Thursday, February 3, 2011

Buddy Charleton

Buddy Charleton died recently. He may not be a familiar name; few people outside of early country music fans have heard of him, but he was one of my favorite musicians, a real guitar hero who revolutionized music and was one of the best pedal steel guitar players in the brief history of the instrument.

Ah. You don’t know what a pedal steel guitar is, either, do you? The photo shows Buddy playing a Sho-Bud guitar. Two horizontal necks each bearing between eight and 12 strings. Three to eight pedals and assorted knee levers that either pull or release certain strings to change their notes; a volume pedal to attenuate the sound; a round and polished steel slide held in the left hand and used to travel up and down the neck of the guitar to change chords. The right hand does the picking with three or four finger picks. It is devilishly hard to play well. I have been at it for more than a decade and consider myself a rank beginner. By using both hands, both feet and both knees at the same time, I can now play a half-decent Danny Boy and I’ve also worked out an interesting version of Jimi Hendryx’s Little Wing.

I saw him perform twice and met him briefly at a musicians’ convention. He showed me a simple trick that enabled me to play an arrangement I’d been struggling with for months with no success. I think he was a kind and gentle man.

I have shamelessly cribbed this obit from his website.

“Elmer Lee “Buddy” Charleton, was a musician and teacher whose pedal steel guitar work was an integral element in Country Music Hall of Famer Ernest Tubb’s famed Texas Troubadours band.

“From the spring of 1962 until the fall of 1973, Buddy was a featured Troubadour, playing crucial steel licks on Tubb’s classic honky-tonk material and entertaining listeners with imaginative, complex, at times unclassifiable steel guitar flights during Troubadour band sets when Tubb took a break. Tubb’s band endured numerous lineup changes, and Buddy and electric guitarist Leon Rhodes were the instrumental focus of what Tubb biographer Ronnie Pugh wrote was Tubb’s “greatest band of Texas Troubadours. … For sheer musical ability they were unsurpassed.”

‘Buddy was a quiet man, and yet on the steel guitar he stood out like nobody could,’ Rhodes said. ‘I’ve always been able to play very fast, with the good Lord’s help, but a steel guitar player has a bar in his left hand and some picks on his right hand, and it’s not comfortable for him to go 90 miles an hour playing a tremendously fast song. No matter how fast I could play on my guitar, though, Buddy could do it on the steel. He was incredible, and I loved him dearly.’

“Buddy is also known for his post-Tubb career as a pedal steel guitar teacher in the Washington, D.C. area. His students became some of contemporary country music’s most accomplished players, including Bruce Bouton (Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire), Pete Finney (Dixie Chicks, Patty Loveless), Bucky Baxter (Bob Dylan), Robin Ruddy (Rod Stewart), Robbie Flint (Alan Jackson), Tommy Detamore (George Strait, Doug Sahm) and Tommy Hannum (Emmylou Harris, Ricky Van Shelton).

“He was one of the all-time greats in terms of tone and attack, and by taking lessons from him you had him as an example to look up to, just three feet away from you,” said Finney, one of the handful of musicians who moved to Nashville and became professional players after studying under Buddy in the 1970s.

“Born in New Market, Va., he broke into the music business while working a day job as a bricklayer. He played on occasion with Patsy Cline in her Kountry Krackers band, and Cline recommended him to Tubb. Buddy didn’t have a phone, so Tubb contacted him through a Virginia disc jockey and the next day, the 23-year-old Buddy flew on an airplane for the first time and joined the Texas Troubadours in Oregon.

“He would move to Nashville and become the longest-tenured of Tubb’s classic Troubadours band, with his nimble, jazzy steel work featured on spotlight instrumentals including Rhodesbud Boogie, which he co-wrote with Rhodes. Buddy is featured on numerous Tubb albums, including Live 1965, considered one of country music’s top live albums. He also starred on three Decca albums that the Troubadours recorded without Tubb, and on Tubb’s duet records with Loretta Lynn.

“Fatigued by constant touring, Buddy ultimately left the Troubadours and relocated to the D.C. area to teach. He spent decades instructing students who sought a master’s advice on playing the notoriously difficult steel guitar.”

He made a difference and he’ll be missed.

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