WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith, and today you’re listening in on my conversation with singer, songwriter, and harmonica player extraordinaire Buddy Greene.
Buddy Greene may not be a household name to those outside of Nashville, but it is well known among those who play at the top levels of country and gospel music. He’s probably best known as a harmonica player who – as a session player – has appeared on scores of albums. He has also played his harmonica in one memorable performance at Carnegie Hall – a performance that now has more than five million views on YouTube. It’s a performance I’ll ask Buddy about later in the program, and we’ll hear a portion of it, too.
But Buddy Greene has also made his mark as a songwriter. He co-wrote, with Mark Lowry, a song that has become a Christmas classic: “Mary, Did You Know?” Greene also wrote “Recovering Pharisee,” which was a bluegrass hit for The Del McCoury Band, and “He Is” which was a Christian radio hit for Ashley Cleveland.
During this period of COVID, when travel has been restricted, Buddy and I had to have this conversation via a little bit of electronic magic. Buddy from his home in Nashville. I am in my home studio in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Buddy Greene, first of all, welcome to the program. It’s great to finally have you on the program.
BUDDY GREENE, GUEST: Good to be with you, Warren. Thanks for the invite.
SMITH: Yeah, and I say finally, because I’ve been a big fan of yours for a long time. I’ve known about you. But I was listening and watching on Facebook, Keith Getty, and he does this family thing during COVID, and you were a guest on that program and it was kind of one of those moments where I was like, you know, kind of slap my forehead, you know, those old, I should’ve had a V8 commercials. I don’t know if you remember those, but slapped my forehead and said, why haven’t I had Buddy Greene on the program? So it’s a real treat for me. And I really appreciate you taking some time sequestered there in Nashville. I’m in my home in Charlotte. So, we’re doing this with a little electronic magic. Buddy I’d like to begin in some ways kind of at the beginning. I’m a Georgia boy raised in Marietta, Georgia. You were raised in Macon, Georgia. Do I have that right?
GREENE: I was. Born and raised.
SMITH: You know, I can’t resist playing a little bit of the “do you know game,” but did you ever run into Mark Hurd? Mark Hurd, I think, is a Macon Georgia boy.
GREENE: Yes. Yeah. He was a big influence on me and we got to be friends, really, probably when we were both in our thirties. And we kinda knew who each other were in high school, but we were kind of in different circles. And then I actually met him for the first time in my mid-twenties. He and another friend, mutual friend Chuck Long, they came to see me playing in an Athens bar and he ended up buying one of our t-shirts and he wore it on a couple of his album covers. It kind of started our relationship. We were pen pals a little bit. And then when I got in Jerry Reed’s band, he was a big Jerry Reed fan. And I traveled out there a couple of times with Reed and in California where Mark was living at the time. And so we hooked up a couple of times then, and I ended up playing on a record of his and so, yeah, we definitely have history.
SMITH: Yeah, no, exactly right. And you know, since you mentioned Jerry Reed, I guess I should probably back us up a little but couldn’t resist that Mark Hurd side trip, but backing up a little bit. So you’re in Macon, Georgia, you’re playing in bands and playing on your own in bars and that kind of thing. But Jerry Reed is really who discovered you. Is that fair to say?
GREENE: Well, he’s the person that gave me my first break. You know, I had been playing the bar circuit and in Georgia and South Carolina for about 10 years or so. And I had a mutual friend. I had a friend from Athens actually, who had gone up to Nashville a few years earlier and he sort of made his way into some good jobs. And one of them was landing a job with Jerry Reed and becoming the band captain. And he called me one day when I was literally packed and ready to go to a gig up in the Carolinas somewhere. And he said, Hey man, if you can get up here to Nashville within eight hours, you can audition for a place in Jerry Reed’s band. And I said, well, let me see if I can get out of this thing I’m doing right now. And they were gracious and let me off the hook. And I went up there and passed the audition. And like a week later was on Austin City Limits with Jerry Reed. It was like a whirlwind, couldn’t believe it was happening experience.
SMITH: That’s a remarkable story. And, you know, you mentioned Jerry Reed being on Austin City Limits. A lot of people know Austin City Limits. Maybe there might be some people listening to this that’s forgotten who Jerry Reed was. He was kind of the King of Nashville for awhile. He was a not only a musician, but an actor and a songwriter or a session guitar player. He kind of did all of that, didn’t he?
