Rabbit Room Interview: Buddy Greene

Rabbit Room Interview: Buddy Greene

Randall Goodgame: Buddy, I can’t wait to talk with you about Harmonica Anthology. My whole family loves this record.

Buddy Greene: Do they really?

RG: Heck yeah. For about three months, whenever I drove the minivan it was always in the CD player because my wife and kids love it. I mean I know you call it a harmonica anthology, but there’s so many other great musicians on there—it just feels like great music with the harmonica blended in.

BG: Man, that’s great that you say that because I wasn’t trying to create a harmonica record. We were trying to create a great musical experience for people. So that’s a great compliment.

RG: There’s so much about it that I love. There’s a few old classic fiddle tunes on there that I didn’t even know had words to them. Like “Old Joe Clark”—that’s one of the first tunes my daughter learned when she took up the violin. And I love that I can hear you laughing when you say “I stuck my nose in the butter.”

BG: Actually, I stumbled over the lyrics there, which is why I laughed. It was just a fun moment so we left it.

RG: I love that. That moment sums up a good portion of the record for me. It sounds so much like a room full of brilliant musicians just hanging out and having a ball.

BG: It was fun, and that was a pretty live track. All the musicians were in place, and we were just having a blast. That’s a song I’ve known forever, and we’d put this funky feel to it for the first time, so I was loving every bit of that moment.

RG: Okay, how about “The Train That Carried My Girl From Town?” That’s my daughter’s favorite. I hear her singing that one in her room while she’s getting ready for school.

BG: I love that one. Some West Virginia fiddle player back in the ‘20s made the first recording of it, and then Doc Watson recorded it a couple of times—and I’m a huge Doc Watson fan. It also gave me a chance to turn Bryan Sutton loose on banjo. He’s known for his guitar but he’s a really good banjo player too. And Stuart Duncan’s fiddle on there is unbelievable.

RG: What about the Irish tunes? Can you talk a little bit about them and why you chose them?

BG: “Butterfly” and “Kid on the Mountain” are both slip jigs, which is a 9/8 feel. I’ve had this great interest in Irish fiddle music, and those two melodies fit together so well. I knew I wanted to cut a couple of songs with some of our great Irish musicians here in Nashville: Bill Verdier, and of course Jeff and Jim Prendergast, and John Mock. And, “Haste to the Wedding + Silver Spear” [PP1] is another Irish set that I loved.

RG: How did your musical education unfold?

BG: My first instrument was the ukulele. That was 1963-64 so it was The Kingston Trio, and Peter, Paul and Mary, and all those songs—“500 Miles and “If I had a Hammer” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.”  And then the Beatles came out. I was a big Beatles fan and loved Motown and all that stuff, but by the time I got to college I was listening more to bands like The Allman Brothers and some of the great groups like Cream and The Rolling Stones.  They were doing all these nods to the pioneers of blues and so I’d hear names like T-Bone Walker and Elmore James and Robert Johnson and I’m going “Who are these guys?” So I started investigating great blues pioneers and man, I was loving what I was hearing. Then The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band released Will the Circle Be Unbroken and they had all these cool guests on there. Roy Acuff and Jimmy Martin, and Doc Watson, Vassar Clements, Merle Travis, and these guys were icons. Up until college I had dismissed country music as hick music, and then I dipped into the roots and found Hank Williams and Jimmy Rogers and realized how great those guys were.

So many of my heroes were into the stuff. George Harrison’s whole style was based on people like Carl Perkins and Chet Atkins. Those guys gave me the education I wasn’t going to get on popular radio.

RG: Is that when you picked up the harmonica?

BG: Yeah. I was nineteen and in college, but all the really cool harmonica players were old guys or dead guys—except Charlie McCoy. Charlie was a huge influence on me and probably every country harmonica player in the last half-century. He played for Elvis, Bob Dylan, Sinatra. I mean he’s been on everybody’s record. When you hear the Boxer by Paul Simon, that’s him playing low harmonica. He’s probably my biggest influence, and now over the years he’s become a great friend and was a guest on this album.

RG: That’s him with you on “Orange Blossom Special?”

BG: Yeah. And I learned my version from listening to his. He has the classic version of that song on harmonica. I played it live for years, and people would ask for it, but I refused to record it because Charlie McCoy broke the template on that tune. But then when Charlie came in I figured out a way that I could set it up for him and give him the spotlight.

