Book Review. Steve Fishell “Buddy Emmons: Steel Guitar Icon”

University of Illinois Press, 2022

Who better to write a biography of that acknowledged maestro of the pedal steel guitar that is Buddy Emmons, than a man who has become one of the mainstays of the Nashville musical community because of his own fine pedal steel playing. Steve Fishell is best known for being Emmylou Harris’ steel player of choice for some 40 years, but he’s also worked with a number of other prominent artists in americana, including Eric Church, Reba McEntire, John Prine and, of course, Dolly Parton. Fishell is a musician’s musician, so he’s perfectly situated to write what would seem to be the definitive biography of one of the most exciting musicians of his generation.

Fishell has taken Emmons’ own autobiographical memoirs and combined them with his interviews with Emmons, and anecdotes from various people who knew Emmons at different stages in his life, to produce a really in-depth picture of a fascinating character and a man who loomed large over americana music but who also successfully ventured into other musical waters, particularly Jazz, where he was both a fan and an enthusiastic player.

Fishell has taken an interesting approach to writing this biography and there are some nice little touches that show an understanding of his likely readership. This is a book written for fans and fellow musicians. Steve Fishell, it seems, falls into both categories and that clearly comes across in his writing. It’s nice to see a timeline, right at the start of this book, that lays out Emmons’ life and marks the significant events that drive it. The purchase of his first steel guitar in 1948, when he is just 11 years old. Five years later he quits school to play six nights a week with Stoney Calhoun. In 1955, aged 18, he acquires a triple neck, 8-string Bigsby console steel guitar with custom pitch altering foot pedals. 1964 sees the debut of the Emmons pedal steel guitar – and so it goes on. All those key dates are laid out in a fascinating sequence of events that provides a great snapshot of Buddy Emmons’ very full life before you dive into detailed information and a host of anecdotes, facts, and figures.

Another nice idea is the inclusion, at the end of most chapters, of a list of key songs. For example, Chapter 6 deals with Emmons’ arrival in Nashville to join Little Jimmy Dickens’ touring band. The key recommended tracks for this chapter are two songs by Dickens, ‘Raisin’ the Dickens’ and ‘Buddy’s Boogie’, plus Faron Young’s ‘Sweet Dreams’ and Buddy Emmons’ own ‘Flint Hill Special’. Fast forward to Chapter 15, ‘Steel Guitar Jazz’, and the key tracks are the entire “Steel Guitar Jazz” album by Emmons himself and Gary Burton’s ‘I Can’t Help it if I’m Still in Love With You’. It helps you track Buddy Emmons’ development as a musician in practical terms – you’re not just reading about the development of a fine musician, but you get to track it audibly if you’re prepared to seek out, and listen to, these key tracks. This shows the value of having a musician write a biography like this and it gives a real insight into the development of Emmons’ talent and his musical thinking as he develops both his art and his instruments.

Originally the project started out as a collaboration between Emmons and Fishell on what was going to be an autobiography, but the need to go over his past and remember everything that had taken place became increasingly difficult for Emmons himself and he withdrew from the project. Eventually, he offered Steve Fishell a deal – he would bequeath his memoirs to the author if he agreed not to publish the resulting biography until after Emmons’ death. It has turned out to be a great deal because Steve Fishell has been able to produce a biography freed of Buddy Emmons peering over his shoulder, but he had full access to all Buddy’s own scribblings about his own life. Taking things one better, Fishell has been able to take Buddy’s various anecdotes and, in many cases, then discuss them with others that were there at the time. It makes for a very readable and very enjoyable journey through the life of one of the great musicians of the late 20th century.

It’s important to remember that Buddy Emmons wasn’t just a great musician, he was also an innovator in the world of steel guitar. Being a steel player himself, Fishell is more than aware of Emmons’ legacy and draws this out well as his book progresses, so that we get the story of Emmons’ early involvement with the development of the pedal steel guitar, his involvement with Shot Jackson and Sho-Bud Steel Guitars and the later split and subsequent establishment of the Emmons Guitar Company and all the frustrations that went with it plus, of course, we also have Buddy’s own view on his business activities and the views of others around him at that time. Fishell also goes into some detail about the great man’s development of other people’s instruments and the many ideas and practical inventions he brought to his chosen instrument. There’s a whole appendix given over to ‘Buddy Emmons’s Tuning and Pedal Changes’ that I would say is a must-read for both aspiring players and established steel guitarists. This really is a very comprehensive book about a man who becomes ever more fascinating the further into this book you delve.

There is also an appendix titled ‘Tributes and Testimonials’ and these, as you would imagine, make for fascinating reading. People rarely say anything negative in a testimonial but you can tell when people are paying lip service to someone. Emmons was clearly respected and loved and that comes across in a very big way in these circa 30 different testimonials, many of them from fellow steel players. I particularly liked one from British musician, Sarah Jory, who played her first International Steel Convention at the age of 13. “Most of all, he taught me to never lose the passion within to make music and bring joy to people’s lives. Buddy arranged for my very first steel endorsement deal when I was just sixteen, and the industry doors he opened for me over the years are too many to list. Buddy was my mentor and inspiration, but above all, he was my friend. I will always be eternally grateful to him”. What comes across throughout this book is Buddy Emmons’ generosity of spirit and his passion for life and music. You’re left in no doubt that this was a man put on earth to play the pedal steel guitar and that’s a fine thing to convey in a book about someone’s life.

When you write about someone who has had a big impact on your own life, and it’s very clear that Buddy Emmons was extremely important to Steve Fishell, it’s easy to lose sight of who they really are in a wider context. This author has avoided any possibility of that by drawing from such a wide range of characters who also knew Emmons’ as well as having Buddy’s own memoirs to turn to. It makes for a well-grounded and well-rounded book about a man whose influence on americana music, and beyond, cannot be over-estimated. One for the Christmas list?

‘Buddy Emmons: Steel Guitar Icon’ by Steve Fishell will be published on September 6th by the University of Illinois Press and will be available in the UK via Combined Academic Publishers.

About Rick Bayles 354 Articles
Now living the life of a political émigré in rural France and dreaming of the day I'll be able to sing those Cajun lyrics with an authentic accent!
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