GREENE: He left his mark here, for sure. And his heyday was really from sort of the late 60s to the early 80s. And during that time, yeah, he established himself as a singer-songwriter, a fantastic musician, one of the most influential guitar players in Nashville history just right up there with people like Chet Atkins. And, in fact, he and Chet became really good friends. Chet was his producer and produced all these hits that Jerry had like Amos Moses and When You’re Hot, You’re Hot and Guitar Man and many, many more. And then he was an actor and played most notably with Burt Reynolds in then the Smokey and the Bandit movies, played a sidekick of Burt’s character. He drove the truck with the beer all loaded in it. And he wrote the music for those soundtracks and Eastbound and Down and Loaded Up and Trucking. All that stuff. And so he was—and by the time I got in the band, I was a full-fledged Jerry Reed fan myself. So I couldn’t believe I was getting this opportunity.
SMITH: I think because Jerry Reed played in kind of these semi-comedic roles in the movies and his biggest hits were almost novelty songs, you might say.
GREENE: Yeah. He could tell a funny country story in a song as well as anybody.
SMITH: I think people probably don’t realize just what an amazing musician and guitar player he was and for you to be in his band as a young man, what you learn from him? You’d been performing for a while, so you kind of knew some things, but what was it that you learned about really sort of being at that top level?
GREENE: Well, he was the apprenticeship that I had always needed. I was self-taught as a musician and just playing in bars and taverns in your hometown, you’re not going to get a very good understanding of your ability or anything until you make a move to someplace like Nashville or whatever, and then can get a real measuring stick. So once I got up to Nashville, for one thing, I could see, you know, music being made at a national level and playing with somebody like Jerry Reed and in his band just really made me realize, boy, I’ve got a lot of homework, a lot to learn. And just being around somebody like him, he was, you know, really gifted as a guitar player. So I learned so much in that respect. He was great in the studio. I’d never really been in the studio. So just learning that whole world. Being on a few records with him and playing TV shows and all that sort of thing and touring the country and he was a great songwriter. I think I learned so much about crafting songs and entertaining. He was just an amazing entertainer. He really knew how to work with an audience. And so in every one of those areas I’ve just mentioned, I wanted to be good in all those. And so I just needed that influence and it couldn’t have been a better job for me to get.
SMITH: Well, Buddy, speaking of being an entertainer and working a crowd, I think maybe some folks might know you best because of one video. And that video would be you playing your harmonica with Bill Gaither in Carnegie Hall. And I don’t know how many millions of views and how many harmonica players now hate you because of that video–
GREENE: Plenty on both counts.
SMITH: But tell me how that came to pass, because one of the things that’s great, I mean, the musicianship in that video it’s just absolutely first rate and I just, you know, really appreciate that and want to thank you for that. But you and Bill kind of had a little shtick going that set that up as well.
GREENE: Well, you know, it was a fluke. It wasn’t even supposed to happen. I was not scheduled to have a spot on the video program. But that afternoon, you know, I was going to be sitting in with a band and just playing harmonica here and there, and Bill and I were standing there during a break, looking at the empty Carnegie Hall. And, and I just was telling Bill, you know, thank you so much for having me at this thing is this is just the coolest thing to be at Carnegie Hall. And he said, yeah, this is great. And he looked at me, he said, Hey, you want to do something on the show? And I said, are you kidding? Of course I do! And then he said, well, what would you do? And so then I realized he was going to try to figure out, you said it was worth the time for me to — and I said, Bill, you know, when I traveled with you 10 years ago, we used to just get up and have fun with the harmonica.
You’d ask me a few questions and I’d play some stuff. And it was shtick, you know, but it was fun and it showed off the instrument. And so I said, why don’t we do a little abridged version of that? When we had done it in the past, we’d take it on a tour through the world and I’d play Irish and Mexican and Chicago and all these different styles. And then finally we land on this sorta classical spoof. And it always got the reaction from the crowd. And so I said, let’s do that. And just not overthink it. I’ll get us to the pay off as quickly as possible. And so that was basically it. We didn’t rehearse it. We didn’t do anything. In fact, by the time he called me up there, I thought he had maybe forgotten about it and I just thought it wasn’t going to happen. So when he turned around and waived his finger at me, like, come on, I thought, Oh my gosh, here we go. And it was just one of those moments where I didn’t feel nervous. And I can’t explain that except maybe just the grace of God, because there I was standing on one of the most, you know, hallowed stages in the world and I was perfectly at ease, just having a great time with Bill. Bill is a great straight man and loves to be your foil. If he knows that you’re going to use it to good effect. So, the whole thing just worked out great. And then it got posted on YouTube. A couple of years later two or three years later. Wasn’t by me. Somebody just sent it to me one time and it already had about a hundred thousand views or something at that point. And you’re right, I think over the years, I don’t know how many million hits there are on it now, but I have so many harmonica players who say, if somebody sends me that video one more time, I’m going to shoot you.
SMITH: That’s great. That’s funny.
SMITH: Welcome back. I’m Warren Smith. And today you’re listening in on my interview with musician singer and songwriter, Buddy Greene. Let’s get right back to that conversation.
