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Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this obituary for steel guitar player Buddy Charleton erroneously reported that he taught guitar in Culpeper, Va. He taught in Clinton and later in Orange, Va. This version has been corrected.

Steel guitarist Buddy Charleton dies at 72

The Texas Troubadours in the mid 1960s -- Left to right: Jack Drake (upright bass), Ernest Tubb, Jack Greene (drums), Buddy Charleton (pedal steel guitar) and Leon Rhodes (lead guitar).
The Texas Troubadours in the mid 1960s -- Left to right: Jack Drake (upright bass), Ernest Tubb, Jack Greene (drums), Buddy Charleton (pedal steel guitar) and Leon Rhodes (lead guitar). (Courtesy Of Dave Roye, Crawdaddydave Websit Design And Photograp - Courtesy Of Dave Roye, Crawdaddydave Websit Design And Photograp)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 2, 2011; 8:46 PM

Buddy Charleton, 72, a steel guitar virtuoso whose groundbreaking instrumental work in the 1960s with the country band Ernest Tubb and the Texas Troubadours influenced several generations of musicians, died Jan. 25 at his home in Spotsylvania, Va. He had lung cancer.

Mr. Charleton was a Shenandoah Valley native and as a young man accompanied Virginia-born singer Patsy Cline before she won a national audience. With Tubb's band, he and lead guitarist Leon Rhodes became known for dazzling string work and musical interplay on such pieces as "Almost to Tulsa" and "Rhodes-Bud Boogie."

When Mr. Charleton joined Tubb, the drawling honky-tonk singer was still a major presence in country music after 20 years of touring and broadcast appearances. The Texas Troubadours played up to 300 shows a year - in addition to weekly Grand Ole Opry appearances and a radio show, the Midnite Jamboree was broadcast every Saturday from the Ernest Tubb Record Shop.

The 1960s edition of the group was termed "the great band" by country historian and Tubb biographer Ronnie Pugh. It was a full-fledged revue that included vocals by rhythm guitarist Cal Smith and drummer Jack Greene, both of whom later launched successful solo careers.

Often playing to dancers in ballrooms, the Troubadours added such jazz standards as Duke Ellington's "C Jam Blues" and "Red Top," popularized by saxophonist Gene Ammons, into the band's repertoire.

"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," Rhodes told the Tennessean in Nashville. "No matter how fast I could play on my guitar, though, Buddy could do it on the steel."

If his speed astounded other musicians, Mr. Charleton was equally renowned for his sensitive accompaniments on such Tubb ballads such as "Waltz Across Texas," where the sweet sound of the steel contrasted with the singer's tart drawl.

After leaving the Troubadours in 1973, Mr. Charleton embarked on a long career as a steel guitar teacher in Clinton and Orange, Va.

His students included Bruce Bouton of the Garth Brooks band, Pete Finney of the Dixie Chicks and Tommy Hannum, who worked with Emmylou Harris, Ricky Van Shelton and the D.C.-based Rosslyn Mountain Boys.

Elmer Lee Charleton Jr. was born in New Market, Va., on March 6, 1938. His father, a bricklayer and part-time musician, taught him the basics of lap steel guitar.

He first heard the pedal steel guitar, a new sound in the early 1950s, on Bud Isaacs's accompaniment to singer Webb Pierce on the hit country weeper, "Slowly," which was recorded in 1953.

"I listened to that record over and over," Mr. Charleton told The Washington Post in 1995, "and finally figured there was something mechanical pulling the strings one way and the other. My dad said, 'I can fix that.'

"He took my double-neck Fender [steel guitar], drilled a hole through it, took a coat hanger and connected it to a pedal from a piano on one end and the string behind the nut at the other. It worked. I couldn't believe it."

In 1959, Mr. Charleton moved to Manassas and performed at Hunter's Lodge in Fairfax for the next three years. Tubb's bassist, Jack Drake, approached him to replace Tubb's steel guitarist, Buddy Emmons, who was leaving to join singer Ray Price.

His first marriage, to the former Karen Harmon, ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 31 years, Kay Lee Wilson Charleton of Spotsylvania; three children from his first marriage, Kim Fowler of Hermitage, Tenn., Elmer "Buddy" Charleton III of Nashville and Michael Charleton of Lebanon, Tenn.; his mother, Edna Charleton of Catlett, Va.; three sisters, Janet Meyers of Sacramento, and Carolyn Dean and Nancy Dean, both of Catlett; five grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

Mr. Charleton was inducted into the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame in 1993. "The steel player's job is to back the singer," he said a few years later. "What we're all doing today, I call it hot-dogging. But it sure is a lot of fun."

mcardlet@washpost.com


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