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Various Artists

The Big E: A Salute to Steel Guitarist Buddy Emmons – 2013 (Warner Nashville)

Reviewed by Henry L. Carrigan Jr.

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Legendary for his tenacious commitment to finding ways to improve the pedal steel guitar itself - he and Dobro player Shot Jackson co-founded a company that in 1957 produced a new eight-string, double-necked steel that featured a new tuning mechanism - Buddy Emmons coaxed tight and layered phrasings and fiery virtuoso single string solos out of his pedal steel. Emmons, who retired in 2007, lent his virtuoso stylings first to Little Jimmy Dickens' band, The Country Boys, then to Ernest Tubbs' Texas Troubadours, and then to Ray Price's Cherokee Cowboys. In 1963, he became the first steel guitar player to make a serious jazz album, "Steel Guitar Jazz."

Featured vocalists including Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, and Raul Malo to Little Jimmy Dickens, and Willie Nelson join top-flight steel guitarists including JayDee Maness (The Desert Rose Band, among others), Greg Leisz (k.d.lang, among others) and Paul Franklin (The Time Jumpers) to Dan Dugmore (Linda Ronstadt), and the album's producer Steve Fishell to wend their way through a collection of songs that Emmons wrote, recorded or performed.

Gill kicks off the album with the Little Jimmy Dickens' classic, Country Boy, in a voice that resembles the young Tater himself, with Franklin's and Tommy White's dancing steel guitars weaving in and out of Gill's own shuffling lead guitar work. On Blue Jade, which appears on Emmons' solo album, "Emmons Steel Guitar Company," Duane Eddy's thumping lead guitar and Dugmore's mournfully aching steel guitar hauntingly evoke Hawaiian steel music. Joanie Keller Johnson and her husband, steel player Mark Johnson, slow down Judy Collins' Someday Soon, capturing the song's tightly strung feelings of tension, disappointment and expectation. Marty Stuart's steel player Gary Carter delivers a poignant and heart-rending version of the classic standard, Shenandoah, which Emmons performed in his final appearance at the International Steel Guitar Convention in 2007.

This star-studded tribute to one of country music's most innovative and multi-faceted musicians puts the lie to the rumor that the steel guitar is on life support in today's country music.