And “Minor Miner” is a Charlie McCoy original. That’s really why I wanted him to come in—to revive some of his beautiful old instrumental songs. We worked out a nice duet arrangement on that.

RG: What can you tell me about “Oh Shenandoah?”

BG: Well, “Oh Shenandoah” is a really sentimental song for me because my dad passed away a few years ago and he loved it when I played that on the harmonica. It’s a really poignant story. This trader is coming to buy an Indian chief’s daughter and take her away. You really see this American saga being played out.  Shenandoah is the chief’s name. Oh Shenandoah, we’re bound to leave you, and Oh Shenandoah, we’ll not deceive you. It’s almost a parable of the American tale. We did deceive them—so it’s got all this extra weight to it.

RG: Tell me about your original, “Riding out the Winter.”

BG: Hey, thanks for asking about that. Musically, it’s another one of those live takes that just turned out great, and lyrically, it’s empathizing with the homeless. I was driving around one day, and the winter was coming on, and I started noticing a lot of homeless people. I was thinking: I’m sitting pretty in the suburbs and here’s a guy with a golden retriever at the end of an exit ramp. He had his guitar and his dog and few possessions in a sack and he was looking for a ride. That’s hard, you know? But he’s got his guitar; he’s got his dog. I love the Nashville Rescue Mission, and I’ll go down and play for a chapel service now and then, and I always learn something from those guys living on the streets. So all that just played into this song.

RG: And I love that you put the classical melody on there.

BG: Oh yeah, with Ron Block on banjo and Jeff playing accordion and Bryan Sutton on guitar and Ben Issacs playing bass. It was so much fun to hear that come together.

RG: You played that at Carnegie Hall, right?

BG: Yeah, with Bill Gaither.

RG: Right. How did that come about?

BG: You know, it was totally an afterthought. I was supposed to be sitting with all the other artists and playing harmonica fills here and there. But Bill and I were standing on the stage, looking out at the empty Carnegie Hall and I said, “Bill this is so cool. Thank you for inviting me to be a part of this video.” And right there on the spot he asks me if I’d like to do a little feature something. I said “Gosh yeah, I would love to.” We used to do a little off-the-cuff bit back in the 80s that ended with the William Tell Overture medley. So I brought that up and said, “Let’s just let it happen off the cuff and it’ll either be fun and good for your video or we’ll just have a good memory for our grandkids.” So we did it, and it just clicked and made the video and made YouTube and went viral.

RG: So stinking cool.

BG: Another fun thing about that evening was Paul Simon came out and did a little cameo appearance.

RG: With the Gaithers?

BG: Yeah, he’s a friend of Jessie Dixon’s.

RG: Wait, who’s Jessie Dixon?

BG: He’s a black gospel singer that traveled with Paul Simon in the 70s and early 80s.  Jessie’s been a part of these Homecoming videos for years and he lives up in Chicago. He told Bill: “You know, Paul Simon lives here in New York. How would you like for him to come hang out?” And Bill says fine, so he makes sure Paul’s not going to be bothered and he’s got his own separate green room and he can watch everything on the monitor. He says, “I don’t want to be a part of the video but I’d love to be a part of what you’re doing for your audience.” So he came out and did “Bridge over Troubled Water” and “Gone At Last.” It was so cool.

RG: And how did you get connected with Bill Gaither?

BG: On my first album the executive producer was Bob McKinsey, who was a big mover-shaker in Christian music and an old friend of Bill’s. He had produced the Bill Gaither trio back in the 70s so he and Bill were real close friends and he introduced us while I was working on that album. And Bill liked me. He liked my background—that I didn’t have all this Christian music influence and I was relatively new to Christ. He liked the bluegrassiness and country side of who I was and he thought that I would be a good fit for his crowd. I had been with Jerry Reed for four years and that was kind of running its course, so it was a real smooth segue into Bill’s thing.

RG: Wow, and that’s been going 20 years?

BG: Actually, it was ‘87 when I started touring with them steadily as a regular part of the tour, and since ‘92 I’ve done praise gatherings and videos and occasionally he’ll call me out for a Christmas tour or—we went to Europe a few years ago. We became great friends, and through that friendship he still calls on me to be that sort of specialist that I am.

RG: What are you reading these days?

