Emmons has been called "The World's Foremost Steel Guitarist" and his talent is greatly admired by fellow steel guitarists His musical versatility spans genres such as country, swing, jazz, folk, and country-rock, and he has performed or recorded with a wide variety of vocalists and musicians including Judy Collins, Linda Ronstadt, Ernest Tubb, John Hartford, The Everly Brothers, Ray Price, and Lenny Breau. His innovative musical stylings range from tasteful ballad accompaniment and classical music to be-bop jazz, big band swing standards, and Western swing. He has also made significant contributions to the design, development, and evolution of the pedal steel guitar as a musical instrument.
He was born Buddie Gene Emmons (Later, in his mid-twenties, he changed the spelling of his first name to "Buddy".) When he was 11 years old, his father bought him a 6-string lap steel guitar and signed Buddy up for lessons at the Hawaiian Conservatory of Music in South Bend, Indiana, which Buddy dutifully attended for about a year. Buddy then began figuring out on his own how to play the country music he heard on the radio. Buddy has said that Jerry Byrd and Herb Remington were among his first major influences. By age 15, Buddy's playing had progressed considerably and his parents bought him a triple-neck Fender "Stringmaster" steel guitar, and he began performing with local bands in South Bend such as The Choctaw Cowboys. Bored with high school, he left at age 16 and moved with a boyhood friend to Calumet City, Illinois, where he was soon hired by Stony Calhoun to play in his band. At 17, he moved to Detroit to play with Casey Clark. During his stint with Clark, Buddy purchased a Bigsby steel guitar with pedals similar to the pedal steel guitar that Bud Isaacs had used on the Webb Pierce hit song "Slowly". (The pedals on a pedal steel guitar allow the player to change the pitch of one or more strings while playing the instrument.)
The next year, Little Jimmy Dickens heard Buddy playing with Casey Clark and offered him a job with his band, so at the age of 18, in July, 1955, Buddy moved to Nashville. Dickens' band was then considered one of the hottest bands in country music, with complex arrangements and fast twin guitar harmonies. Dickens arranged for his band to record several instrumentals on Columbia Records under the name, "The Country Boys". The first tunes recorded included three of Buddy's originals, two of which, "Raising the Dickens" and "Buddie's Boogie", quickly become steel guitar standards.
In 1956, Dickens dissolved his band to perform as a solo act, and later that year Buddy and Shot Jackson formed the Sho-Bud ("SHOt-BUDdy") Company to design and build pedal steel guitars. Meanwhile Buddy began doing recording sessions in Nashville—one of his first studio sessions resulted in Faron Young's hit version of "Sweet Dreams".
In late 1956, Buddy contributed a major innovation to the evolution of the pedal steel guitar by splitting the function of the two pedals that changed the pitch of several strings from a tonic chord to a sub-dominant chord. This "split-pedal" setup is now the standard pedal arrangement in the E9 tuning, since it allows greater musical flexibility than the earlier pedal setup pioneered by Bud Isaacs. Buddy recalls that he first used this split-pedal innovation on Ernest Tubb's "Half A Mind (to Leave You)"
His first recording with Tubb, "Half A Mind (to Leave You)", quickly became a hit record, and has since become a classic country standard. In 1958, Buddy quit Tubb's band and moved to California. Eight months later, he returned to Nashville and rejoined the Texas Troubadours as the lead guitar player for the next five months, at which point he returned to the pedal steel guitar chair in the band
In 1962, he left Tubb to join Ray Price and the Cherokee Cowboys, replacing his long-time friend, steel-guitarist Jimmy Day. His first recording with Price in September, 1962, produced the hit song, "You Took Her Off My Hands". On this song Buddy made elegant use of another of his major steel guitar innovations- adding two "chromatic" strings (F# and D#) to the E9th tuning. These "chromatic strings" have since become part of the standard 10-string pedal steel guitar tuning.
His playing over the next several years with Price set the benchmark for sophisticated and tasteful steel guitar accompaniment on many of Price's hits. His unique moving counter-point intro on "Touch My Heart" and his jazz-based bluesy intro and solo on "Night Life" established Buddy as one of the most innovative musicians in Nashville Buddy was soon appointed by Price to be his bandleader and created many of the arrangements on Price's recordings over the next several years
After trying without success to get Shot Jackson interested in his new guitar design ideas, Buddy left Sho-Bud in 1963 and formed a new guitar manufacturing company, the Emmons Guitar Company. The Emmons steel guitar soon became the instrument of choice for many professional steel guitarists, and the early Emmons steel guitars with Buddy's original "push/pull" pitch-changer design are highly sought-after instruments today—due to their outstanding tone and durability.
