Legendary Steel Guitarist Buddy Emmons Has Died
One of the most important and influential steel guitar players in the history of country music has died. Buddy Emmons, known as the “The World’s Foremost Steel Guitarist” passed away Tuesday evening (7-28) according to reports. He was 78-years-old.
Buddie Gene Emmons was born on January 27, 1937, in Mishawaka, Indiana, and started playing lap steel guitar at the tender age of 11. At the time, the steel guitar was considered just as much an instrument of Hawaiian music as country, but along with other early steel players such as Jerry Byrd and Don Helms, Buddy Emmons helped bring the steel guitar to the forefront of the definable country music sound.
Emmons’ work with “Little” Jimmy Dickens is where he first began to be recognized at large for his steel guitar prowess. Joining Jimmy’s band at the age of 18, Buddy became a star in his own right, and penned two instrumentals while in Jimmy’s band—“Raising the Dickens” and “Buddie’s Boogie” —that have since become standards of the instrument. The complex working of the steel guitar’s pitch bending pedals and levers made steel guitar players like Buddy Emmons the wizards of country music, wooing crowds with lonesome notes that cried and moaned along with the stories of the song.
Later Buddy Emmons played with two of the most legendary backing bands in country music: Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours, and Ray Prices’ Cherokee Cowboys. During his time in the Cherokee Cowboys, Buddy rubbed elbows with future stars such as Willie Nelson and Roger Miller. Appreciating Buddy’s tasteful style and deep understanding of music, Ray Price eventually named Buddy bandleader—a position he remained in for many years until leaving the band after Ray began to favor a more pop-oriented sound.
Afterwards Buddy joined his old Cherokee Cowboy buddy Roger Miller in California for a while before relocating back to Nashville in 1974. Emmons had experienced martial problems and issues with alcohol, but moved back to Music City with his third wife Peggy who he credited for getting him to settle down. Back in Nashville, Emmons resumed his session work, and put together a long legacy of records and songs his signature steel guitar sound can be found on. Emmons played studio sessions all of the way into the 90’s, finding his way on to records from George Strait, John Hartford, and Ricky Skaggs to name a few.
Buddy ended most if his studio session work around 1998, but would continue to play in the studio and on stage, most notably with a reincarnation of The Everly Brothers between 1998 and 2001.
Buddy Emmons not only contributed to the sound to the steel guitar, but the design and manufacture of the instrument. In 1956, Emmons joined with Shot Jackson to develop the now legendary “Sho-Bud” pedal steel guitar, and the two men set up a company to sell the instruments to the world. Emmons was also instrumental in developing the “split-pedal” setup of the steel guitar during his time at Sho-Bud. Buddy eventually left the company in 1963 to start the Emmons Guitar Company, but the name “Sho-Bud” can still be seen on many country music stages around the country today, while Emmons steel guitars are considered by many as the industry standard of the instrument.
Emmons never officially retired, and continued to play at steel guitar shows and other functions, and was known to frequent NPR’s A Prairie Home Companion. However repetitive motion injury meant he had to stop playing full time in 2001.
Buddy’s wife Peggy died in 2007. He is survived by two granddaughters Crystal and Brittany, and two grandsons, Levon and Buddie III.
Buddy Emmons was not just a king of the steel guitar, but one of the most influential and important instrumentalists in the history of country music.
July 29, 2015 @ 5:37 pm
I didn’t even know Buddy Emmons was still alive…
I think this is a moment in which we all have to sit down and put our love for Ray Price and Willie Nelson aside, and realize that without these top-notch musicians behind them, there’d be nothing.
“On a record I heard a steel guitar play, my friend said it was Buddy Emmons, but I knew it was Jimmy Day. I read in a country music magazine, about a big star who drove around in his limousine. His voice was just like velvet, he was tops throughout the land. I wonder what he’d sound like if he didn’t have his band.”
July 30, 2015 @ 4:39 am
well lets see Buddy didn’t make Willie or Rays Career,,, and yeah he was still alive
July 30, 2015 @ 8:17 am
Saying Buddy Emmons didn’t prop up Ray Price is like saying that Buck Owens’ career wasn’t largely tied to Dangerous Don Rich, or that Porter Wagoner wasn’t partly dependent on Buck Trent. I don’t think you remember when the “Porter Wagoner Show” moved to Opryland and Buck Trent left for Hee Haw and the overall quality of the show declined. That’s why we have songs from Willie like “Me and Paul.” The sidemen deserve their respect. Scroll down this very comment section and you’ll find how Waylon’s legendary status was partly due to Ralph Mooney.
