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.