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Author Topic:  Did Buddy Emmons ruin the Pedal Steel?
Tim Sheinman

 

From:
Brighton, UK
Post  Posted 22 Apr 2019 9:39 am    
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While, this is a provocative title (by a Brit, no less), it is not intended as incendiary, hurtful or in any way a personal attack on Emmons or those who love his work.

Rather I'd like to ask a simple question, one I think isn't asked enough - can one player's influence be so great as to actually damage the legacy of their instrument.

Here are some arguments I'd like to advance. Please take them as a starting point and not some sort of unequivocal statement of facts.

It's also important to note that I'm not talking entirely about Emmons the guy, but rather about the critical and musical culture that surrounds him, plus those living in his shadow. So I'm not really blaming any of this on Buddy.

1. Emmons and his followers made the steel all about chops.

Buddy developed the instrument into what it is today - notably separating Bud Isaacs double pull and adding two strings. In doing so, he added a degree of flexibility and modularity to the instrument which his genius could take full advantage of. However, he also made an already complex instrument more difficult, both to play and also to understand. Emmons' developments represented the rubicon for the pedal steel, taking it beyond what many players could expect to learn.

Emmons's virtuosic output cemented a culture of technique above all else. This elevation of technical skill and 'session chops' persists today as a defining feature of top tier players. Notably, such un-chopsy (and vastly financially successful) players, such as BJ Cole and Daniel Llanois exist largely outside of the mainstream PSG culture.

2. Emmons' most exciting work was very early and didn't last for long.

Emmons cut Steel Guitar Jazz in 1963. This remains the most progressive and genre bending thing he has ever done. His retreat into commercial work and a close Nashville scene set the tone for the insularity of the current steel guitar culture.

Moreover, his retreat from cutting edge solo work to more traditional sideman status created a generation of players who only wanted to play for other people. This meant that players have found it difficult to adjust to the decline of steel in country music by independently branching out - so dependent are they on bandleaders and studio producers.

3. Outside his music, Emmons was a drab frontman for a thrilling instrument.

Although Emmons possesses immense personal charm, he and his companions did nothing to help present the pedal steel in a presentationally dynamic manner. This persists in the visually and theatrically flat nature of steel conventions and shows. Golf shirts, a wall of Peaveys...a culture out of step with its own time and unwilling to change.

4. Emmons' genius means that the genre of PSG has stagnated in trying to constantly emulate him.

In this respect, Emmons closely resembles another master player, whose genre struggled to move past him - Django Rheinhardt.

Please discuss!
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Mike Perlowin


From:
Los Angeles CA
Post  Posted 22 Apr 2019 10:01 am    
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I have to agree with #4. The steel is capable of so much more than most people realize. In my opinion, too many players are so memorized by Buddy's work, that they fail to look beyond it.

There is an old saying; A dwarf sitting on the shoulders of a giant, can see further than the giant. Buddy was the giant, and we are the dwarfs. But too many of us are not looking to see further than him.

When I made that Curly Chalker DVD, (I still have some left in anybody want's one) somebody told me: He plays C6 and I just want to play E9 like Buddy Emmons." I think that in very short sighted.

As much as we all love and admire playing, IMHO, we need to start exploring other options.
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Billy McCombs


From:
Bakersfield California, USA
Post  Posted 22 Apr 2019 10:10 am    
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HUUUUUUH...…………… ME THINKS???? No pun intended....;0)
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Justin Emmert

 

From:
Martinsville, VA
Post  Posted 22 Apr 2019 10:21 am    
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Did Van Gogh ruin art? Or did Mozart ruin music?
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Earnest Bovine


From:
Los Angeles CA USA
Post  Posted 22 Apr 2019 10:34 am     Re: Did Buddy Emmons ruin the Pedal Steel?
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Tim Sheinman wrote:
Emmons cut Steel Guitar Jazz in 1963. This remains the most progressive and genre bending thing he has ever done.

Buddy was 26 years old, as was Einstein in his annus mirabilis. Newton's was at age 24.
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John Eichleay

 

From:
Albuquerque, NM.
Post  Posted 22 Apr 2019 10:40 am     Steel Guitar UnConvention 2019, NYC June 7-9th 2019
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Dear Tim,

Have I got a festival for you! Steel Guitar UnConvention 2019! (Brooklyn NY) Cutting edge, ecclectic, steel guitar music! Be there!

