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Buddy Greene has been a working musician for over forty years. Like Flannery O’Connor, he hails from Middle Georgia, but unlike Flannery O’Connor, he has spent most of his adult life in Nashville. He first came here to play in Jerry Reed’s band. You remember Jerry Reed, no doubt, from the movie Smokey and the Bandit (he was Snowman). Buddy also toured for many years with the Gaithers.
He is probably best known as a harmonica genius, but he is also a great guitar picker and singer and has released a dozen or more solo albums. For my money, however, the most remarkable thing about Buddy Greene is his joy, which is as apparent in every interaction and obvious on stage. I started to describe Buddy’s joy as “irrepressible,” but in the interview below he speaks very honestly about a time his joy was repressed. Which is to say, he is also an authentic and humble man. Though I don’t see or talk to Buddy all that often, I am encouraged and edified every time I do. I want Buddy Greene to be my mentor, but I don’t really know how to ask him.
Thanks, Buddy, for being on “Sad Stories Told for Laughs.”
I’m glad to be here.
You’ve been performing for a long time. You’ve told me a couple of crazy stories about your early career—including a time you played in my hometown and were glad to get out of the Duck’s Breath Saloon alive. I trust that you find it easier to maintain your dignity now that you’ve been at it four decades. But from time to time do you still experience those moments of mortification that seem to be just a part of life for younger performers who are still trying to establish their careers?
Oh, actually, those moments never stop. They happen so often that I just forget about most of them. But there’s one that I love to recall because it sums up my career. It happened about ten years ago.
Long after you were successful.
Interesting you should use that word. I had been a career artist for at least twenty years at that point, and I was out with my friend Steve Brown. He’s an author, a former Presbyterian pastor from Florida. You might know him from KeyLife Ministries.
Oh, right. I know who you’re talking about.
We go way back. He and I have done a lot of events together. On this particular weekend, he was doing some talks in West Virginia, and he brought me along to provide the music. Everybody was age fifty and up, my typical crowd. But there were one or two teenagers there, probably against their will.
It doesn’t take many surly teenagers to make a dozen, does it?
They were bored out of their heads. So I finished a set, and I went out to get coffee while Steve started talking. And I saw this kid walking down hallway listening to his iPod. And when he got close to me, he pulled out his earbuds. He said, “You’re that guy who’s been playing music, right.”
I didn’t know where he was going with this, so I kind of cautiously said, “Yes, that was me.”
He said, “That was some cool music you played. I loved the flat picking. I’m pretty into bluegrass. How long have you been playing?”
I said, “Forty years.”
“And that harmonica. I didn’t even know people could do that with a harmonica. It was like off the charts. How long have you been playing the harmonica?”
He said, “Man, you’re really good.”
So about now, my head’s starting to swell. “Thanks,” I said.
“And, man, those songs. I’ve never heard those. Did you write those?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Well, you’re really good,” he said. “Why aren’t you successful?”
Ouch. It’s like the question the professor always gets: “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?”
That summed up my life so well for me. Because I never achieved the success that I dreamed of, which would have included being on the cover of Rolling Stone. But I did get to open for Steve Brown at an obscure hotel in West Virginia and get insulted by a teenager.
But isn’t the joke kind of on the teenager in this story? When a man has been making a living as a musician for thirty or forty years, playing music he really likes, that looks a lot like success to most people.
Sure. The real success is that at this point in my life I’m still standing up and doing the only thing I know how to do. I launched two girls into the world. I have a happy marriage. My picture’s not on the wall at the post office.
There are plenty of people who have been on the cover of Rolling Stone who would love to trade you for that kind of success.
But my readers have come to expect a harder-hitting journalistic style from me. So I’m not going to count your exchange with a misguided teen as a story of humiliation. What else have you got?
Well, I don’t know if this if humiliating, exactly, but it’s funny.
Let’s hear it.
A few years ago, I got a call from producer from Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show. They had seen a YouTube video of me playing Carnegie Hall.
This producer says, “Would you consider being on the Late Late Show? We don’t know what we’ll do with you. All we can say is that if you show up, you’ll be on the show one way or another.”
I thought that sounded like fun, so I called Jeff Taylor to come along and told him to bring his accordion. We got to the studio in Burbank, California, and I said “This is my friend Jeff. He’s great. You can use both of us.”
Your weren’t lying. Jeff really is great.
So they put us in the dressing room, and we sat there for a couple of hours. Finally, they called us out for sound check. They said, “just play something, anything, so we can get levels.” What we didn’t know was that Craig Ferguson was watching us from the dressing room so he could see what he had to work with.
What did you play?
An old folk tune called “Cluck Old Hen.” Anyway, they send us back to dressing room. A wardrobe man comes by, gives us gold and blue lamé tuxedo jackets and ties.
Yeah. One of us had gold lamé, and the other had blue lamé. And the producer says, “We want you to stand on either side of Geoff the Robot and be his house band.”
Who’s Geoff the Robot?
