thieves. When they weren’t on tour, they would organize spontaneous jam sessions - fueled by speed and liquor - that often lasted for days.

Today, Buddy refers to this time as “the discovery days.” He, Jimmy Day and Ben Keith would push one another during jam sessions, staying up for days and nights on end, carving out the newest, hottest licks and phrases while the other steel players in town were fast asleep. Day and Emmons even split the cost of a new Fender Bass and both learned how to play it to make sure they always had a solid foundation during their jams.

In 1956, Dickens was forced to dissolve his band and go solo due to high overhead costs. For Emmons, it was an early lesson in how fickle the music biz can be, but soon an opportunity presented itself that would raise his profile to even greater heights as both a player and an inventor.

Dobro and steel player Shot Jackson had taken notice of Buddy’s constant tinkering with his Bigsby steel. Every week Buddy showed up at the Opry with some wild new idea. Jackson, who was nearly twice Buddy’s age and himself a skilled mechanic, had an idea for a more stable tuning mechanism than the one used by Bigsby, and he suggested that the two try to build a pedal steel together.

Emmons went into business with Jackson in 1956, co-founding the Sho-Bud Guitar Company (a hybrid of the names SHOt and BUDdy). Debuting as the Sho-Bud “Permanent” in 1957, their new eight-string double-neck steels featured Shot’s welded tuning mechanism, which was more stable than the pulley-style device used by Paul Bigsby. It was limited, though, because Sho-Bud’s “permanently welded” undercarriage and pedal setup could not be altered in any way. Bigsby on the other hand, worked alone, had a two year waiting list and could turn out only one steel a month. Jackson and Emmons saw an opportunity and ran with it. Buddy spent the first year building and finishing the Sho-Buds’s beautiful wooden cabinets while Jackson worked on design and assembly; soon the orders piled up.

The pedal steel’s distinctive sound - heard predominantly on recordings and radio since 1955 - is played on the “E9th” tuning, based on an open E chord. In 1956 Emmons came up with a groundbreaking innovation that changed forever the way the E9th tuning is played: he split Bud Isaac’s single floor pedal tuning, used on “Slowly,” into two floor pedals, known today as the E9th tuning’s “split pedals.”

In Buddy’s own words: “The Bud Isaacs country pedal sound transposed an open E triad to an A triad by raising two strings (G# and B) to A and C# - with one pedal - while sustaining an E note at the top of each triad.” For guitarists, this is similar to the sound achieved by moving from an open E chord to open A.

Buddy continues: “My first contribution to the physical side of discovery was to free up the limitations of the tuning in 1956 by separating the B and G# strings, which were normally [raised] on one pedal. An intro [Nashville “A” team guitarist] Grady Martin used on a hymn called “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” by Red Foley inspired me to alter the basic pedal arrangement on my Bigsby guitar by raising the B and G# strings on separate pedals. It was a way to keep the same sound - by giving each string a separate pedal - while making it possible to play suspended, 7ths, 13ths and minor chords. Now, all I had to do was get to the studio first with it.”

As luck would have it, Buddy was offered a prime position in Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours touring and recording band, a job he quickly accepted in part because he knew that the Texas Troubadours - considered to be one of the hottest bands in country music - would serve as a great showcase for his new Sho-Bud steel. Plus, Buddy Emmons was rarin’ to go with his new “split pedals” idea when Ernest asked him play on his next Decca recording session with producer Owen Bradley.

Tubb’s sound up until this time had predominantly featured guitarist Billy Byrd’s signature intros and phrases. As Buddy remembers: “The Ernest Tubb sound left little need for steel solos. On that first session, ‘Half A Mind,’ a slow ballad written by Roger Miller, didn’t seem to be lending itself well to Ernest’s style. After a few times through, Owen said, ‘Ernest, let’s try something different. Why don’t you let Buddy have the intro? A pedal steel guitar might sound good for a change.’ I honestly didn’t think E.T. would go for it, but after a moment of thought, he said, ‘OK, son. Kick it off.’ Ernest and Owen liked it and suggested I play the solo in the middle of the song. I had broken the Ernest Tubb ‘sound’ barrier and introduced the split pedal sound in the same song.”