-john eichleay


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Jack Hanson


From:
San Luis Valley, USA
Post  Posted 22 Apr 2019 10:57 am    
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Mike Perlowin wrote:
When I made that Curly Chalker DVD, (I still have some left in anybody want's one) somebody told me: He plays C6 and I just want to play E9 like Buddy Emmons."

Whoever said that needs to listen to Nashville Sundown. It's not Buddy, but the E9 work is stunning (even if you can't take Gordon Lightfoot).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I9NjOOT7zQo
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Tim Sheinman

 

From:
Brighton, UK
Post  Posted 22 Apr 2019 11:01 am    
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Justin Emmert wrote:
Did Van Gogh ruin art? Or did Mozart ruin music?


It's just not a meaningful comparison. I get that you're saying Emmons was a genius, but there's no point in comparing him to other historical 'geniuses'. In these particular cases, these were creators of original work, in highly differing circumstances to the body of Emmons' contribution. A more apposite comparison I think is one I've already made - Django Rheinhardt. Did Django ruin Gypsy Jazz? No, but his myth stopped it dead in its tracks.

Earnest Bovine wrote:
Tim Sheinman wrote:
Emmons cut Steel Guitar Jazz in 1963. This remains the most progressive and genre bending thing he has ever done.

Buddy was 26 years old, as was Einstein in his annus mirabilis. Newton's was at age 24.


Fascinating. Not quite sure what this means, 26 isn't particularly young. But Emmons was undoubtedly a ridiculously talented player, as I said, it's a shame he didn't do more with it post mid-sixties.
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Jack Hanson


From:
San Luis Valley, USA
Post  Posted 22 Apr 2019 11:09 am    
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Tim Sheinman wrote:
...Emmons was undoubtedly a ridiculously talented player, as I said, it's a shame he didn't do more with it post mid-sixties.



Let the fireworks begin!
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Dave Mudgett


From:
Central Pennsylvania
Post  Posted 22 Apr 2019 11:14 am    
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I completely disagree on all counts, and I really dislike the hyperbolic way you have posed this.

1. Emmons and his followers made the steel all about chops.
Buddy did set the bar very high, very early in virtually all respects. And Buddy's chops were beyond reproach. But IMHO, it was his level of immensely soulful playing that really stands out. I think to miss that point misses the main point. And I really think that is the main attraction of pedal steel in general, not chops.

2. Emmons' most exciting work was very early and didn't last for long.
That seems to totally fly in the face of what you're complaining about in item 1. How can you complain that Buddy (and I guess you're arguing the rest of the pedal steel world) retreated into less exciting, less chopsy stuff and then seem to argue for more "outside the mainstream" stuff like Daniel Lanois. And by the way, I like Lanois and people who are outside the mainstream, I'm only pointing out what I see as inconsistency in your argument.

[And as I previewed my post, I saw Doug's post on Einstein, Newton, etc. There is a general sense in science and elsewhere that true genius most often presents itself fairly early - not sure it's always true, but probably very often is.]

3. Outside his music, Emmons was a drab frontman for a thrilling instrument.
Here's where I think you are, with due respect, completely off the beam. What is he suppposed to do - play the damned thing behind his back like T-Bone Walker? There are limitations of how theatrical you can get with a 50-pound pedal steel and, IMO, still remain composed enough to play at the level of the greats of the instrument. Buddy was extremely engaging, but there are limits.

4. Emmons' genius means that the genre of PSG has stagnated in trying to constantly emulate him.
I guess you could argue that, even today, not many players can even get to the level he got to very early in life. But before you can really eclipse a concept or approach, I think it's necessary to get to the point yourself where you at least understand clearly what they're doing, if not emulate them. But lots of players have done their own thing, and I think that movement is increasing. But Buddy is a very hard act to "one-up".

Buddy Emmons was a huge paradigm shift (in the sense of Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) in pedal steel guitar that just happened to occur very early in its history. Paradigm shifts don't generally happen very often - no point in blaming the originator of the shift for that. I agree on Django being a paradigm shift for a certain type of guitar playing. I think Wes was for a different type. Classical music has notable eras that marked paradigm shifts. I think it could be argued that Segovia fulfilled a similar function for classical guitar.