Well, the running joke on the Craig Ferguson show was that they didn’t have any money. And they didn’t. No money to hire a house band, no money even to hire a sidekick. So instead of a sidekick they got this robot named Geoff, and he’s only programmed to say three or four things.
What kind of things?
Oh, I think one of his phrases was “In your pants.” And every time Geoff talks, Craig Ferguson gives this look directly at the camera—this look that says, “Can you believe this is what they give me to work with?”
So our job is to stand on either side of Geoff and play whenever they tell us to play. Craig says, “In this first segment, you’ll be standing there with Geoff, and two guys in a horse costume will come out, and there will be a midget dressed as a horse jockey who will flog them while they run around in a circle. Meanwhile, you two will be playing ‘Cluck Old Hen.’ What do you think?”
And Jeff and I kind of shrug and say, “It’s your show.” It was total mayhem, total lunacy, but it worked.
Throughout the night, when Craig Ferguson pointed at us, we played five to ten seconds of music, and when he pointed at us again, we stopped. They paid us $1500 apiece, and put us up in great hotel. We were done by six p.m. We went out for a great meal in Burbank, and the next day, I’m joining the Gaither Tour.
I wonder how many of the people who saw you on the Gaither tour also saw you on the Craig Ferguson Show.
I got some concerned emails. Some of them said, “I can’t believe how Craig Ferguson treated you.” And some of them said, “I can’t believe you were on that man’s show.”
You mean some of your fans questioned your judgment.
Yeah. But I don’t know if you saw the monologue Craig Ferguson did where he spoke really honestly about his struggles with alcohol and his recovery.
I did see that, actually.
It was such an honest, vulnerable thing he did. When a recovering alcoholic with that kind of heart asks me to be on his show, I want to be there for him. I want my light to shine, in spite of the absurdity it might put me in.
That’s a great perspective. Protecting your own dignity isn’t the most important issue in that situation. And the truth is, when you choose to be a performer, you almost by definition are putting yourself in situations where you can’t always protect your dignity.
No kidding. When I was trying to break into roots music ten or fifteen years ago, I drove to St. Louis to play a club with Pat Flynn. But they had promoted it for the wrong night. So there were only two people there, and they were only there because they heard music and wandered in from the street.
What did you do?
We played a set for them. Then we played another half-set because they were so into it.
Two people show up, and you play anyway.
Sure. We do what we do because we love music, and we love to communicate beauty and truth through what we do. If we get a chance to do that, it doesn’t matter if it’s somebody’s living room or a packed auditorium.
I say that, and I mean it, but still, we’ve all got sin-sick hearts.
Yeah. Those sin-sick hearts make it hard to remember what we know to be true.
You get your picture on the cover of Rolling Stone, and then you start thinking about the person who got his picture on the cover of Rolling Stone twice.
When my album Rufus came out, it was so important to me for it to get reviewed in No Depression magazine. My publicist sent a pre-release copy to No Depression, and I waited and waited. And then finally, a year after we sent it, the review came out. And it was a good review—not gushing, but a good, solid review. It said things like “a good first effort” and “right fine singing,” and “dandy harmonica.” And that felt good. This publication—probably the most important publication in the roots music world—had acknowledged my existence and said some nice things about me. I felt affirmed and validated.
But then I turn the page, and there’s a review of Allison Kraus or somebody like that. And it’s just gushing. “You must go buy this record,” “Greatest album since her last album,” etc. etc. And immediately I’m comparing myself to that. It’s an instant spiral. “Who am I fooling?” “My art is crap.” It took me a couple of days to pull myself out of it.
And the thing is, there was nothing negative in my review. I’d been waiting a year for it. I was perfectly happy with it. For about one second.
Man, everybody’s bucket’s got a hole in it. Even Buddy Greene’s. How much affirmation is enough?
Doc Watson was a huge hero of mine, one of the top three or four musical influences in my life. When Rufus came out—this was months before the No Depression review—I asked a friend to put Rufus in Doc Watson’s hands. A couple of months later, I went to see Doc Watson and Gerry Douglas play. Gerry knew how much I wanted to meet Doc, so he invited me backstage after the show. I’m escorted back, and there’s Gerry talking to Doc Watson. He says, “Doc, I know there are a lot of people waiting to meet you. But I’d like you to meet my friend Buddy Greene.”
And Doc says, “Buddy Greene? That’s Rufus! I love what you’re doing. I love your record.” Doc Watson! He knew my name. He liked my music! We talked for five or ten minutes, and I’m thinking Jesus, take me home. That’s all I need to hear. I’ll never need any more affirmation than that.
A while later, Doc Watson was on my answering machine. He asked me to send a dozen Rufus records for Christmas presents. And he told me to send him a bill for them, not to just give them to him. It led to a friendship that lasted until he died a few years ago.
So you did get the affirmation you needed.
No. That’s the point of the story. The No Depression review came a few months after I met Doc Watson. That wasn’t enough to ward off the demons.
I ought to read Ecclesiates three or four times a year.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.