If there’s one instrument most closely associated with classic country music, it’s the pedal steel. Buddy Emmons is recognized as the Jimi Hendrix of the pedal steel – in addition to his revolutionary, jazz-inspired style and technical innovations, he also patented and first produced the version of the instrument that’s been the global standard since 1962. Emmons got his start as an eighteeen-year-old phenom in Little Jimmy Dickens’ band in 1955 and never looked back, recording and touring with Ray Price, Roger Miller and a stampede of country stars as well as recording many of his own albums which explore jazz as well as C&W. There’s also a compilation album, The Big E – A Salute to Steel Guitarist Buddy Emmons, out recently, with many of the world’s top pedal steel players and country stars paying tribute to the iconic musician/inventor. The whole thing is streaming at Spotify.
The playing throughout the tracks here is fantastic: although there’s a rotating cast of musicians, they pretty much sound like a single great Nashville band circa 1965 or so, a mix of current-day stars and veterans trading licks throughout a smart, inspired mix of some of the songs most closely associated with Emmons throughout his country career.
Vince Gill leads a band with steel players Paul Franklin and Tommy White trading richly jazzy western swing solos before Gill himself shows off some jazz guitar chops on Country Boy, an early Little Jimmy Dickens hit that Emmons played hundreds of times onstage. Steve Fishell takes over the pedals with his own resonant, terse licks on Emmylou Harris’ and Rodney Crowell‘s duet of That’s All It Took, a Gram Parsons homage. Duane Eddy exchanges low, twilit guitar shades with steel player Dan Dugmore‘s judicious riffs and Spooner Oldham‘s similarly tasteful piano on Blue Jade, a big Emmons instrumental hit. Then Willie Nelson contributes a spare acoustic take of Are You Sure, which he co-wrote in 1961 with Emmons.
Longtime Buck Owens steel player JayDee Maness and guitarist Albert Lee exchange purist, sometimes whispery, bluesy verses on instrumental version of the 1963 Ray Price hit This Cold War With You. John Anderson sings the 1958 Ernest Tubb honkytonk single Half a Mind, Buck Reid employing the famous tuning that Emmons invented while showing off some juicy western swing riffs. Greg Leisz follows with a mostly instrumental version of Wild Mountain Thyme, slowly making his way through the melody and then adding some richly tuneful embellishments.
John Sebastian’s Rainbows All Over Your Blues gives Maness and Lee a chance to choogle and spiral, followed by the album’s most energizing number, Doug Jernigan‘s lickety-split version of Buddy’s Boogie, an iconically difficult piece in the pedal steel canon. Then Brad Paisley’s longtime steel player Randle Currie takes it down, spacious and suspenseful, on a take of Willie Nelson’s Night Life sung by Raul Malo.
The Lee Boys’ Roosevelt Collier plays steel with a snarling but cool Albert Collins-style tone on a version of Feel So Bad, Fishell following with more sunbaked, sustained lines behind Chris Stapleton’s animated soul vocals. Joanie Keller Johnson‘s lovely Dolly Parton-tinged vocals grace a version of Someday Soon in tribute to Emmons’ playing on the 1969 Judy Collins hit.
Norm Hamlet of Merle Haggard’s band takes the steel chair on Roger Miller’shonkytonk hit Invitation to the Blues, but he lets Lee’s spiraling Strat take the song all the way up. Dickens himself sings a fetchingly soulful take of his classic When Your House Is Not a Home, featuring similarly low-key but intense solos from Dugmore and Eddy. Steel player Gary Carter , from Marty Stuart’s band, contributes a spacious, minimalist take of Shenandoah, which turns out to be the most avant garde thing here. The album winds up with Eddy and Dugmore exchanging resonant, elegantly moonlit lines on an instrumental of the Hank Williams classic Mansion on a Hill.