MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
If you've listened to Ray Charles, Ray Price or Judy Collins, among many others, you've heard Buddy Emmons' fingers and feet at work. He was one of the most respected pedal-steel guitar players of all time. Buddy Emmons died yesterday in Nashville. He was 78 years old. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN reports that Emmons mastered one of modern music's more complicated instruments.
(SOUNDBITE OF RAY PRICE SONG, "SITTIN' AND THINKIN'")
BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Country music wouldn't sound like itself without the pedal steel.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SITTIN' AND THINKIN'")
RAY PRICE: (Singing) I got loaded last night on a bottle of gin.
FARMER: And the instrument sounds the way it does today because of Buddy Emmons. Steve Fishell, who plays for Emmylou Harris, calls Emmons a musical genius - even a savant.
STEVE FISHELL: You're talking about the ability to play fiery, complex, single-note solos that just would leave you staggered when you heard them, coupled with really imaginative chordal work. And it just all seemed effortless.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUDDY EMMONS SONG, "ORANGE BLOSSOM SPECIAL")
FARMER: The pedal steel has humbled many a musician who took a seat at one expecting to make a sweet sound. There are pedals, knee levers, sometimes two sets of strings. Fishell says it takes a special person.
FISHELL: It's like a Rubik's Cube of a musical instrument that's not unlike driving a stick-shift truck through a landmine. I mean, it's just rife with possible accidents left and right.
FARMER: And Emmons made the instrument a bit more complicated. He split one of the pedals into two and added a pair of strings to expand the tuning. During a rare appearance at the Country Music Hall of Fame last year, Emmons described how he'd get all of it to work in sync - by practicing in the dark.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BUDDY EMMONS: My senses, you know, were a little keener as far as knowing what I was doing. It allowed me to hear what I was doing in a different way. I just liked it. I liked the feeling of what went on in my head while, you know, the lights were out.
FARMER: Emmons displayed his abilities on numerous recordings of his own, including an acclaimed jazz album from 1963.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUDDY EMMONS SONG, "BLUEMMONS")
FARMER: Emmons retired from music in 2007. That's when he lost his wife. Ron Elliott, a fellow pedal pro, says he accepted that he'd never be as good as his close friend of more than 50 years.
RON ELLIOTT: I loved him, and I miss him. And I will continue to miss him every time I sit down to a guitar, just like all the other steel players. He taught everybody to play, whether it was one-on-one or whether it was just by his being.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SPENCER CULLUM: His left-hand vibrato, it's just pouring emotion. It's so vocal.
FARMER: Spencer Cullum is watching an old YouTube video of Emmons. Cullum tours with Miranda Lambert. He also has his own band, Steelism.
CULLUM: I was like, we got to do "Once Upon A Time In The West" 'cause I think it's the only Buddy Emmons song that I could actually tackle (laughter).
FARMER: Cullum regrets that he never actually met Buddy Emmons, even though he lived just across town. Emmons was known as a recluse. Still, Cullum idolized the man for how he both innovated the instrument and the music, so he plans to add this tribute to his repertoire.
CULLUM: I've only just started learning it, so I guess here's the beginning. (Playing guitar). That's all I've got (laughter).
FARMER: Cullum says he won't play it as well as Buddy Emmons, but nobody could. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.
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