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Desert Solitaire
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Playing Silk

Playing Silk

Buddy Charleton

A couple of weeks ago, the world lost a marvelous musician and a hell of a good guy. I got to know Buddy Charleton just one year ago, when I started taking pedal steel guitar lessons with him at Billy Cooper’s Music in Orange, VA. It was impossible not to be immediately taken with Buddy. He had such an easy, patient demeanor. As a teacher, I wouldn’t say that he had a method. It was mostly just hanging out with him, trading stories. Then he would say, “Have I shown you this lick?”, then play some run on the guitar, then repeat it while I fumbled through it, trying to get a handle on what he was up to. Some times I would get it; most of the time I wouldn’t, but Buddy wasn’t deterred either way. “Keep your back straight”, he would say. “Keep your elbows in.” “Stay relaxed.” Ten strings, three finger picks, a steel bar in my left hand, three foot pedals, four knee levers, a volume pedal, all to be manipulated in unison. Stay relaxed. OK.

Buddy was an old man by the time I met him – a man without a damned thing to prove to anybody. He had played with Patsy Cline, toured with Ernest Tubb, recorded with Porter Wagoner and Loretta Lynn and Jean Shepard. He was a Steel Guitar Hall of Fame inductee; his students had played with Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, the Dixie Chicks. But when I met him, he was mostly an old man living with his wife in a trailer in Orange County, dying of throat cancer. I was fortunate enough to spend some time with them before he passed on, recording his music and stories for posterity.

Playing Silk is definitely the work of a man with nothing to prove. After doing thirty or so Nashville studio albums with different bands, Playing Silk is the record that Buddy wanted to make for himself. Sure, there are some of the jazzy barn-burners that made his fame with the Texas Troubadours – tunes like “Almost to Tulsa” – and an instrumental rendition of “Waltz Across Texas”. But then there are also oddities like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. I must have listened to that track a dozen times before I realized that what I was hearing was the sound of pedal steel guitar with no accompaniment – no rhythm track, no bass, just Buddy coaxing symphonic sound out of his instrument. These are instrumental tunes about Buddy at home: “Kay Lee’s Song”, written for his wife; “Gizmo”, written for the pet raccoon, now also deceased; “Bud’s Therapy”, written as an exercise for his students. The whole thing was self-produced and available either in person or mail order c/o Buddy Charleton, General Delivery, Mine Run, VA. Probably almost nobody owns the album who didn’t know Buddy personally.

I will miss the man. I’ll miss his boyish grin when he played music; I’ll miss his stories about Patsy Cline and Ernest Tubb; I’ll miss the vastness of knowledge that he attempted to impart to me and so many others by way of the pedal steel guitar. As tall as his legacy is, it can’t compete with the sweet old man whom I met living in that trailer in Orange County.

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