Willie Nelson and Buddy Emmons wrote, “Are You Sure ” together.
by: Julie Thanki
Pedal steel guitar innovator Buddy Emmons has died at the age of 78. Nicknamed “The Big E” for his height, Mr. Emmons, a member of the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame, played with some of country music’s finest, including Little Jimmy Dickens, Ernest Tubb and Ray Price, and his work forever changed the genre. The number of musicians he influenced over the past half-century is immeasurable.
“Buddy Emmons was truly a musical genius,” says Eddie Stubbs, WSM DJ and “Grand Ole Opry” announcer. “He had an unbelievable gift and was so forward thinking. He was placed here at a pivotal time, when the pedal steel guitar was a relatively new instrument. He took it to another level and expanded (the instrument’s) boundaries.”
Buddy Gene Emmons was born on Jan. 27, 1937, in Mishawka, Ind. His father bought him his first lap steel guitar at the age of 11, and the young boy quickly took to the instrument. Soon his parents noticed his musical aptitude and bought him a triple-neck steel guitar.
At 16, Mr. Emmons dropped out of school, then moved to Detroit to play in Casey Clark’s band. It was in this city that country music star Little Jimmy Dickens discovered him in the summer of 1955; by the July Fourth weekend of that year, Mr. Emmons was making his “Grand Ole Opry” debut as part of Dickens’ backing band, the Country Boys. With Mr. Emmons and guitarists Spider Wilson and Howard Rhoten, the band “reached its zenith,” Stubbs said after Wilson’s death in March.
In 1956, Dickens dissolved his band, and Mr. Emmons found a job as part of Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours. His crying pedal steel licks were an integral element of songs such as Tubb’s 1958 hit single “Half a Mind.”
Not only was Mr. Emmons a stunning musician, he also was a remarkable innovator, and would frequently tinker with his steel guitars, experimenting with different tunings and pioneering the split-pedal setup, which can be heard on “Half a Mind.” Mr. Emmons and musician Shot Jackson formed the Sho-Bud Guitar Co. in 1956. Less than a decade later, he’d leave Sho-Bud and create the Emmons Guitar Co. with Ron Lashley.
Mr. Emmons also was a talented songwriter. He and Willie Nelson co-wrote “Are You Sure”; this song was recently recorded by Kacey Musgraves for her 2015 album, “Pageant Material.” He recorded several solo albums over the course of his career as well. His 1963 release “Steel Guitar Jazz” was the first jazz record featuring pedal steel. He’d later join forces with Ray Pennington to form the Swing Shift Band; they’d release a handful of records together.
He’d return to Nashville in the mid-‘70s and would continue doing session work for some of country music’s top artists through the 1980s and ‘90s, including George Strait, Willie Nelson, Trisha Yearwood and John Anderson. In the late 1980s, he also accepted an offer to tour with the Everly Brothers, and he’d remain with them for 12 years.
Mr. Emmons retired from music after the death of his wife, Peggy, in 2007, whom he had married in 1967.