“Half A Mind” climbed quickly up the Billboard country chart in 1958, reaching #8. Twenty-one–year-old Buddy Emmons’s imaginative new, split pedal intro and solo licks were like nothing anyone had ever heard before, and his reputation spread like wildfire. Soon, he and Shot Jackson made the split pedal arrangement a standard feature on all new Sho-Buds.

In the hands of young Emmons - and his steel buddies Jimmy Day and Ben Keith - the discovery period jammed into overdrive and the pedal steel’s vocabulary grew at lightning speed.

Buddy was now exploring be-bop and jazz at jam sessions more than ever, and the Texas Troubadours - considered one of the top bands in country music - proved to be a perfect vehicle for jazzy swing instrumental ideas and arrangements. The band routinely sang and played at dances for two hours before Tubb was introduced, with Buddy and lead guitarist Billy Byrd leading the charge.

But when Tubb hit the stage, the band went back to Ernest’s more straightforward, plain-spoken approach to country music. Buddy increasingly found he had to tame down his playing during shows and in recordings with the country legend in order to provide a proper setting for the raw music. Buddy loved the job, but found it limiting, so eventually he drifted. In 1959 he left for several months and ventured out west, to Southern California, to check out the burgeoning country scene there, befriending, among others, steel guitar great Ralph Mooney. Eventually, though, Emmons missed the Nashville scene and re-joined the Texas Troubadours, this time as lead guitarist for a short time before re-claiming his pedal steel chair.

During down-time riding on the Tubb bus, Buddy would dream up numerous ways to improve the Sho-Bud steel and its inflexible undercarriage. Emmons became increasingly frustrated with his friend Shot Jackson. As Emmons recalls: “When we started Sho-Bud in 1957, Shot Jackson was almost twice my age and becoming set in his ways, while I was 20 with a lot of crazy ideas running through my head. After spending time with my first Sho-Bud, I suggested changes that I thought might improve the cosmetics and weight of the guitar. Shot felt like the Sho-Bud was a success and didn’t want to rock the boat with changes. After several more ideas were met with the same response, I felt that the only way I’d have a guitar with all the features I wanted would be to design it from scratch. Starting in 1959, I spent the next two years putting ideas on paper.”

Emmons left Ernest Tubb for good in 1962 to take Jimmy Day’s place in Ray Price’s renowned Cherokee Cowboys, one of the finest bands in country music history. Price was a superstar, and Emmons loved being onstage with the high-profile touring outfit. Buddy became Price’s bandleader and helped write many of his arrangements for the band’s extensive repertoire. Extremely popular at dances throughout the country, the Cherokee Cowboys - like the Texas Troubadours - would open for Price, warming up the dance crowd for a couple of hours before the star finally came to the stage.

When Price asked Emmons to play steel on his next session, Buddy knew right away he’d have to come up with something unique to top the soulful, heartfelt work his friend Jimmy Day had played on Price’s records going back to “Crazy Arms” in 1956.

A couple of weeks before the session, Buddy had a brainstorm while on Ray’s tour bus. He had the driver pull over so he could drag his steel up top to his bunk and tear it apart to accommodate a new tuning idea. By adding two notes from the E major scale to the open E tuning, Buddy was able to play the notes of major and minor scales associated with each open chord in one spot without moving the bar, allowing the notes to ring together in beautiful, never-before-heard ways.  Known by steel players as the “chromatic strings” or “diatonic strings,” Emmons tried the new tuning idea at Ray’s session in September 1962, on a song called “You Took Her Off My Hands.” It fit perfectly, adding a whole new level of melodic expression to the pedal steel’s palette that remains a fixture on all E9th pedal steels today.