Buddy, we’ve already talked about Jerry Reed. We’ve talked about Bill Gaither and your associations with them. They’re both long associations with those guys, but you’ve played, in addition to your own music, you’ve played with some of the really great players of the late 20th and early 21st century. I mean, you’ve been with Ricky Skaggs, Doc Watson, and others. But you’ve also been sort of steadily putting out albums on your own. Can you talk about the difference between what it means to kind of be a sideman, if you will, a harmonica player for others, but then kind of have your own musical career going as well?
GREENE: Well, you know, I’m like a lot of people that come to Nashville, a lot of the musicians I know. You end up learning how to do all sorts of things, realizing that not one of those things is going to be enough to make a living. So I was always ready to get an invitation to come play on somebody’s record, or maybe be a part of a tour with somebody else. And those were always great learning experiences and I love being a part of a band and a team. The Gaithers were like that for me and that relationship has lasted on and off for 30 years. But then in the meantime, there were a lot of people that wanted me to, you know, just come and do a concert at their church, or even something like a house concert, but most of what I did as a solo performer on my own was usually Christian-based in some way or another. I was at retreat settings, fundraisers, church concerts, all sorts of things like that. But most of them had to do with me presenting the gospel in song somehow, because that’s what I recorded. You know, I had basically come to faith about the time I got the job with Jerry and had started writing songs about that faith journey. And they came to the attention of some people within a short time who liked what I was doing and gave me a record deal.
SMITH: Well, let me pause you on that just for a second, because I got to tell you, honestly, Buddy, that that is kind of a counter intuitive path for somebody. You come to Nashville and go work for Jerry Reed to lose your faith, not to gain your faith. I mean, he was kinda known as kind of that beer drinking good old boy kind of a thing, but that’s actually where you came to faith in that period of your life.
GREENE: Well, I came to faith a little bit before that. And then and then escaped Macon, Georgia, because there were plenty of bad influences down there. I ran with the party crowd and I really needed to get away because I didn’t have the wherewithal to resist what I needed to resist. And once I got in Jerry’s band, I mean, to tell you the truth, I didn’t do too well in that situation either. I mean, when I was on the bus and we were out touring it was like a bunch of a band of country music musicians, as you can imagine. So, there were plenty of things I was doing that I was just like, man, I am not being a good Christian here. And I eventually went to my pastor about it and said, I think I might just need to quit this and go get into Christian music or something. And he said well, do you have any open doors in Christian music? And I said, no, not really but I could go knock on some doors. He said, well, he said, you know, Buddy, it looks to me like, you’ve got a job. God has provided a way for you to make a living. And your problem really is faithfulness. So why don’t you start asking God to help you? And I was like, Oh yeah, wow, what a concept. And so he just started explaining to me that, you know, taking little small steps and asking God for his grace to help me be a little more faithful on the road would be the thing I needed to try before I quit. And that was just one of my first and best lessons of what it means to walk in faith my whole life. And because I did do it and God did meet me there with what I needed to resist whatever it was that was compromising my walk. And it actually led to some great conversations with band members, with Jerry, and I was able to keep that job for another three or four years and continued to learn what I needed to learn. And so anyway, I grew as a musician, but also grew in my faith. And that’s when I was writing those songs, too. I think those experiences made me really want to celebrate my faith in songs.
SMITH: Buddy, before we leave this era in your life—I would say maybe the early-mid era in your life, because I want to transition to some of the stuff that you’re doing more recently is ask you about Charlie McCoy. I mean, when people think of harmonica players today, I think they think of Buddy Greene at least largely they do. But there was a generation ago or maybe even less people thought Charlie McCoy. Was he an influence on you?
GREENE: Oh yeah, he’s the main influence on me. There’s a whole Pantheon of great, great harmonica players out there, and most of them are unknown to the general public, but Charlie McCoy is one of the few—especially if you’re an old guy like me in country music—everybody knows who Charlie McCoy is because he’s in the country music hall of fame. He’s the most recorded harmonica player in history. He was a part of the A-team of studio players for about two or three decades. And there was a time in country music when you heard a harmonica on anybody’s song about every other tune on the radio. And it was usually Charlie. So he was my main influence because I was falling in love with country music when I was about 20, 21 years old, about the time I took up the harmonica. And he was the guy that had figured out how to make those worlds live together. Most of the harmonica players, other than Charlie that I knew about, were blues players. But Charlie really had adapted it to modern country music in much the same way that Earl Scruggs had sort of reinvented the banjo for bluegrass music. I mean, he put such a stamp on it that I’d say everybody in country music that has played harmonica since Charlie, they built on what he established.
