This double-record set was released in 1975 on Tom Bradshaw’s excellent Steel Guitar Record Club series, where Bradshaw also included liner notes with oodles of information, such as the artist’s biography, gear, and tunings. Steel Guitar Jazz was originally released by Mercury in 1963—and it’s a noteworthy record—but it’s Four Wheel Drive that influenced me substantially. A collection of Emmons’ work from both popular and obscure albums and singles previously issued on Columbia, Starday, Capitol, and Decca, Four Wheel Drive is a stunning example of a timeless country-jazz record.
Emmons’ steel guitar work is so musical—and it includes Travis-picking, classic double-stops, and jazz phrasing—that it successfully translates to standard guitar, making it a reasonable ambition to integrate some of the musical ideas into a guitarist’s vocabulary. “Red Wing,” “Raisin the Dickens,” and “Rose City Chimes” are steel-guitar classics, but the showstopper for me is “Buddy’s Boogie”—which I obsessively tried to learn note-for-note, and played live with the 10 Gallon Cats for years. (Unfortunately, we never recorded it, but there is a live YouTube recording—though I cringe at the sound quality.) In addition, the title track, “Four Wheel Drive,” is a tour de force that delightfully burns over an AABA form that has III, VI, II, and V jazz substitutions that broaden the possibilities for the soloist. The bridge modulates from C to Ab, and it’s comparable to a caffeine- influenced Duke Ellington tune. I studied “Four Wheel Drive” for weeks, and I still go back to it to check in on definitive countryjazz playing.
Aside from this album influencing my solo playing, it perhaps more importantly shaped my songwriting sensibilities. My own tunes “Night in Serramonte,” “Fiesta,” “Billy’s Bird,” “The Prettiest Girl in New York,” and “Pie Party” have a direct lineage back to Four Wheel Drive.
Although the 14 Steel Guitar Record Club albums are currently out of print, I own most of the series, and they range from excellent to fantastic. My favorites are Tom Brumley (#2), Buddy Charleton (#6), and Bobby Black (#14). I’m very grateful to Bradshaw for releasing these LPs, and I’m eternally indebted to the magnificent artistry of the late Buddy Emmons.