July 30, 2015 @ 10:36 am
Wow Fuzz, being a the young man you are, I’d like to know how you “remember” that.
Did you build a time machine? If you did, you have to let me use it, haha. I’ll pay top dollar.
July 30, 2015 @ 6:13 pm
I wish I could say I remember it first hand, my experience comes from reruns, sadly. As for my time machine, not only did I have to rebuild it after every time I let someone use it, but I recently got back from playing some fiddle duets with Emperor Nero and I accidentally left the darn thing in reverse and it went back without me.
July 30, 2015 @ 2:39 pm
Thanks ! I’m still alive and pickin! Oh Yeah! Buddy was the Greatest!
July 29, 2015 @ 5:42 pm
The world is now a little less twangy. RIP.
July 29, 2015 @ 5:46 pm
Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?
July 29, 2015 @ 6:16 pm
If I had to cite one instrument whose conspicuous absence is almost single-handedly responsible for gutting the heart of today’s ” country ” music I’d say the steel guitar . In the right hands , this instrument is capable of anything and everything …from the chord voicings unavailable to ANY other instrument , exciting staccato up-tempo runs , smooth as butter emotional symphonic-like padding and an unrivaled capacity to elicit any and every emotion ANY country lyric may need support in conveying . The greats like Buddy Emmons knew the magic their passion for this instrument could conjure and we are all blessed by their dedication to it . RIP Mr. Emmons .
July 29, 2015 @ 7:01 pm
I would disagree Albert. I would say the fiddle is more versatile and more important to country’s sound than the steel. But, consider this: Take a tune like “Fool such as I,” It has that Cramer-Style piano, lots of steel, and twin fiddle harmony. No one of these three things is more important than the other to the song. It’s the meshing of the three that makes it so powerful. The absence of the fiddle, piano, and steel as a trio are what is missing.
July 29, 2015 @ 8:29 pm
‘The absence of the fiddle, piano, and steel as a trio are what is missing.’
No question and I totally appreciated that fact .
My argument for the steel , however , is summed up here:
“from the chord voicings unavailable to ANY other instrument …..”,
The steel guitar has access to musicality like no other SINGLE instrument ( except , of course , the synthesizer if you want to call it a SINGLE instrument ). It incorporates the fretless intonation-reliant human element of a bowed instrument ( fiddle ) allowing slurs and double stops , but also adds volume swells , octaves , countless chord inversions and voicings that fiddle would not physically be capable of delivering . Certainly fiddle was the earlier and the more traditional instrument of the two and preferable under many circumstances . But fiddle/violin also manged to find a home in many other pop genres including swing , jazz , cajun and , of course , bluegrass whereas the steel guitar is mostly associated with country music and in that regard it’s absence, IMHO, is an immeasurable loss.
July 29, 2015 @ 10:52 pm
I agree with you Albert. No comparison.
July 30, 2015 @ 8:20 am
If we look at the fact that the violin is a cross-genre instrument, I can see why you’re giving the steel that distinction for country. They’re gorgeous instruments, although they’re absolutely insufferable to transport, play outside, set up, etc. double basses sure are a pain too.
July 29, 2015 @ 7:15 pm
He played on my first cut in Nashville. I got to watch it go down. It was magic.
RIP Buddy Emmons and thank you.
July 29, 2015 @ 7:16 pm
I feel like I’ve lost a brother. I don’t play the steel guitar but Buddy made me wish I did. I’ve listened to him for years and I got to meet him in St Louis in ’81. A wonderful person and awesome picker. His passing leaves an enormous void in music that, in my opinion, will never be filled.
July 29, 2015 @ 8:02 pm
RIP Buddy. 🙁
July 30, 2015 @ 12:32 am
That’s sad! I never got to see him play – but I wish I had!
July 30, 2015 @ 3:48 am
I first heard Buddy before my teens, when watching The Grand Ole Opry show rebroadcasts in the early 70s.
The sounds he pulled out of that instrument were unlike anything, and brought real excitement to my ears, and his showmanship turned the smile into a laugh.
Rest In Peace Mr Emmons, and may your harp come with knee bars.
July 30, 2015 @ 4:11 am
I never got into PHC, and Garrison Keillor is retiring now, too. My loss, I guess.
Wish I had heard more of Buddy Emmons. What a legend. Just as important a figure as Les Paul in my book.
July 30, 2015 @ 4:57 am
A true legend and entrepreneur years ahead of his time. Such sad news and a huge loss in the pedal steel world.
