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The Big E: A Salute to Steel Guitarist Buddy Emmons

(Warner Bros; US: 20 Aug 2013; UK: 26 Aug 2013)

Pedal Steel Guitar

Country music stars such as Vince Gill, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, and others acknowledge Buddy Emmons as one of the “World’s Foremost Steel Guitarist”, as he used to be billed. Emmons helped create (as an inventor) and popularize (as a player) the steel sound most people think of when they think of classic country music. The 16 newly recorded tracks on this tribute disc, The Big E: A Salute to Steel Guitarist Buddy Emmons, reveal Emmons profound influence. The 16-page booklet, full of photos and minuscule detailed texts and diagrams, explains Emmons’ seminal contributions. While this may matter to the country music historians among us, for the rest of us—who cares?

As one might imagine, the disc is rich in pedal steel guitar music. This is not for the casual fan who would soon grow bored with the sound of so much picking. The disc is for the discerning listener who cares about how different instrumental maestros, including Greg Leisz, Jaydee Maness, and Dan Dugmore, deal with (the still alive) Emmons’ rich legacy. The material includes a diverse range of music associated with Emmons, including his work with Gram Parsons, Judy Collins, and John B. Sebastian, as well as more traditional country folk such as Roger Miller, Little Jimmy Dickens, and Ray Price. The performances are universally clean. One can hear the silence between the notes as well as the notes themselves.

The most unusual track is Willie Nelson on vocal and guitar with harmonica player Mickey Raphael taking on the Nelson/Emmons 1963 composition, “Are You Sure”. According to the liner notes, Emmons recalled that Nelson wrote the tune based on a statement Emmons made to a stranger at a bar. Nelson insisted Emmons get half credit because “an idea is as good as a song.” While this may or may not be true, Nelson terrifically wrings the emotions out of the composition without ever getting maudlin. Raphael adds just the right touches to deepen the effect. There may be no steel guitar here, but the song provides a fitting tribute to the man who made the steel sound like a person on the verge of crying—the reason why one thinks of country music as so sad.

Even on tracks like Albert Lee’s take on “Rainbows All Over Your Blues”, the pedal steel provides a melancholy contrast to the happy lyrics. And on sorrowful instrumentals such as “Invitation to the Blues” and “This Cold War With You”, the steel speaks eloquently of heartache without getting maudlin. If this seems depressing, well—this is tear-in-your-beer music. For the most part, the music dares one not to well up.

That said, there are exceptions—such as Vince Gill’s western swing take on “Country Boy” and the a capella take on the traditional “Shenandoah” by Gary Carter on pedal steel and Kevin Adams on piano that sounds as noble as the river itself. But like the blues, pure country music such as this is most frequently associated with pain. One doesn’t need to be a masochist to appreciate it, but as the old joke goes, it doesn’t hurt.


Steven Horowitz has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Iowa, where he continues to teach a three-credit online course on "Rock and Roll in America". He has written for many different popular and academic publications including American Music, Paste and the Icon. Horowitz is a firm believer in Paul Goodman's neofunctional perspective on culture and that Sam Cooke was right, a change is gonna come.

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