Buddy Emmons: Steel Guitar Icon

Steve Fishell

No one would argue that Buddy Emmons wasn’t a transformative force in pedal-steel guitar. Immortalized as “The Big E,” he was known for his trademark derby hat, consummate musical brilliance, and good humor as well as his personal demons. A member of the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame since 1981, his importance transcended his stellar country playing in the bands of Little Jimmy Dickens, Ernest Tubb, Ray Price, and later, the Everly Brothers. Emmons’ singlehandedly married pedal steel and modern jazz. Here, Nashville pedal-steel guitarist/producer Steve Fishell, who produced an Emmons tribute album, offers a portrait as complex as Emmons’ playing.

Blending new research with (authorized) use of writings from Emmons’ abandoned autobiography, Fishell, using technical and laymen’s terms, reveals a man fueled by perfectionism. He advanced the steel’s musical range and technology despite problematic relationships with two steel manufacturers (Sho-Bud and Emmons) bearing his name. Fishell examines Emmons’s recordings as both accompanist and solo artist, particularly his groundbreaking 1963 Steel Guitar Jazz LP. Resilient to the end, he recovered from physical problems that limited his playing. Though he’d withdrawn after the death of his wife, Peggy, Emmons was awaiting delivery of a new steel when he died in 2015.

This article originally appeared in VG’s November 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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