A Cultural Manifesto: RIP Buddy Emmons

 

[Editor's note: Climb inside our rainbow time machine, people, cause it's '60s week in the NUVO music section. For much more Dick Dale, The Beach Boys, The Turtles and more, click here.] Indiana lost one of its most musically gifted native sons last week when master of the pedal steel guitar Buddy Emmons passed away at age 78. He's perhaps best known for the striking steel guitar accompaniment he added to a handful of iconic country music classics while working as a session musician in Nashville during the late 1950s and early '60s. But Emmons was also a restless innovator, recording multiple album projects interpreting modern jazz compositions on his pedal steel. 

Emmons was born in Mishawaka on January 27, 1931 and acquired his first guitar at age 11, a six-string lap steel purchased by his father. Influenced by the Hawaiian motifs of Hank Williams' steel guitarist Jerry Byrd, Emmons signed up for lessons at the Hawaiian Conservatory of Music in South Bend. But soon after, bored with high school, he split Indiana at age 16. By age 18 he'd relocated to Nashville where he joined the band of Grand Ole Opry star Little Jimmy Dickens. The notoriety he gained for his work with Dickens led to opportunities to tour and record with Ernest Tubbs' Texas Troubadours and Ray Price's Cherokee Cowboys.

By the late '60s Emmons had moved on to California and began performing session work in L.A. with a variety of rock and pop stars from Nancy Sinatra to Gram Parsons.  By the mid '70s Emmons grew homesick for Nashville and returned to the Music City, where he maintained a bust schedule of session work until retiring in the 2000s after a repetitive stress injury diagnosis. In 1998, the Encyclopedia of Country Music described Emmons as one of "the most in-demand and influential steel guitarists in the history of country music."

Throughout his career Emmons also engaged in the design and manufacturing of pedal steel guitars, first working as Sho-Bud in 1957 as a collaboration with fellow guitarist Shot Jackson and later his own Emmons Guitar Company.

The following list represents a few highlights from Buddy Emmons' gigantic discography of recordings.

Ray Price — Night Life

Ray Price's 1963 hit version of the Willie Nelson-penned classic "Night Life" is perhaps Emmons' most important performance and, for me, it's also one of his most magical recordings. The shimmering sonic textures Emmons creates on his pedal steel are the perfect soundscape to Price's lament on the neon-filled landscape of  Nashville night life.

Buddy Emmons — Oleo

Emmons' first solo LP was the 1963 release Steel Guitar Jazz featuring incredible pedal steel interpretations of modern jazz and bebop, including this Sonny Rollins classic. This track is a great example of Emmons' ability to lift the pedal steel from its standard context as a vehicle restricted to country music. 

Ray Charles — Feel So Bad

Emmons' pedal steel guitar is featured all over Ray Charles' 1971 LP Volcanic Action Of My Soul, but his funky solo in the soulful "Feel So Bad" leaves the deepest impression on me. In the liner notes of the LP's reissue Ray Charles marveled at Emmons' musical intuition musing, "I can just whisper, man, and he'll know what to play."

The Carpenters — Top of the World

When The Carpenters needed a grand sweeping sound to complement the majestic theme of their 1973 number one hit "Top Of The World" Buddy Emmons was called up to provide the soundtrack. Emmons' pedal steel become the lead voice for the mega pop smash. 

The Everly Brothers —

Christmas Eve Can Kill You

One of my favorite examples from Emmons' work as a 1970s  session player. Emmons pedal steel creates a haunting backdrop for this strange tale of seasonal isolation and depression.

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Kyle Long pens A Cultural Manifesto for NUVO Newsweekly and in 2014 began broadcasting a version of his column on WFYI.

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