By Mike Greenblatt
“The Big E: A Salute to Steel Guitarist Innovator Buddy Emmons” just might be the traditional country music event of the year.
While country radio constantly promotes pure crap, independent releases like this one (with all proceeds benefiting the Country Music Hall Of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tenn.) continue to fly under the radar.
Filled with brand-new recordings mixing and matching sterling vocal performances by living legends with the current crop of top steel players on songs that Emmons originally contributed to during the course of his career, the 16 tracks are a loving reminder of the legacy of this great instrumentalist, now retired at 76.
Emmons started his career in 1955 at age 18, as a member of The Country Boys, the backup band for Grand Ole Opry star Little Jimmy Dickens, 92, who pairs up here with legendary rock guitarist Duane Eddy, 75, for a chilling version of Roger Miller’s “When Your House Is Not A Home.”
Willie Nelson sings the song he wrote in 1962 with Emmons, “Are You Sure,” accompanied only by his own acoustic guitar and the harmonica of Mickey Raphael. Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell harmonize beautifully together on a George Jones song, “That’s All It Took,” recorded by Gram Parsons for his 1973 “GP” solo debut. Albert Lee joyously gets a hold of John Sebastian’s “Rainbows All Over Your Blues.”
If anyone can be thought of as the vocal heir to Roy Orbison, it’s Raul Malo of The Mavericks. Here, he wraps his majestic pipes around Willie’s “Night Life.” It’s such a damn shame that there’s no country music on country radio these days.
Fabulous Thunderbirds’ ‘On The Verge’
It’s been eight years since the last Fabulous Thunderbirds album, “Painted On.” That’s way too long for the band who started in 1974 Austin playing the blues with a solid beat. On their new “On The Verge” (Severn), vocalist Kim Wilson, guitarists Johnny Moeller and Mike Keller, bassist Randy Bermudes and drummer Jason Moeller take the road less traveled: no blues, but a slinky soul that recalls such old-school rhythm and blues masters as O.V. Wright and Junior Parker. Wilson’s the only original ‘Bird left, but he’s savvy enough to surround himself with hotshot players who accentuate his every vocal wiggle. The quintet is augmented by keyboards, percussion, four back-up singers, two trumpets, sax, trombone and four producers. Sure, Jimmy Vaughan — not in the band since 1990 — is still missed. But, hey, get over it.
With its entertaining combo of new songs, live cuts and vintage tracks excavated from his storied past, ”Pianography” is a perfect primer from a a guy who played piano in Johnny Cash’s band for 20 years and appeared on the seminal recording “Sweetheart of The Rodeo” by The Byrds. Here, he sings “Big River,” “Mean Woman Blues” and “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” at a 2010 Cash Fest. The 1967 “Second And Antone” and the 1977 “Flowers On Papa’s Grave” are the rarities, but the new stuff freeflows with feeling, and has the advantage of modern recording techniques. Sure wish he’d come north up to my neighborhood in Pennsylvania. I get the feeling he’s best enjoyed in a dimly lit barroom, after a couple of red dog margaritas. GM