There are already other paradigms for steel guitar, with and without pedals. And there may well be major paradigm shifts in the future. But I also think it would be pretty hard to argue that Buddy has not, so far, been the "World's Foremost Steel Guitarist", as has been stated by many.
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Tim Sheinman

 

From:
Brighton, UK
Post  Posted 22 Apr 2019 11:39 am    
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Hi, just wanted to address your 4th point.

I think that framing Emmons' work in the context of some sort of Scientific revolution is perhaps indicative of the problem of constructively criticising Buddy.

Buddy's work was not some kind of earth shattering scientific proof or maths formula. It was art, mostly commercially commissioned, some personal. There is no technical standard necessary to reach like in science to create meaningful art. His technical innovations were also very much shaped by his place and time and are in no way objectively 'correct', although some of them are very clever.

What allows great art to be shaped is different views and engaging with the world at large. Players do not need to be at Buddy's level in the areas that he excelled in to be able to contribute something very important.

This is actually an example of how players are limited by great virtuosos. Because they assume the things that these players did are actually the most important.
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Last edited by Tim Sheinman on 22 Apr 2019 12:00 pm; edited 1 time in total
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Joe Krumel

 

From:
Hermitage, Tn.
Post  Posted 22 Apr 2019 12:00 pm    
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This is inspiring me to have a stiff drink. Is there anyone out there who can straighten out this mess Buddy left us?! Lol!

Last edited by Joe Krumel on 22 Apr 2019 12:08 pm; edited 3 times in total
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Dave Mudgett


From:
Central Pennsylvania
Post  Posted 22 Apr 2019 12:02 pm    
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I have been an scientist/engineer by trade, as well as a musician, for a long time. I think art and science have many things in common. Paradigm shifts are not restricted to science.

Quote:
Buddy's work was not some kind of earth shattering scientific proof or maths formula.

There is no such thing as a "scientific proof" and there's nothing magic about "math formulas". There are logical and mathematical proofs, scientific theories, and evidence that may be used to either falsify a theory or lend credence to it. But a very important aspect of any science is creative. Every once in a while, ideas and/or technology come along that grab everybody's attention and change the way people think about things. It happens in both science and art. I think Buddy Emmons' early contributions were truly a "revolution" in pedal steel guitar, much like Newtonian and Einsteinian mechanics were revolutions in physics. What Buddy did changed the way almost everyone looked at the instrument.

But of course, many players have contributed very important things to pedal steel guitar since the early 60s. I don't think Buddy's contributions put up a "limit" to anybody else - quite to the contrary, they pointed they way to many more great contributions.

I think you're conflating the great respect and love a great many pedal steel players have for what Buddy did with some type of circumscription of the instrument. Sure, some players decide to stay within those boundaries, much like some banjo players decide to stay within the boundaries of Scruggs banjo playing. Just like lots of engineers still find Newtonian mechanics and Classical Electromagnetism a la Maxwell very useful. But others push outward. With music, the trick is to find an audience for it.
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Steven Hicken


From:
Leeds, United Kingdom
Post  Posted 22 Apr 2019 12:21 pm    
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Jack Hanson wrote:
Tim Sheinman wrote:
...Emmons was undoubtedly a ridiculously talented player, as I said, it's a shame he didn't do more with it post mid-sixties.



Let the fireworks begin!


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Erv Niehaus


From:
Litchfield, MN, USA
Post  Posted 22 Apr 2019 12:25 pm    
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Boys, what say we get the tar and feathers and head to the UK! Whoa!
Erv
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Joe Krumel

 

From:
Hermitage, Tn.
Post  Posted 22 Apr 2019 12:34 pm    
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A drab frontman? Surely this is a setup. Buddy owed us nothing,musically or personally.
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Tony Glassman


From:
The Great Northwest
Post  Posted 22 Apr 2019 12:50 pm    
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.....so by your logic, Charlie Parker ruined the alto sax?