BG: I’m re-reading The Everlasting Man by Chesterton, which is a fascinating book. I picked it up the other day and it’s been 20 years since I read it the first time. I read the introduction and it just grabbed me again. What a thinker this guy was, taking on the materialists of his day. He’s talking about the proof of history, and the Judeo Christian idea of truth, and the reason it’s not going away. It’s in a time when the Darwinian argument was really gaining momentum, so he’s coming up against some pretty powerful stuff, but he’s so brilliant and sounds so unlike the strident evolutionary creationists today. He argues very intelligently from more of a classical standpoint, looking at the evidence from a common sense point of view.

I remember reading C.S. Lewis and he talks about myths and how they really prepare men for the one true myth. You can tell that C.S. Lewis was very much a student of Chesterton because that’s Chesterton’s tack as well. He wouldn’t use the myth language as much as Lewis would but anyway it’s been great to dig back into that book. And I’ve been reading the Bible a lot because I picked up a copy of the Book of Common Prayer and there’s a daily office in the back where you read the whole bible in a couple of years. There’s Old Testament reading and the Psalms in conjunction with the New Testament either an epistle or the Acts and then you end with a gospel reading. So it’s really been a neat way to read the whole bible at once without just starting in Genesis.

I’ve always been struck by Jesus’ question to the expert in the law. That guy asked him. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and Jesus says, “Well you’re an expert how do you read it?” and so he gives the “love the Lord your God with everything you’ve got and your neighbor as yourself” answer and Jesus says yep, and then the guy says, “So who is my neighbor?” and he tells him the good Samaritan parable and exposes the guy to how he’s reading scripture. I always love that question: “How do you read it?” and I remember it was probably 15 or 20 years ago that that question of Jesus really arrested me. I realized that’s the important question. It’s not if we’re reading or what we’re reading but how we read scripture. The devil reads scripture and uses it any way that he wants to and we often do the same thing. We can build our arguments and slam our enemies or whatever we want to do, but I think if we read it the way Jesus reads it then it blows your world apart. So that’s about it. I wish I was reading Shakespeare or something so I could really impress you.

RG: Sure, Chesterton and the Bible are for lightweights.

So you and I met a few years back at a Square Peg Alliance concert, and a lot of us have gotten to know you through Andrew Peterson. How did you get to know AP?

BG: Jonathan and Amanda Noel. We’re good friends, and we went to church together and they used to talk about the Christmas concert down at the Ryman. I went online and checked out a song or two of Andrew’s and thought, wow this guy’s a great writer. I got Love and Thunder and I loved every bit of it. That sort of introduced me to all of you guys, The Gullahorn’s, Ben Shive, Osenga, and I just started paying attention because I was sort of cynical about Christian music—even though I’ve been a part of it, I was a part of the mess. I liked the writing, the music, the integrity and I remembered reading something Pierce Pettis had said about Andrew’s writing. He said, “You know, if more Christian musicians wrote like this, I’d listen to the stuff,” and I knew what he was talking about.

RG: So, to wrap it up, what’s coming around the bend for Buddy Green, musically or otherwise?

BG: Well, we’re empty nesters, my wife and I.

RG: Since when?

BG: Since about a month ago when we took my daughter to college. I’ve got two daughters. My youngest is at UT and my oldest got married this summer and we’re happy for both of them. We’re in a really good place with just the two of us full time, and it’s making me think about how much time we’ve got left. I’ve never had more fun making music than I am now. I just love the process and I love playing. I’m more of a local musician than I ever was. I play 3 or 4 times a year around town. I’m really enjoying being a part of the local scene. I’ve also been wanting to get more established in places like the UK and Ireland because I love that part of the world, so I’d love to go over there and make music and learn from that culture and history. Those are just dreams. Jeff (Taylor) and I are having a great time making music, and he’s been without a doubt the best help I’ve ever had doing what I do in the studio. He’s a great friend so I’m really thankful for that relationship, working relationship and friendship. So that’s it. I’m going to keep trying not to dream too big and just be thankful for what I’ve got and answer the call.

RG: Buddy, this has been fantastic. Thank you for breakfast and for making this great music.

BG: Hey, thanks for wanting to talk about it. I love the Rabbit Room and the cool community going on over there. And this is the record I’ve always wanted to make. I’m always looking for ways to subvert peoples’ stereotypes about the harmonica and what it can and can’t do.  And there are so many great players out there that folks don’t even know or think about. Stevie Wonder, for example, is one of the greatest harmonica players in the world. And to have Charlie McCoy playing on the record with me is part of the mission I was on in creating a work like this. Those guys make great music. They just make it on the harmonica.

[Check out Buddy's website. If you're in Nashville this Friday night you can see him live with an all-star cast of musicians at the Station Inn.]