Will The Circle Be Unbroken: An Interview with Buddy Greene

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Last week, I got to sit down with Buddy Greene and ask him all about his new retrospective record, Looking Back, as well as the narrative of his musical and spiritual life and how they have informed one another. Our conversation was a delight and I am pleased to share it with you here.

To learn more about Buddy Greene and his new album, head over to his website.

Drew: When you were first really getting into the bluegrass tradition, what caught your attention? An artist, an album, a song?

Buddy: There was one particular album, and many folks in my generation point to it: Will The Circle Be Unbroken by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. They came out with it in ’72 or something like that.

I scoured this thing and played it over and over and over. It was my introduction to people like Doc Watson, Maybelle Carter… not only stars like them, but musicians like Junior Huskey played bass, Vassar Clements on fiddle. Musicianship was so virtuosic. Up to that point I had ignored country music or even turned my nose up to it, but I’d been getting into the blues ever since high school, with the Allman Brothers and folks like that. So the Allman Brothers were already proving to me that you need to know where your music comes from. When I listen to Fillmore East, the live album, Greg Allman would introduce songs and say, “This is an Elmore James song” or “This is a T-Bone Walker song,” and I was like, “Who’s he talking about?” He’s talking about pioneers of blues.

As cool as I thought the Dirt Band was, the real coolness of this record was Jimmy Martin, Flatt and Scruggs, Merle Travis, Doc Watson. I could not get over them, and these were people twenty or thirty years older than me, had been around a long time. Masters of what they were doing. I was just enamored of that.

That's the kind of musical world I want to inhabit—one where you're a member of this long tradition and you learn what's gone before you, you steward what you have, you add to it what you can, and you pass that along.

Buddy Greene

Drew: One thing that enamors me with music I love—I see it there on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album cover, it says, ”Music forms a new circle.” It’s almost like the communion of saints of bluegrass. There’s something so big about it. I hear it on your record too, when I hear these incredible musicians. Their skill is amazing, of course, but the thing that draws me in is not how good they are, but the hospitality everyone has for each other and the circle that’s formed in that. Everyone respects the fidelity of that circle. That’s moving to me and I wonder what your take on that is.

Buddy: I notice that generosity you’re talking about in bluegrass music, players sharing what they know. That’s the way these guys learn. They go to festivals, hang out with their heroes, watch them play, get a chance to be in a jam session with them, ask, “how are you doing that?” I mean you can see this stuff on YouTube now, somebody’s posted some video of Kenny Baker showing Aubrey Haynie how to play some fiddle lick, and they just pass it on. And now Aubrey’s on my record, and he’s doing the same thing with young fiddlers coming along now.

Drew: He’s nuts. There were so many moments when I thought, “I didn’t know you could make that sound with a fiddle.”

Buddy: I know it. So everybody has those stories. And that’s the kind of musical world I want to inhabit—one where you’re a member of this long tradition and you learn what’s gone before you, you steward what you have, you add to it what you can, and you pass that along. And that’s in other music traditions, too. I just always felt like in rock and pop and stuff like that, there was always more of a competitive edge, this idea that “we are the gods.”

But these bluegrass guys—for one thing, they don’t have that huge a mass market for what they’re doing. So they’re playing festivals and music clubs. You can see world-class musicians at a house concert in this genre of music.

Drew: There is generally more of a focus on the individual “star of the show” in other genres than there is in bluegrass.

Buddy: Well yeah! It’s what made me want to be a musician in the first place. When I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, I was like, “Listen to all those girls going crazy! These guys are on the top of the world! I want to do that!” And that eluded me my whole career!

(laughter)

But what I discovered along the way was just a love for music and a chance to get to meet some of these people, rub shoulders with them, get them to play on my record, make friends with them. You probably know Ron Block, right?

Drew: Not personally, but I know who he is.

Buddy: He’s a contributor to the Rabbit Room for one thing, but he’s also just one of the best banjo players on the planet and one of the best friends I’ve ever had. On Looking Back, most of the players are close friends of mine. We do a good bit of hanging out and impromptu playing from time to time. A lot of that was being celebrated there on that album.

Drew: What inspired the idea to do an album like Looking Back, to chronicle this great accumulation of songs? Did it dawn on you one day that you should do it, or had you been considering it for a while?

Buddy: Well there were a bunch of old songs of mine I wanted to revisit: songs that had been recorded on much earlier projects, from the late 80s, early 90s, that stood the test of time. I still wanted to play them, they held up musically and lyrically, and even maybe had a fresh application thirty years down the road. I love listening to those old records. The sonic value of them is like a time capsule: “Listen to that reverb!” “What a goofy drum sound!” But they were trapped in that time, in terms of a listening experience. So I wanted to take some of those songs, update them with new arrangements and a more mature voice, and hopefully a more mature approach to producing music.