Last edited by Tony Glassman on 22 Apr 2019 4:31 pm; edited 1 time in total
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James Collett

 

From:
San Dimas, CA
Post  Posted 22 Apr 2019 1:24 pm    
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First, I agree with the general idea here. Buddy's ideas, technique, and touch took the steel guitar community (and country music in general) by storm, so it stands to reason that the momentum loss would be felt (and indirectly encouraged by those of us lesser-skilled, less prevalent folks) when said master stops pushing the envelope as much as he did in the first half of his career.

Where I diverge from Tim's argument is his apparent implication of fault on Buddy's part. Like Joe said, Buddy owes us nothing. His contributions to the development of the pedal steel (technology as well as technique) were strictly voluntary--he chose to pursue steel guitar as a career, he chose to care about good musicianship and originality, and he chose to share his insights and ingenuity with the rest of us. Where I feel that things went wrong is we (editorial "we"... I wasn't alive for a lot of this!) were happy with where he and others of his generation left off, and the tastes of producers changed as the industry lost its infatuation with the steel guitar, diminishing the outside impetus for innovation. None of that is Buddy's fault.
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Mike Neer


From:
NJ
Post  Posted 22 Apr 2019 1:32 pm    
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Tim Sheinman wrote:
Did Django ruin Gypsy Jazz? No, but his myth stopped it dead in its tracks.


How could he ruin something he created--something that didn't exist before him?
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Curt Trisko


From:
St. Paul, Minnesota, USA
Post  Posted 22 Apr 2019 1:34 pm    
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I think I can sum this up in a sentence: Buddy awed us, but are we inspired by him?
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scott murray


From:
Asheville, NC
Post  Posted 22 Apr 2019 1:36 pm    
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no, absolutely not.

1) he was not all about chops. he had them in spades but he played with more taste and restraint when he needed to than just about anyone. he is perhaps best known for his work on Ray Price records which are wonderful examples of playing just what the song calls for, no more or less.

2) his most exciting work is subjective, but I would put his renditions of Pat Martino pieces or his playing with Danny Gatton and Lenny Breau in the 70s and 80s as some of his most exciting work. not to mention his own compositions and forays into fusion and sonic experimentation throughout the 70s and beyond.

3) a drab frontman? why, because he sat down? have you tried playing a pedal steel any other way? Buddy was probably the most fun and exciting steel player to witness. he was constantly grinning from ear to ear, shouting aloud, and taking chances that had everyone on the edge of their seats at all times.

4) an instrument does not stagnate because of anyone's genius. quite the opposite: he showed us the limitless possibilities of pedal steel guitar. most players worth a damn have carved out their own sound and personality on the instrument. Buddy simply demonstrated what a master is capable of.


there are plenty of players pushing the envelope outside of country, Buddy was one of them. if you're feeling constricted or frustrated by the instrument, look within... don't blame Buddy!
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Ian Rae


From:
Redditch, England
Post  Posted 22 Apr 2019 1:39 pm    
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Not sure what the point of this is. Emmons did as he pleased and was under no obligation to be "progressive" if he didn't feel like it. He was content, a refreshing change from the stereotypical "driven artist". How often does the earth need shattering?
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Donny Hinson

 

From:
Glen Burnie, Md. U.S.A.
Post  Posted 22 Apr 2019 1:48 pm     Re: Did Buddy Emmons ruin the Pedal Steel?
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Tim Sheinman wrote:
While, this is a provocative title (by a Brit, no less), it is not intended as incendiary, hurtful or in any way a personal attack on Emmons or those who love his work.

Rather I'd like to ask a simple question, one I think isn't asked enough - can one player's influence be so great as to actually damage the legacy of their instrument.

Here are some arguments I'd like to advance. Please take them as a starting point and not some sort of unequivocal statement of facts.

It's also important to note that I'm not talking entirely about Emmons the guy, but rather about the critical and musical culture that surrounds him, plus those living in his shadow. So I'm not really blaming any of this on Buddy.

1. Emmons and his followers made the steel all about chops....Buddy developed the instrument into what it is today - notably separating Bud Isaacs double pull and adding two strings. In doing so, he added a degree of flexibility and modularity to the instrument which his genius could take full advantage of. However, he also made an already complex instrument more difficult, both to play and also to understand. Emmons' developments represented the rubicon for the pedal steel, taking it beyond what many players could expect to learn.

