Duane Eddy told a story the other day at a Buddy Emmons tribute put together by musician-producer Steve Fishell at the Country Music Hall of Fame. At one of the sessions for the Eddy album Twang A Country Song, cut in 1962, Emmons — the premier pedal steel guitarist in town — played a particularly outstanding solo, a stunning run, and then there was silence, in the middle of the take. Eddy looked around the room, ticked off that someone had blown it, and Anita Kerr, background singer on the gig, said to Duane, “You were supposed to come in there.” He was so caught up in Emmons’ contribution that he forgot he had his own part to do.
Emmons is retired now, but Duane Eddy is still playing, and at the tribute show (and on the album it was promoting, The Big E), he and steel guitarist Dan Dugmore, and a band that included Nashville’s A-Team pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins, did a totally lovely version of Emmons’ “Blue Jade” that was one thing that reminded me why I keep going back to Nashville. There are people there whom I adore, of course, friends I’ve known for decades, and there are always new extra-musical discoveries (the perfection of Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, the Fuego Dulce cocktail and nutella-cocoa nibb bread pudding at Holland House), but it’s the only place where on a sunny fall afternoon you can go over to the Hall of Fame and sit one row in back of Buddy Emmons and watch Duane Eddy play his guitar. Lucky me.
I’ve been listening to Eddy since I was a kid, buying his Jamie singles like the themes from Pepe and Gidget Goes Hawaiian, seeing him in the Dick Clark (and Tuesday Weld) vehicle Because They’re Young, and then discovering his incredible earlier things like “Rebel Rouser,” “Detour,” “Yep,” “Forty Miles of Bad Road.” Listen to “Because They’re Young,” to what he does with that dippy little melody; in the movie, it’s crooned politely by James Darren at a high school dance, but Eddy’s record is a concise, two-minute drama, carried along at first by three twanged chords broken up by two ominous pauses, then by strings, and then the guitar takes the second verse, a simple statement-of-theme, but so powerful. The record has the sweet sweep of a romantic movie theme, which it is, but Eddy’s playing rocks it up a few notches.
The Emmons event was part of the Americana Music Festival, and Eddy made an appearance this year at the fest’s awards show also, and what does that say about “Americana” as a genre? I’ve always more or less identified Music From Big Pink and early Creedence and the Byrds and Burritos as the jumping-off points for Americana. The whole from-the-mountains-to-the-prairies sound, a rural-roots world that draws from folk, country, rockabilly, even some soul (The Band sang Bobby “Blue” Bland, The Byrds did “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” the Burritos cut “Do Right Woman-Do Right Man”…).
But you can trace it back to The Everly Brothers, Ricky Nelson and Duane Eddy (and Elvis). In 1959 (between around “Forty Miles of Bad Road” and “Because They’re Young”), Eddy recorded Songs of Our Heritage, acoustic guitar, banjo, flute (or recorder?), on traditional songs like “In The Pines,” “Scarlet Ribbons,” “Cripple Creek.” A year earlier, the Everlys had cut Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, also smack in the middle of their run of pop singles, going back to “Roving Gambler,” “Barbara Allen” and “Kentucky.” Were they two of the first Americana albums of the rock & roll era?
Then, when he left Jamie for RCA, Eddy recorded that country album with Buddy, and Pig, and Harold Bradley, Floyd Cramer, Hank Garland. Like a lot of RCA country in the early ‘60s, there’s a sheen over it: it doesn’t have the honky-tonk kick of the Bakersfield sound, but there’s some terrific playing, and the songs are sturdy: “A Satisfied Mind” (Byrds connection!), “Crazy Arms,” George Jones’ “A Window Up Above.,” “Making Believe.” And if you want to include Dylan as pre-Americana, Eddy went down that folk-rock road as well, although he cheats a bit on his Dylan set by including a slashing “House of the Rising Sun,” a highlight, a couple of Lee Hazlewood (the album’s producer, double-dipping) songs and “Eve of Destruction.” By that time, the hit singles had dried up, and he wrapped up the decade with a couple of gimmicky albums on Reprise (and one surprisingly nice one, Tokyo Hits, released only in Japan, where U.S. instrumental-rock like Eddy’s, and The Ventures’, was still a big deal).
I hardly ever approach musicians at random, even ones that made a huge impression on me. It’s always an awkward thing. But the day after Duane Eddy was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he and I were on the same flight out of LaGuardia to Nashville, and we were sitting at the gate, and I had to tell him how overdue his recognition was, and how happy I was to be at the ceremony (also inducted that night: The Band) and see him play. I don’t think I mentioned that on my first visit to Nashville, I met a couple of young women at a club and wound up riding around the city with them that night. My tour guides were Michelle White (Tony Joe’s daughter) and Jennifer Eddy, daughter of Duane Eddy and Jessi Colter. A brush with Nashville royalty, as far as I was concerned, and nearly every time I’ve gone back, something crazy and unexpected like that happens. Like sitting twenty feet from Duane Eddy and watching him play guitar.