That had been on my mind for some time. Then after I finished the project before this one, I had talked to somebody about the possibility of doing a bluegrass approach to that idea. Somebody at a record label. And really, I have very little reputation in the commercial bluegrass world. Record labels are not beating down my door to sign me up for anything. But I know a few people in that world, so I was talking to one of them, and they said, “Yeah, let me hear what you’ve got.”

So I called Bryan Sutton and told him what I had in mind, asked him to produce it, and he was down.

The album became more than a revisit of earlier recordings—it became a retrospective on a whole life of making music. It helped me sum up my musical and spiritual journey.

Buddy Greene

Drew: And it’s a pristine-sounding record.

Buddy: It’s a great production. I’m as happy with his production as anything I’ve ever been part of. He’s been doing a lot of work at Southern Ground studios, so he got me to come over there. We had two days booked in the studio shortly after that other project in 2016, and when we came out we had eleven songs tracked. And it was with this great band: Ron Block, Sam Bush, Bryan Sutton, Mark Fain on bass, Aubrey Haynie. And then me hanging on for dear life.

(laughter)

Drew: Well… you didn’t sound like you were hanging on for dear life.

Buddy: Believe me, there were times when I felt that way. But I was delighted that I was in the middle of all that. The rough mixes sounded great and I was excited, so I sent them to the record label and kept waiting to hear back. I never did. By this time 2016 had already run its course, I was busy traveling, and so was Bryan. We couldn’t line up our schedules. Before we knew it the year was done.

And whenever I listened to the rough mixes, I kept thinking of elements that were unfinished. I wanted drums on several songs, for instance. So when 2017 started I cranked it back up and decided to do another one of my self-released records. And it wouldn’t be a bonafide bluegrass project—it would be bluegrass-informed, but would incorporate drums, some soulful background singing, and such. There ended up being eighteen songs. I thought I’d whittle it down to a dozen, but the more I listened, the less I wanted to edit it down.

The album became more than a revisit of early recordings—it became a retrospective on a whole life of making music. It helped me sum up my musical and spiritual journey.

Drew: I got that impression from it. I loved reading each of the paragraphs you wrote in the liner notes about the songs. Hearing where they come from, what time they come from, and all the different people who wrote the ones you didn’t write. Like “Look Up, Look Down, That Lonesome Road.”

Buddy: Isn’t that a cool song? Doc Watson’s father in law wrote that song: Gaither Carlton. I really am glad you liked that one. I’ll show you something here…

Drew: Please.

(Buddy rummages around for the record)

Buddy: I’m a huge Doc Watson fan. I got to meet him, make some music with him, and he was so important in my musical development. And yet you don’t just say, “hey, I’ll do a Doc Watson song.”

Drew: You have to tread lightly.

Buddy: So here’s the album I originally heard this song from. Have you ever heard it?

Drew: I have not. I’m excited.

(The song begins to play)

Buddy: When Doc died in 2012 or something like that, we did a tribute night at the Station Inn. It was me, Bryan, and a few others. We showed up and played some of Doc’s songs, and I thought if I get asked to do a song, I’ll throw this one out there and see what happens. Just me and Bryan did this song that night, and it became a moody moment in the set. Very moving to Bryan and me. When that was done, I thought, “I’d love to record that song one day.”

When I was finally bringing all the elements of the record together, songs like that came up—I knew it was the homage to Doc that needed to be included. Jerry Reed was another huge musical influence of mine, and I was at a tribute concert for him after he died as well, and I was asked to do a song of his I’d never heard called “Big Daddy.” So that ended up on the record, too.

I was in Jerry’s band for four years, which is what originally moved me to Nashville from Georgia in 1983. It was like a dream come true: first big break I had, on a hillbilly bus traveling around the country. Playing shows like Hee Haw with this huge, iconic country and movie star.

By the time I got in the band, Jerry had already been in the business for twenty years. His star was starting to fade a little bit, but he could still have a nice six-piece band on the road, do TV specials, and make movies.

He died in 2008 of emphysema. But being in his band was an apprenticeship I sorely needed. So I wanted something on the record that would tip my hat to Jerry Reed. That was one of the most fun moments on the record. It helped me talk about my career journey.

And then songs like “Jesus Gonna Make It All Alright” never saw the light of day, but I played them all the time, especially in my early twenties. Every time I did, it was like hearing from home when I was in a dark, dark place. I was so far away from my faith, but that song was calling me home: “Buddy, come back!” So it’s such a monument to my spiritual journey.