Ray Price - who with his rich, expressive voice, was now in his prime as the premier male honky-tonk singer in country music - recorded his landmark album Night Life in 1963 for Columbia Records. The haunting title song was written by a successful young songwriter, Willie Nelson, whom Buddy had befriended in Texas in 1959 while on tour with Ernest Tubb. The six-minute track provided the perfect vehicle both for Price’s expressive, powerful vocal and for Buddy’s bluesy, ambient, jazz-laced pedal playing. The album - which also featured a barroom shuffle, written by Nelson and Emmons, titled “Are You Sure,” reached #1 on the Billboard country charts in 1963, becoming a honky-tonk classic and providing a perfect landscape for Buddy Emmons’s nuanced, smoky, haunting pedal steel. Together, the songs on Night Life create a patchwork storyline that starkly captured the bitter loneliness of the road and its life filled with beer joints, one night stands, sorrow and regret.

On the road, Price’s Cherokee Cowboys never lacked for great musicians. Before Buddy joined, Willie Nelson and Roger Miller had both toured with Price, and during Buddy’s tenure Johnny Bush, Darrel McCall and Johnny Paycheck all came on board.

Buddy continued to jam constantly - whether at home in Nashville or out on the road with Price - stretching the steel’s musical vocabulary to heights never before heard. Singer Johnny Bush, who played drums for Price at the time, remembers the Cherokee Cowboys’s bus jams: “We had one of those step-down Flex (“Flxble”) buses where the aisle was six inches lower than the seats. Buddy had a piece of plywood stretched across there, and we’d crank up the generator, and Buddy would plug into his amp, and Charlie Harris would plug his guitar into it. Then we had the upright bass, fiddle and my snare drum and a sock cymbal. We would play all the way to the gig, then we’d go to the hotel and set up and play, then we’d go to the gig and set up and play. We played all the time; the money was secondary.”

Emmons left Sho-Bud amicably in 1963 and in his spare time worked feverishly building and testing a new, more advanced pedal steel design. Ray Price remembers: “Buddy sat on my bus for three years filing out and designing that steel guitar. He built it going down the road. I’m telling you, he’s the most dedicated person I know.” Johnny Bush remembers that Buddy “got out that slide rule and that little tool box” and worked constantly on his new pedal steel design as they rolled from gig to gig.

Remembers Buddy: “My ‘push-pull’ mechanism worked on the same principle of Shot’s permanent system except that I integrated his undercarriage mechanics into bell cranks and changer fingers. The major mechanical advantage over the Sho-Bud was the ability to raise and lower the same string. My father, an employee at the Bendix factory, made the dies for the changer fingers.”

Ernest Tubb’s son Justin, who loved hearing Buddy stretch out at jam sessions, sent an instrumental demo that Emmons recorded to the jazz division of Mercury Records. The company liked what they heard, signed Emmons to record a jazz album in 1963 and assigned Quincy Jones to produce the project. Jones helped Buddy make his song choices ahead of time, but when Emmons - who had wanted to record the album in Nashville - flew for his first visit to unfamiliar New York City to record the project, Jones couldn’t produce the album and turned over the reins to someone else. The abrupt change threw the sessions into disarray as the nerve-rattled Emmons - expecting to make up arrangements on the spot - arrived without proper charts for the musicians.

Needless to say, Emmons was thoroughly unhappy with the resulting album, but Steel Guitar Jazz (now available as part of Amazing Steel Guitaron the Razor & Tie label), has remained pedal steel’s definitive jazz statement - and a staggering snapshot of Emmons’s virtuosity under extreme duress - since its release in November 1963.

In 1964 Buddy formed the Emmons Guitar Company with Ronald Lashley, a former physics professor from Burlington, North Carolina, and the Emmons steel guitar, which Emmons had labored over for so many years, was finally made available to the public. Lashley handled the manufacturing end of the business. Emmons’s cutting edge pedal steels set new standards for tuning accuracy, tonal brilliance and modern physical appearance. Says pedal steel legend Tommy White, “It’s the benchmark for today’s steel guitar and it’s remained pretty much unchanged since Buddy designed it back in ‘63.”

Emmons continued to make classic recordings with Ray Price for three more years, including milestone albums like The Other Woman and Touch My Heart (whose title track featured Buddy’s spectacular E9th playing), but by 1967 Buddy had become disenchanted as Price changed direction and began choosing more lush, middle-of-the-road material that favored strings and pop-influenced arrangements. Ready for a big change, Emmons left the Cherokee Cowboy in 1968 and accepted a job playing bass with superstar Roger Miller, moving to Los Angeles to do steel session work when not touring with the L.A.-based Miller.

