Buddy Emmons first hit Nashville on July 4, 1955, bringing along his steel guitar,
limitless talent that dazzled a city full of gifted musicians and a streak of wildness
that could have made his career a Roman candle, as big as the sky, before it burned out
He was only 18-years-old, then, yet his musical and technical
ideas proved so superior, so extraordinary that they were copied virtually overnight.
Emmons was always fooling with his steels, experimenting, adjusting, refining, rethinking,
doing anything to make the tone richer. He revolutionized the instrument, from the way it
was set up to the fast, breathtaking he could play it, and, appropriately, he is regarded
as the greatest steel guitarist in the world.
"I had a lot of energy. I was cocky," a mellower
Emmons, who just turned 41, says with a laugh. "I knew I could play, but I knew I
didn't know a whole lot about music. I was always humble around anyone who had been here
longer than I. I had a lot of people I wanted to meet."
He was always ready to socialize. "I spent most of my time
with a drink in my hand. I just liked to have fun." Life in the fast lane put the
moody Emmons through two divorces, booze, pills, tax problems and a six-year exile from
Nashville while he played bass for Roger Miller. He still doesn't get close to many people
in the business. But he's been back in Nashville for about four years, his longtime
interest in jazz has been intensified by a guitarist named Pat Martino, and he's still the
greatest artist on the steel guitar.
With its standard two necks, foot pedals and knee levers, there
is nothing like today's sophisticated, flexible steel guitar. It's the most expressive,
most distinctive - most complicated _ instrument in music. Emmons uses nine pedals and 10
levers all of which do the same thing - allow him to change the pitch of any string while
"Just about every week I'd come up with some kind of
change," he says of the old days. "I'd take a metal neck off and replace it with
wood to see if that would help the tone. I had a neck without a fret board; that was to
keep other people from playing it. I had the only guitar in town with an ashtray on
"Contrast of sound is the most important thing.
at that stage you never know what works. If you get it on record and it makes a jaw drop,
it's been worthwhile."
In that case Emmons knew about jaws long before movies about
sharks. He's been playing intros, turnarounds, riffs, licks - all those words that fall
short in describing the wonderful things skilled musicians do - for a lifetime since he
began playing the steel when he was 11-years-old. The first recording session Emmons
remembers included Faron Young's Sweet Dreams in 1956.
Sidemen weren't listed on
the albums, which was frustrating then and is inexcusable now.
Emmons' recent work includes Mel Tillis' Good Woman Blues
and Marty Robbins' Among My Souvenirs. He's never had a hit single, but he plays
on the Suite Steel album and he's released several stylish albums like Buddy
Emmons Steel Guitar, Buddy Emmons Sings Bob Wills (surprisingly well, too) and
one with fiddler Buddy Spicher called Buddies that are musts for anyone
who loves the instrument. Emmons' latest album was recorded live during a steel guitar
convention last September in St. Louis. He's also prominent on Ray Price and the
Cherokee Cowboys Reunited and is producing singer Darrell McCall.
There are many outstanding steel players, like Ralph Mooney,
Lloyd Green, Pete Drake, Weldon Myrick, Hal Rugg, Curly Chalker, Tom Brumley and Doug
Jernigan, but Emmons is alone at the top.
"He's not an ordinary guy," Lloyd Green says.
my opinion Buddy Emmons is probably the most intelligent and talented musician who's ever
played the instrument."
"He's like Picasso or Michelangelo. That might be laying it
on a little thick, but he's just flawless in his playing. Nobody is the composite player
"He was the first modern great steel player and nobody's
surpassed him yet. Emmons just, by God, came along and sounded like a 1977 steel player
when he came here in 1955."
It may be conceded that man's greatest invention is the wheel.
However, the runner-up must be the steel guitar, a direct descendant of the Hawaiian
guitar. Bud Isaacs used a foot pedal when he backed up Webb Pierce on Slowly in
1954 and country music has never been the same. Steel players all over the country added
pedals, too, no matter how crude.