Emmons's virtuosic output cemented a culture of technique above all else. This elevation of technical skill and 'session chops' persists today as a defining feature of top tier players. Notably, such un-chopsy (and vastly financially successful) players, such as BJ Cole and Daniel Llanois exist largely outside of the mainstream PSG culture.




Here's some of my thoughts:

Sorry, but Buddy admitted that neither he nor Jimmy Day was the first to "split the pedals". That was first done by Sonny Burnette.

Quote:



...he added a degree of flexibility and modularity to the instrument which his genius could take full advantage of. However, he also made an already complex instrument more difficult, both to play and also to understand. Emmons' developments represented the rubicon for the pedal steel, taking it beyond what many players could expect to learn.


Nope, just the opposite. Steel without pedals was simple (compared to guitar). And pedals were added to make playing (and harmonic capabilities) even easier. It only continued to get harder because we never stopped adding even more and more (and different) strings, pedals and levers. Buddy tried just about everything, but finally settled on a moderately-equipped D10.

Quote:


Emmons's virtuosic output cemented a culture of technique above all else. This elevation of technical skill and 'session chops' persists today as a defining feature of top tier players. Notably, such un-chopsy (and vastly financially successful) players, such as BJ Cole and Daniel Llanois exist largely outside of the mainstream PSG culture.


I don't know what to say about that. Popularity is almost never about "chops", but being different or unique. In the case of session work, I think it's more about being amiable, humble, and consistent.

Quote:
Emmons' most exciting work was very early and didn't last for long.[/i][/b]

Emmons cut Steel Guitar Jazz in 1963. This remains the most progressive and genre bending thing he has ever done. His retreat into commercial work and a close Nashville scene set the tone for the insularity of the current steel guitar culture.

Moreover, his retreat from cutting edge solo work to more traditional sideman status created a generation of players who only wanted to play for other people. This meant that players have found it difficult to adjust to the decline of steel in country music by independently branching out - so dependent are they on bandleaders and studio producers.


But...you still have to eat, right? Emmons couldn't make good, steady money playing jazz. (No steel player can.) He also even admitted that he didn't have the chops to "hang in there" with the major players in the world of jazz.

Quote:
Outside his music, Emmons was a drab frontman for a thrilling instrument.


Now I don't care who you are, that's funny! Laughing In truth, without a player, the instrument is just a pile of hardware. No musical instrument is really "thrilling" or exciting.

Quote:
Although Emmons possesses immense personal charm, he and his companions did nothing to help present the pedal steel in a presentationally dynamic manner. This persists in the visually and theatrically flat nature of steel conventions and shows. Golf shirts, a wall of Peaveys...a culture out of step with its own time and unwilling to change.


As I said before, you have to eat. He was doing what he had to do at shows and conventions to impress a lot of middle-aged and older white guys. Laser lights, pyrotechnics, wild antics, and costumes impress kids and young adults - but not most grown-ups who like pedal steel and classic country music.

Success usually comes from playing for your audience.

Quote:

...Emmons closely resembles another master player, whose genre struggled to move past him - Django Rheinhardt.


Hardly! Django was "just" a player and composer, and only in a single genre. He did not re-invent the instrument and it's tunings, nor did he expand into other genres or teach (as Emmons did).
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Fred Treece


From:
California, USA
Post  Posted 22 Apr 2019 5:12 pm    
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I realize Tim’s question and supporting commentary are largely an intellectual exercise, and as an intellectual 90-pound weakling, maybe I should just stay on the sidelines.

Nahhh.

How many people outside the world of pedal steel even know who Buddy Emmons was? Now exclude the few non-steel-playing musicians you know who do. I could almost guarantee that not one person in the audiences I play for know the name of any great steel players. That makes me, quite possibly, the greatest steel player they’ve ever heard. I hope to almighty hoodoo that I’m not the one ruining steel guitar for them... Shocked

I know one thing I have in common with a Buddy Emmons. I am 100% certain that every time he sat down to play, one of the first things that came to mind was, holy crap I really LOVE playing this thing. All I want to do is be able to sound like I love to play it. If he gave us that, then we owe his legacy no less.
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Keith Hilton

 

From:
248 Laurel Road Ozark, Missouri 65721
Post  Posted 22 Apr 2019 5:41 pm    
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Buddy was one of the greatest players of all time. His playing was way beyond wonderful.
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