In Southern California, Emmons quickly fell into the session scene; on a recommendation from guitarist James Burton, Buddy was called to play on sessions for Judy Collins’s album Who Knows Where The Time Goes and in 1969 wound up on her pop hit “Someday Soon.” In no time he was playing on a wide range of sessions for disparate artists like Ray Charles, John Phillips (of the Mamas and the Papas), John Sebastian, country rock pioneer Gram Parsons, Arlo Guthrie, Henry Mancini, Paul Siebel, Rick Nelson, the Everly Brothers, Linda Ronstadt and Longbranch Pennywhistle, a duo featuring future Eagle Glen Frey and famed singer-songwriter and future Eagles collaborator JD Souther. During his time in L.A., Buddy also made an instrumental album for the Elektra label with four top West Coast steel players - JayDee Maness, Rusty Young, Sneaky Pete Kleinow and Red Rhodes - called Suite: Steel, drawing new attention to the instrument.

Emmons clearly made an impression on studio musicians in California. Ry Cooder says, “I have no recollection of the Longbranch Pennywhistle sessions, except for Buddy warming up on Charlie Parker at triple speed. That I remember. The humbling effect of watching him, that sensation is vivid.” Eagles founding member Bernie Leadon recalls: ”Buddy self-edited. Other players could be all over the map; they couldn’t edit themselves like he did. What came out with Buddy was much more of a whole cloth. It was finished and you had the take. But what Buddy was playing in between takes -- warming up, noodling -- that’s what I would be listening to. It was unbelievable.”

Emmons sat in semi-regularly in 1973 with Don Everly and the brilliant British guitarist Albert Lee at a tiny club called the Sundance Saloon in Calabasas, California. Says Albert, “One night I turned up and Buddy Emmons was on pedal steel. I almost wet my pants but I got up and played; I was in heaven.” The Tuesday night gigs became the stuff of legend, with the parking lot jammed and the club filled to overflow capacity.

Buddy and his wife, Peggy, whom he married in 1967, grew homesick for Nashville and decided to return in 1974. With the help of friends there, he steadily fell back into session work, while also recording several solo albums for the Flying Fish label, including jazz albums with guitarist Lenny Breau and another with fiddle master Buddy Spicher. Emmons regularly appeared at the annual International Steel Guitar Convention in St. Louis and released a brilliant live album recorded there in 1977.

Emmons received many session calls throughout the 80s and 90s, recording on an array of highly regarded sessions with artists like George Strait, Willie Nelson, J.J. Cale, Ray Price, Ray Charles, John Hartford, Gene Watson, k.d. lang, Glen Campbell, Trisha Yearwood, Clinton Gregory, and John Anderson. He also recorded a series of excellent swing albums with artist Ray Pennington as “The Swing Shift Band” on the Step One label. In 1988, Buddy accepted an invitation to tour with the Everly Brothers, a decision that led to a 12-year road stint, the longest of his career. Both brothers had been longtime friends, with Buddy having played on several of their solo albums, so the road call was a natural fit. Buddy’s bandmates included longtime friends, drummer Larrie Londin - who had played on his International Steel Convention album in 1977 - and guitarist Albert Lee, whom Buddy had first met on sessions for Don Everly’s Sunset Towers album in L.A. back in 1972.

Buddy Emmons retired from music in 2007, but his larger-than-life musical persona left a massive footprint. As someone who could drill down into the most complex jazz changes and single-note solos ever, then turn around and make the strings cry and bleed with the saddest country licks imaginable, he remains the benchmark by which all steel players measure themselves. His complex patent design for the first Emmons steel guitar set the standard for today’s pedal steel industry and remains for Buddy his proudest achievement. As he says about the first Emmons steel, “Its influence has probably touched more people’s lives than anything I have ever done as a player.”