When Isaacs' new sound came out Emmons was already on his own,
playing and drifting from club to jam session. He was only 16 when he left his home in
South Bend, Ind., a famous town because of Notre Dame. But football wasn't what he wanted
to play. Emmons was working in Detroit when Little Jimmy Dickens came through and hired
Once Emmons got to Nashville he spent years on the road with
George Jones, Ferlin Husky, Ernest Tubb and finally Ray Price.
"It was just a matter of finding the right guy to play with.
The first time I ever played with Ray I was scared to death. A friend of mine, Jimmy Day,
played with him for seven years. I wanted to work with Ray, but I thought, 'What the hell
would I do after Jimmy?'"
Emmons went with Price and came up with some great things to
play. He first backed Price on You Took Her Off My Hands and later his hits
included Touch My Heart. Price's Night Life album was probably
country's first "theme" album and Emmons' steel guitar captured the chest
tightening loneliness that often comes with honky tonks, surging and filling in behind
great Price vocals.
All the while Emmons was still working on his
guitar. One important change came when he removed two bass strings and replaced them with
"F" sharp and "E" flat. "That gave me a way to integrate some
notes into pedal changes," explains Emmons, who joined Shot Jackson to start the
Sho-Bud Company in 1957. Since 1962 Emmons - designed steels have been built by the Emmons
Guitar Co. in Burlington, N.C.
Meanwhile, the fast life caught up with him. One day it became
inescapable that Emmons, who had a heck of a time getting to Nashville, was going to be in
big trouble if he didn't leave.
"I couldn't get work for one thing," he says candidly.
"My wildness had peaked. I guess everybody had caught my act.
I missed sessions, and
I was having troubles at home with my second wife."
One fateful night Emmons was playing at the Black Poodle in
Printer's Alley - with one difference. Curly Chalker was playing steel and Emmons was on
bass when who should walk in but fun - loving Roger Miller. It was only minutes later that
Miller asked Emmons to join his band and Emmons - to his continuing amazement - blurted
that he would.
"The farthest thing from my mind was going on the road and
playing bass," says Emmons, who barely played the instrument at the time but learned
during his self-imposed exile of 1968-74.
Emmons had married his third wife, Peggy, in 1967, and when he
joined Miller they moved to Los Angeles. While they were there Emmons worked some sessions
playing steel for artists like Ray Charles and Judy Collins (including a perfect version
of Someday Soon) and he also faced his problems with "uppers" and the
"I just quit taking 'em," he says of pills.
behind in taxes about seven years. I straightened myself out when I was with Roger."
And then he went home.
How was the new Buddy Emmons greeted in Nashville?
"Very well," he says with another easy laugh.
think word had gotten back through Roger about how well I was doing. When I got back it
was like it never happened. The advantage of Nashville is you're around all the time - and
Johnny Bush, who had been Price's drummer, and Ray Pennington
started using Emmons on sessions, but it took about a year to get himself established
again. Now the Emmons' live in an unpretentious house east of Nashville, near the
Hermitage, President Jackson's home. Emmons keeps three steel guitars in his basement;
there's a huge picture of his hands taken one night when he was playing at the Ernest Tubb
Record Shop, and there's even a steel guitar clock over the bar. Emmons, who loves
photography, enjoys being home.
"Make Peggy the one responsible," he says.
the way she handled things when I first met her. When I got in one of my stages she knew
how to handle it - and very quietly, too, which I wasn't used to."
He is also inspired by the work of jazz artist Martino.
has gotten so carried away listening to Martino tapes in his car that he's picked up two
"As far as I'm concerned he's the greatest who ever picked
one," Emmons says. That kind of recommendation costs money because you have to go buy
"He's a breath of fresh air for me. After listening to him
I'd like to be around him more and lock into his feelings."
Emmons even has a Siberian husky he's named Martino.
looks like Pat plays - mean."
When Emmons is inspired, the steel guitar advances that much
more. And, despite all the sessions and all the years, he's an artist who says, "I'm
still looking for the right tone."
As great as he is, Buddy Emmons will get better.
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