July 30, 2015 @ 5:38 am
Buddy’s passing is very sad news to our small steel guitar community. His genius and influence can be heard on almost every pedal steel lick you will hear anyone play. He was and is my #1 steel hero. Thanks Buddy for bring this amazing instrument to the forefront of country music. RIP
July 30, 2015 @ 6:01 am
RIP Mr. Emmons.
July 30, 2015 @ 7:21 am
I’ve just recently become really interested in steel guitar. It’s amazing how much of a part the steel plays in artists/bands who utilize one. For example you take Ralph Mooney away from Waylon Jennings, and I don’t know that he would have ever become the legend that he did. And Waylon is one of the best by himself. Somebody correct me if I’m wrong there.
July 30, 2015 @ 8:12 am
Ralph was HUGE to the success of Waylon, and Waylon would tell you that himself. Mooney was a legend before Waylon even got him. He was Waylon’s direct tie to country’s legendary past. Nobody else could lure Mooney out on the road, and out of retirement. Waylon did.
July 30, 2015 @ 9:02 am
Buddy will be sorely missed by all who knew him. The man was a walking wonder and influenced music of all forms and styles. I had the pleasure, I should say honor, of working with him on Phil Everly’s “Star Spangled Springer” album. The man was an absolute musical genius.
God bless and rest peacefully, Buddy Gene, you’ve earned it.
July 30, 2015 @ 11:38 am
Thanks for the obit and wonderful link to “Night Life.” Minor correction: Ray Price is at right in the photo and Buddy is left.
July 30, 2015 @ 2:00 pm
I like to chime in here and answer Fuzzy for a minute.
Not only is the pedalsteel guitar more versatile compared to a violin (fiddle) but it’s sound has put more people on the path towards country music then the violin has. How do I know?…….simple; I build these machines.
Everything depends on how many necks, pedals and Knee Levers the instrument has. Whether it is a Push/Pull an All Pull or a Pull/Release guitar. Saying that the violin is more versitile is not true. The violin can be compared with a lapsteel but a pedal steel guitar is something completely different.
Buddy was the best there was and most likely will remain the best. I do know that 10’s of thousands are morning his passing but we have a lot comfort knowing that he is back to playing with his friends, Ray, E.T, Little Jimmy Dickens and several others in heavens band.
May you rest in peace my friend. Until we meet again
July 30, 2015 @ 6:18 pm
I used to play in a band with a guy who built steels, they’re beautiful instruments and he was a fantastic maker. But a basic understanding of how bowed instruments work will attest that, second to the human voice, they are the most versatile instrument capable of producing the widest variety of sounds and expressions. Now, admittedly, a four string fiddle only has so many options, that’s why they started making 7, 8 and ten string models. Ultimately though, the instrument is only as good as the guy playing it. As for it’s place in country music history: that distinction belongs to the steel. the violin has a home in jazz, classical, rock, and most cultural folk music, whereas the steel belongs solely to country music.
July 31, 2015 @ 9:51 am
“whereas the steel belongs solely to country music”
Steel guitar is a hawaiian instrument and was adopted by country music as well as jazz/swing music. It’s been used plenty in rock music too. I don’t really consider Heart of Gold or Tiny Dancer country songs but the steel guitar does stand out.
July 30, 2015 @ 7:42 pm
Quote: “As for it”™s place in country music history: that distinction belongs to the steel. the violin has a home in jazz, classical, rock, and most cultural folk music, whereas the steel belongs solely to country music.”
the human voice can ‘never’ be surpassed by any instrument….however, I guess you never heard Buddy play Pachelbel Canon In D Major?
August 8, 2015 @ 8:36 pm
What should also be mentioned about Buddy Emmons that he was a wanted man well beyond even the Nashville city limits. He got some extensive work in the Los Angeles country-rock movement of the late 60s and early 70s, working with Linda Ronstadt in 1972 and ’73; and it’s his steel work on Rick Nelson’s 1969 C&W/rock comeback recording of Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs To Me.”
Lisa Lynn Spears Tenpenny
August 2, 2016 @ 7:31 am
I didn’t see this post till now. Buddy was my idol my whole life. Since I was 12 I started getting interested in steel guitar. I’ve been playing STEEL GUITAR my whole life and he was my inspiration. I was Buddy Emmons crazy. Later in life we became friends and had several outings together and what a man. Life is very different without Buddy.I always looked forward to running into him at gigs in Nashville when I wasn’t on the road with Porter Wagoner. Never will this be repeated. Was the best and always will be. My idol and friend I will miss that man dearly.I will see you on the other side Buddy.
July 9, 2020 @ 7:16 am
Back in your Nashville days I wondered who you actually hung with musically since you had a style of playing that was pretty much your own.