Steve Fishell  June 2013

A NOTE FROM THE PRODUCER

As a steel guitarist, I have long admired Buddy Emmons’s playing. This album, filled with artists and pedal steel players I respect and love, is my attempt to show you what Buddy’s music means to me. Some of these musicians, artists and their recordings make me laugh, others make me cry. Anyway, I’m proud to have worked with the musical geniuses who appear on these tracks, and I thank them - and all the talented and generous people who accompany them and recorded them - for contributing to this appreciation of Buddy Emmons’s music.

All profits from this project will be donated to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in the name of Peggy Emmons, Buddy’s beloved wife of forty years who passed away in 2007. As Buddy told me when he first heard about this project, “Peggy always watched my back, wanted me to do well, and had a lot to do with my will to keep going. Maybe this will give her a piece of recognition I think she deserves for playing such a big part in keeping my interest in music peaked.”

Very SpecialThanks to

Little Jimmy Dickens, Duane Eddy, Vince Gill, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, David Leonard, John Esposito, Peter Strickland, Jill Moreland, Susan Rose and everyone at Warner Music Nashville, Mark Rothbaum, Buddy Cannon, JayDee Maness, Skip Edwards, Kyle Young, Jay Orr, Michael Gray, Tim Davis and everyone at The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Raul Malo, Scott Borchetta, Bev Paul, Mike Johnson, Joanie Keller Johnson, Robbie Wittkowski, Buck Reid, Kim Fowler, Al Moss, Alison Prestwood, Shauna Dodds King and Sarah Dodds at Backstage Designs, Austin TX, Greg Leisz, John Anderson, Alex McCollough and Yes Master, and especially Ernie Renn.

Special thanks also to Gary Carter, Katy Fishell, Mickey Raphael Geoffrey Wallace, Mark Reckard, Randle Currie, David Hungate, Albert Lee, Juanita Copeland and The Sound Emporium, Jim Palenscar, Kyle Ford, Tommy White, Norm Hamlet, Paul Franklin, Dean Serletic, Doug Jernigan, Danny White, Mike Esser, Sixteen Tons Studio, Dan Dugmore, Tutti Westbrook, Tom Wheeler, Craig Havighurst, Buddy Miller, Spooner Oldham, MPI, Bobby Lee and the Steel Guitar Forum, Dean Serletic, Nina Miller, Gibson Guitar, Mike Vaden, Bill Hullett, Joan Myers, and Gary Belz and The House of Blues Studios, Nashville.

1. Country Boy      Vince Gill featuring Paul Franklin and Tommy White  Felice and Boudleaux Bryant © House of Bryant Publications LLC (BMI)

This early Little Jimmy Dickens hit was written by the legendary songwriting team of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant. "Country Boy" was already a concert highlight for Dickens when he first spotted 18-year old Emmons in Detroit in 1955 and moved him to Nashville to join his famed backup band "The Country Boys." Emmons' first live concert with Dickens took place on July 4, 1955 with an appearance on The Grand Ole Opry. This song has special significance for Vince Gill; Dickens' 78 version of the song was the very first recording Vince's father and uncle owned when they were kids.

2. That's All It Took     Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell featuring Steve Fishell    Darrell Edwards, Charlotte Grier, George Jones Glad Music (BMI) © Fort Knox Music Inc. (BMI)/Glad Music Publishing & Recording LP, (BMI)/ Pappy Daily Music LP, (BMI)/Trio Music Company, (BMI)

Gram Parsons called only two people to play steel on his first solo album entitled "GP" in 1973: Buddy Emmons and Al Perkins. The daring album married country shuffles with evocative ballads, r&b and rock n roll, sealing Parson's reputation as a singer-songwriter-bandleader capable of merging disparate genres into new territories. The album simultaneously introduced the world to Parsons new duet partner  - and one of country music's most gifted vocalists - Emmylou Harris. Here Emmylou is joined by former Hot Band members Rodney Crowell on vocals and Steve Fishell on pedal steel to reprise the classic shuffle.

3. Blue Jade      Duane Eddy featuring Dan Dugmore   Buddy Emmons   © Emmons Publishing Co. (BMI)

This exquisite Emmons composition was featured on his 1967 solo album entitled "Emmons Steel Guitar Company," meant in part as a showcase for the new "Emmons" pedal steel which made it's manufacturing debut in 1965. Duane Eddy met Emmons during Eddy's extraordinary Twang A Country Song sessions in Nashville in 1962, and they remain friends to this day.