I was learning about being slave to sin, being in need of a gracious God who would love me no matter what I'd done, and an incarnate God who would die for me, rise from the grave, ascend on high, and send his Spirit who would help me be more than I was on my own. If that's true, I thought, then I need it.

Buddy Greene

Drew: I’d love to ask you—when listening to the record, I noticed it wasn’t just documenting your musical journey, but your spiritual journey as well. I’d love to hear about your conversion, the way those two things worked together, and how music and spirituality have been almost synonymous for you.

Buddy: I’m from Macon, Georgia, a musical hotbed that’s produced Otis Redding, Allman Brothers, Little Richard, James Brown. When I was young and getting set free by The Beatles, I started learning about all this musical stuff in my community. I had a band at age ten, just jumped right in! Played baritone ukuleles before we could play full-sized guitars.

In my early twenties, I played in this group called Uncle Ernie, and I was totally lost. We were this good-timing bar band playing for fifty bucks a night, drinking and smoking pot, carousing, total losers. I was a child of the sixties, drifting far away from church and thinking my parents’ generation had screwed up everything and we were gonna make it all better. But all I was really doing was partying, and I didn’t have much of a social conscience.

By my mid-twenties I was already married and divorced, had made so many bad choices that I was just in pain. I wasn’t showing this so much with my peer group, but I was a lonely person, and I was starting to search in spiritual directions. My plan was to go to all these world religions and look for truth, then pick and choose what I liked.

I started with Christianity because I figured I knew the most about it among the religions. So I read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and I was immediately fascinated. I had so many questions reading those gospels for the first time as an adult. Then around that time, a born-again believer came into my life. He was hanging at these bars I was playing and he invited me to a bible study at his house. I was on the sly about it, but I pursued it, and it was a great place to land. It was almost like an AA group. Everybody would be hanging on the porch smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, a bunch of hippies like me.

One of the reasons I didn’t want to go to a church those days was that I didn’t want to be detected. I had grown up Baptist, and those services always ended in an invitation, an altar call, and I was not interested in that. I was interested in information. I didn’t want anyone to know I was searching.

So in this bible study environment, we all felt the freedom to ask questions. Questions about pot-smoking, sex, subjects I wouldn’t have felt comfortable with in any other environment. Around that time I met my future wife, who was such a cut above me! And I felt like all I was proving was that I didn’t have what it took to be a better person. All these old patterns were in place. I was learning about being slave to sin, being in need of a gracious God who would love me no matter what I’d done, and an incarnate God who would come here, die for me, rise from the grave, ascend on high, and send his Spirit who would help me be more than I was on my own. If that’s true, I thought, then I need it.

 

By my mid-twenties I was at least admitting to myself that I wanted the gospel to be true. And I prayed one night on my sofa, “If you’re out there, if this is true, please show me and get to work on me.” A short time after that I was admitting it to my wife as we were dating. She was kind of a dormant Christian, had drifted away in college. She was out there on her own like me, and she had her eye on me. She knew something was going on. I asked her to marry me pretty soon after that, she said yes, and within a short time I got that job with Jerry Reed, before we even got married. It all happened at the same time.

So I moved up to Nashville a new Christian, a new husband, with the first real job in music I’d ever had, and I started going out into that old touring world still feeling very vulnerable. Those first few years in that band were a real proving ground for me being in the world but not of it. I didn’t do well, either. When the band misbehaved, I did some version of it myself, and I’d come home feeling guilty. But I had a good pastor back home who counseled me along and encouraged me to be faithful to God and follow his lead. So I prayed to God for strength against all the old temptations. “Lord, help me not to get stoned this weekend. I want to pass the joint to the next guy.” And I’d come home and hadn’t gotten stoned, and I would feel such a sense of victory. That’s what I was learning.

Drew: That is so concrete.

Buddy: It’s what led me to write songs about salvation, deliverance, and a faithful God in the midst of weakness. I started writing songs when I was in Jerry’s band. Something new was growing. And that’s when my own recording career began. The rest of the story is thirty years of me being a recording artist, a songwriter—I may not have a whole foot in the world of bluegrass, but I do have a toe in there. But as a result, I’ve gotten to play music with so many folks I enjoy being around, and that’s what I love. That’s the journey.

You can learn more about Buddy Greene and his new record, Looking Back, on his website. Meanwhile, take a listen to his version of “Look Up, Look Down That Lonesome Road” here:


1 Comment

  1. Gypsy Martin

    @gypsy

    What a great interview, Drew–I loved learning about Buddy Greene. Doc Watson is a favorite of mine, and I really enjoyed Buddy’s rendition of his song. Looking forward to listening to the entire album.

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