Another musical milestone was Buddy's Steel Guitar Jazz album, recorded in New York City in 1963. The first jazz album featuring a steel guitar and recorded with established jazz session-players, it received praise from Downbeat, the highly respected jazz magazine.
As Lloyd Green, a highly in-demand studio steel guitarist said of Buddy in 1977, "He's not an ordinary guy. In my opinion, Buddy Emmons is probably the most intelligent and talented musician who's ever played the instrument. He's like Picasso or Michelangelo. That might be laying it on a little thick, but he's just flawless in his playing. Nobody is the composite player he is. He was the first modern great steel player and nobody's surpassed him yet. Emmons just, by God, came along and sounded like a 1977 steel player when he came here in 1955".
Buddy's son, Larry, from his first marriage, later would become a professional musician, playing bass with Ernest Tubb. According to a 1965 interview, Buddy and his second wife, Gigi "have two children, Buddie Gene and Tami". Buddy continued to record and tour with Price until 1967, and, between tours with Price, did recording session work with many Nashville artists such as George Jones and Melba Montgomery. Emmons left the Cherokee Cowboys largely due to his disenchantment with Price's growing interest in performing pop-style country with string orchestrations.
Meanwhile, he began living the fast life. "I spent most of my time with a drink in my hand. I just liked to have fun." Life in the fast lane brought Buddy a second divorce, problems with booze and pills, tax problems, and fewer recording sessions. "I couldn't get work for one thing," he says candidly. "My wildness had peaked. I guess everybody had caught my act. I missed sessions, and I was having troubles at home with my second wife".
In 1967 he married his third wife Peggy, who brought twin girls, Debbie and Diana, from her first marriage. Buddy has credited Peggy with calming his wild streak. "It was the way she handled things when I first met her. When I got in one of my stages she knew how to handle it - and very quietly, too, which I wasn't used to." Meanwhile, Buddy's long-time friend, songwriter Roger Miller, offered him a job in his band in California. Buddy moved to Los Angeles, playing bass in Roger Miller's band and doing studio work on pedal steel. His first recording session in L.A. was on Judy Collins' classic "Someday Soon". He soon began recording with artists such as The Carpenters, Nancy Sinatra, Gram Parsons, John Sebastian, and Ray Charles, as well as recording jingles, commercials, and movie soundtracks for Henry Mancini
Buddy returned with Peggy to Nashville in 1974, where he quickly resumed studio work with artists such as Mel Tillis, Donna Fargo, Duane Eddy and Charlie Walker. Beginning in 1974, Buddy became a regularly featured performer at the annual International Steel Guitar Convention in St. Louis, and was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in 1981.
In 1976 Buddy recorded a highly regarded tribute to the great Western Swing artist Bob Wills, on which Buddy was the lead vocalist as well as the steel guitar player. He continued to do session work throughout the 1980s and 1990s with artists such as John Hartford, George Strait, Gene Watson and Ricky Skaggs.
In 1977, Buddy teamed with Danny Gatton for occasional gigs, and then in 1978 they toured as the band Redneck Jazz Explosion. On New Year's Eve 1978, they recorded the album "Redneck Jazz" live at The Cellar Door in Washington, D.C.
In 1990, Buddy and Ray Pennington formed the Swing Shift Band, and began producing a highly regarded series of CDs that included Big Band Swing, Western Swing, and original country songs. Buddy began touring with The Everly Brothers in 1991, which continued until about 2001. Buddy discontinued doing regular session work around 1998 in order to tour with The Everlys.
Buddy's zealous practice schedule caught up with him around 2001. He began suffering from a painful repetitive motion injury to his right thumb and wrist, which caused him to stop playing for over a year. Although fully recovered now and playing as well as ever, Buddy chooses not to return to recording session work on a regular basis, but does record with certain artists he has known for many years, such as Ray Price, Johnny Bush, and Willie Nelson. He continues to perform at steel guitar shows, and occasionally on American Public Media's A Prairie Home Companion.
Buddy has three granddaughters, Crystal, Nikia, (who died in 2004) and Brittany, and two grandsons, Levon and Buddie III. Buddy's wife Peggy often accompanied him to steel guitar shows and conventions, and became known as a warm-hearted, gracious woman as she helped Buddy meet his many fans and sell his recordings and videos. She died unexpectedly on December 19, 2007.