4. Are You Sure      Willie Nelson   Willie Nelson and Buddy Emmons © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, (BMI)

"Are You Sure" was written by Willie Nelson and Buddy Emmons after the two were cornered by an overly friendly drunk in a Nashville bar in 1962. As Emmons remembered in 2002, “This fellow moved over close to us. I thought he knew Willie and Willie thought he knew me. Finally, I said ‘Are you about where you want to be?’ The drunk said, ‘Yeah.’ And I said ‘Are you sure?’ Willie looked at me and said, ‘There’s a song title. I’ll write it and give you half.’” Emmons says he tried to talk Willie out of it, but Willie insisted, saying, “an idea is as good as a song.” “It shows you the kind of person Willie is, ” says Buddy. The song appeared on Ray Price’s classic 1963 album Night Life.

5. This Cold War With You      JayDee Maness   Floyd Tillman  © APRS Publishing (BMI)

Steeler JayDee Maness is a master of style, phrasing and tone. The west coast musican - a longtime friend of Buddy Emmons - is a former member of Buck Owens' Buckaroos and has recorded with Aaron Neville, Ray Stevens, Gram Parsons, Eric Clapton, Mick Jaggar, Neil Diamond, and with The Byrds on their seminal 1968 album "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" album. An original member of The Desert Rose Band, JayDee salutes Buddy Emmons with the Floyd Tillman classic "This Cold War With You," originally recorded by Ray Price with Emmons in 1963.

6. Half A Mind      John Anderson featuring Buck Reid   Roger Miller   © Sony/ATV Tree Music Publishing LLC (BMI)

Buddy Emmons is credited with many ground-breaking technical and tuning "firsts" on pedal steel. One of his greatest achievements in 1956 was to "split"  the E9th tuning's single floor pedal - which at the time raised the seperate notes of an E chord (from E, G#, B up to E, A, C#), effectively moving the E chord to an A chord - into two seperate floor pedals. Thus, one floor pedal raised only the G#'s to A and the second pedal raised the B's to C#. This allowed for infinitely more chordal options and movement and has today become standardized on all pedal steels. Here, John Anderson sings Ernest Tubb's 1958 hit "Half A Mind," at the time the first major hit song to feature the new "split tuning."

7. Wild Mountain Thyme     Greg Leisz   P.D. Traditional arrangement by Greg Leisz   Capsongs (BMI), administered by Bug Music,  a BMG/Chrysalis Co. 

Pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz was first inspired to take up the instrument after hearing Emmons' lyrical playing on Judy Collins' 1969 album "Who Knows Where The Time Goes." Greg has recorded and toured with countless artists like Ray Lamontagne, kd lang,  Lucinda Williams, Wilco, Sheryl Crow, John Fogerty, Bon Iver, Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, among many others. Greg is featured here on a traditional Scottish song first recorded by Emmons in 1975 for his solo album "Steel Guitar."

8. Rainbows All Over Your Blues    Albert Lee featuring JayDee ManessJohn B. Sebastian © Alley Music Corp. (BMI) / Trio Music Company (BMI)

Buddy Emmons moved to Los Angeles in 1968 - joining superstar Roger Miller's band as a bassist - and promptly became a top call for pedal steel sessions in California. One such recording date was for former Lovin' Spoonful's lead singer John Sebastian's 1970 eponymous solo album for Warner/Reprise. Emmons so dazzled everyone on the session that Sebastian called for a short break, left the room and promptly re-wrote the second verse, inserting a shout out to Emmons before his 16-bar solo. The one-take live session is legendary amongst steel players for it's perfect execution, tone and nuance. Here legendary guitarist Albert Lee pays tribute to Buddy, with whom he toured for many years with the Everly Brothers.

9. Buddy's Boogie       Doug Jernigan   Buddie Emmons  © Universal Cedarwood Publishing (BMI)

Little Jimmy Dickens' band "The Country Boys" was the hottest band in country music when Dickens hired young Buddy Emmons in 1955. Dickens persuaded Columbia Records to sign the band and they released four instrumental sides - three written by Emmons - including "Raising The Dickens" and "Buddie's Boogie." Both songs quickly became country instrumental standards and received extensive airplay.

