Tom Brumley dies at 73; steel guitarist for Buck Owens and Rick Nelson

Tom Brumley, a legendary steel guitarist who contributed to the “Bakersfield sound” of Buck Owens and the Buckaroos in the 1960s before spending 10 years performing with Rick Nelson, has died. He was 73.

Brumley died Tuesday at Northeast Baptist Hospital in San Antonio, eight days after suffering a heart attack, said his wife, Rolene Brumley.

During his years with Owens, from 1963 to 1969, Brumley traveled the world and played on landmark recordings such as “Together Again,” “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail” and “Act Naturally.”


Brumley, whose “pure” steel sound was known in the music industry as “The Brumley Touch,” received an Academy of Country Music Award for No. 1 Steel Guitarist in 1966.

“I grew up watching the Buckaroos,” said country music singer Marty Stuart, who recorded with Brumley and knew him for 20 years. “To me, they were country music’s answer to the Beatles.Tom’s steel guitar parts stand as monumental and foundational works that are considered textbook in the vocabulary of country music.

“He was also, in my opinion, one of the cornerstone guys that kind of bridged country music and rock ‘n’ roll, as well, with his Ricky Nelson works.”

Brumley left Owens’ band in 1969, after Nelson invited him to play steel guitar with his band for his “Live at the Troubadour” album.

“It was a godsend being asked to join Rick’s band, and I still think ‘Garden Party’ was a highlight of my recording career,” Brumley told Canada’s Edmonton Journal in 2005. “Initially, I only accepted the offer to do four shows with him at the Troubadour, but I enjoyed it so much I stayed with him for 10 years.”

Brumley said that Nelson, who died in an airplane crash on New Year’s Eve 1985, “was such a great guy, and we had such a close relationship that I still stay in touch with his boys.”

Brumley later spent three years recording and touring with Chris Hillman and the Desert Rose Band.

From 1989 to 2003, he performed with his sons, Todd and Tommy, in the Brumley Family Music Show in Branson, Mo.

Over the last decade, he performed or recorded with artists such as Chris Isaak, Merle Haggard, Glen Campbell, Waylon Jennings, Ray Price, Reba McEntire, Rod Stewart and Martina McBride.

Born in Stella, Mo., on Dec. 11, 1935, Brumley was the third of six children. Their father was Albert E. Brumley, a gospel singer, composer and music publisher whose songs included “I’ll Fly Away,” “I’ll Meet You in the Morning” and “Turn Your Radio On.”

At 14, Brumley began playing bass in a band with his brothers Al, Bill and Bob (and later Jackson), who played at local music festivals and on local radio and TV stations.

Brumley, who began playing the steel guitar in 1954, had a two-year stint in the Army in Germany and worked at his father’s music publishing company.

In 1962, Brumley’s brother Al, who had just signed with Capitol Records, asked him to play steel guitar on his second recording session.

It was a fateful occasion.

“Buck Owens was down at the studio and heard Tom play on my session,” Al Brumley recalled. “He told Don Rich, one of his sidemen, that if he ever had a chance to hire Tom, he would.”

After the Capitol Records session, Brumley and his wife lived for a time in North Hollywood while Brumley worked the club scene. Later, after Brumley got a job working in construction for his wife’s father in Kingsland, Texas, he got the career-making call from Owens.

“Of course, Tom was excited, but he was disillusioned with the night scene and the bars and things where most everybody had to play at that time,” Rolene Brumley recalled. “He said, ‘I don’t think I want to pursue the music business because of all that.’

“My dad talked him into it [saying], ‘You know, if you don’t do this, you’ll wish you had. So I want you to try it. You can always come back to Kingsland, but at least you’ll know what you want to do and won’t be sorry.’ ”

Brumley was later inducted into the Texas Steel Guitar Hall of Fame and the International Steel Guitar Hall of Fame.

“He had his own style,” Al Brumley said. “If you heard his steel, you knew who it was. A lot of recording artists used him just to get his sound.”

His brother, he said, “worked real hard at his craft all through his life. He spent hours and hours and hours on that steel guitar. There is only one guy I can think of that spent as much time or more on an instrument and that would be Chet Atkins.

“He had that thing, ‘I could never get enough.’ That’s what made him so great. He was an absolute perfectionist.”

In addition to his wife of 48 years, his two sons and his brother Al, Brumley is survived by his daughter, Tracie; his other brothers, Jackson and Bob; his sister, Betty Brumley-Pockrus; six grandchildren and a great-grandson.

A celebration of Brumley’s life will be held at 2 p.m. Feb. 15 at the Baldknobbers Country Music Theatre in Branson.