10. Night Life      Raul Malo featuring Randle Currie    Willie Nelson, Paul Buskirk, Walter Breeland© Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC (BMI) / Glad Music Publishing & Recording LP (BMI) / Pappy Daily Music LP (BMI)

Willie Nelson's epic song "Night Life" stunned listeners when it was first released by Ray Price in 1963.  Running nearly 7 minutes in length, the track featured a jazz intro, bluesy chord changes and two steel solos on the C6th tuning by Buddy Emmons. Here Raul Malo of The Mavericks is joined by Brad Paisley's longtime steel player Randle Currie as they recreate the original classic version of the classic song.

11. Feel So Bad     Chris Stapleton featuring Roosevelt Collier & Steve Fishell   Leslie Temple and James Johnson © Arc Music Corp. (BMI)

Buddy Emmons' long-time friendship with Ray Charles began in 1971 during sessions for Ray's "Volcanic Action of My Soul" album. The classic recording became a showcase for Buddy's steel guitar finesse, with Charles at one point exclaiming to Emmons, "you know what the old man likes!" Here Sacred Steeler Roosevelt Collier of the Lee Boys joins vocal phenom Chris Stapleton for this fiery new version.

12. Someday Soon  Joanie Keller Johnson featuring Mike Johnson  Ian Tyson © Warner Bros Inc (Warner Bros Music Div)(ASCAP)

This pop hit for Judy Collins in 1969 helped shine a spotlight on pedal steel for a new generation of players. The original track is a masterful dance between Emmons and guitarist James Burton as they answer one another between verse and chorus. Here steel guitarist Mike Johnson is joined by his wife Joanie Keller Johnson in this fetching arrangement of the classic song written by Ian Tyson.

13. Invitation To The Blues   Norm Hamlet   Roger Miller   © Fort Knox Music Inc (BMI) / Trio Music Company (BMI)

Roger Miller and Buddy Emmons became fast friends in the early 60's during their mutual tenure as members of Ray Price's stellar backup band, the Cherokee Cowboys. After Miller exploded on the pop and country charts in the 1965, he invited Buddy to join his touring band in 1968 as a bassist, a gig that lasted for nearly seven years. Buddy used the LA-based job as motivation to move to Southern California, where his steel guitar continued to flourish doing sessionwork for artists like Judy Collins, Ray Charles, Gram Parsons  and Henry Mancini. In 1970, Miller returned with Emmons to Nashville to record "A Trip In The Country," an album long appreciated by steel guitarists for it's wild and unbridled pedal steel highlights. Here famed steeler Norm Hamlet of Merle Haggard's longtime backup band "The Strangers" performs Miller's "Invitation To The Blues."

14. When Your House Is Not A Home      Little Jimmy Dickens featuring Dan Dugmore & Duane Eddy    Roger Miller   © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, (BMI)

Few songs cut deeper than this Roger Miller classic, which was first released by Country Music Hall of Fame member Little Jimmy Dickens in 1958. Two days before recordings for this salute began in June of 2012, Buddy told his friend Duane Eddy that this was the one song he hoped would be included on the album.

15. Shenandoah    Gary CarterP.D. Traditional arrangement by Gary Carter

Marty Stuart's renowned steel guitarist Gary Carter renders a lovely acapella version of this  classic traditional standard, which was performed by Buddy Emmons at his final appearance at the International Steel Guitar Convention in 2007.

BONUS TRACK    Mansion On The Hill   Duane Eddy featuring Dan Dugmore     Fred Rose and Hank Williams © Sony/ATV Milene Music Publishing LLC (ASCAP)/ Intersong USA Inc. (ASCAP)

This Hank Williams classic was featured during Buddy Emmon's many live performances, including his legendary live concert at the International Steel Guitar Convention in St. Louis in 1977. Duane Eddy and Buddy once performed an ad-libbed live version together at a music business trade show, and here Dan Dugmore's languid pedal steel perfectly accompanies Eddy's exquisite Gretsch guitar tone.

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