SMITH: Welcome back. You’re listening in on my conversation with Buddy Greene. Let’s get right back to that interview.
Well, Buddy, at some point as I look at your career, at least, and I don’t know how this feels to you and whether I’m maybe putting something on this that you don’t see at all or that you don’t feel at all, but at some point in your career it seems to me that just as people like Jerry Reed and Bill Gaither kinda mentored you along you, in some ways have now kind of become a mentor to others. I see you on YouTube a lot, for example, doing instructional things. I know that you’ve worked with Keith Getty and with Andrew Peterson and others. And I know when I talk to them, they talk about you in the same ways that you are talking about people like Jerry Reed and Bill Gaither. When I say that out loud, how does that hit you? Is that something that you plan? Is that something that’s intentional?
GREENE: No, it’s not. My association with those guys, I mean, they’re all about 20 years younger than me, but, you know, I didn’t even realize who Andrew was—Andrew Peterson—until he’d probably been doing what he was doing for 10 years or so. But once I saw somebody writing songs at that level and being that kind of excellent, he was given that kind of excellence in music and in the way he thought about what he did and the way he loved his audience, I thought I just got to get to know this guy. And then, you know, that brought me into this whole world of singer songwriters, people like Andy Gullahorn and Jill Phillips and Andy Osenga and so many more just great people. And they have, a lot of times, they’re not the kind of artists that you would hear on commercial radio, Christian radio or whatever. But they have very loyal followings and for good reason. They’re just authentic in what do and the way they speak of their faith through their songs or the way they craft their world of art in such a way that Jesus shines through it. So I just wanted to be around them and I’m glad they’ve let me hang around a little bit. So if they’re getting something from me, that’s that’s a miracle.
SMITH: Well, they say they are. I can certainly believe it and kind of see it in the way you guys work together. And just in particular, it’s hard to do this in a podcast, Buddy, but I want to expose our listeners to this one particular video. You mentioned Andy Gullahorn. It was also Jeff Taylor and Andrew Peterson playing a song at Laity Lodge in Texas. How did that come about?
GREENE: Well, we’ve been all going to Laity for a number of years, one of our favorite places to go for retreats and things. And I think they had recently gotten a videographer on staff and they just wanted to explore the possibilities with the music people that came out there. And so they have so many cool spaces, you know, whether they’re interior or outside someplace and that day we went up to Box Canyon, traipsed up there with all of our instruments and the video equipment and just set up and recorded a few songs. And it was great and it was trying to early in our friendship. I think we’d probably been knowing Andrew and Andy for you know, only a couple of years at that point.
SMITH: Yeah. Well, it was In the Night, which was a song that Andrew had already done, but I don’t remember there being a harmonica part in it on the studio recording. And the thing that I loved about it because I know that song a bit was just how organic your part felt in that song. And just how, you know, you guys were just kinda like standing in an open — it’s not really exactly a field, but you know, in this canyon, like you say, just kind of standing around playing together. Had y’all rehearsed that very much?
GREENE: Oh no. And, you know, I think that’s what speaks to them is one of the reasons I liked that so much is they are very organic in the way they approach their art. So they’re not trying to make it always sound like the record or anything like that. They’re really just looking for a good, you know, experience every time they do a song. And I’m kind of the same way. So is Jeff. Jeff has traveled with me on the road 10 or 15 years. And I mean we love it when something happens that’s never happened before. So I think that was something shared among everybody in that scenario you just described. And it is with most of the people that I’ve met in that camp of musicians and songwriters, artists. I would include Sarah Groves with that. But yeah, I’m really heartened by that generation of musicians—Sandra McCracken, there’s just so many of them. Randy Goodgame, what he’s doing with family and children-oriented things. In fact I’ll be doing a Slugs and Bugs taping tomorrow. So I’ve really enjoyed it. At this stage in my career, they really validate me as much as anything.
SMITH: Well, Buddy, if there’s one song that we would go out on from that Looking Back album, what would it be?
GREENE: Oh gosh. You know, maybe there’s a song in there that I wrote with Julie Lee and Kenny Hudson. Julie Lee is a wonderful singer-songwriter and Kenny Hudson is a great multi-instrumentalist. He’s played with a number of bands out there. And we got to get them on it. Do you know these people I’m talking about?
SMITH: Well, I know Kenny pretty well. I’m from Athens. I mean, I’m from Marietta, but I went to the University of Georgia and Vigilantes of Love was an early passion. And Kenny played with a VOL and Bill Melanie for awhile so I’ve gotten to know Kenny a little bit. And Katie, Katie Hudson.
GREENE: Yeah. Katie is great. We have known them for a long time. And so one day we got together on a writing project and wrote a song and it’s called All Things Sad. And it’s kind of based on the line from the Lord of the Rings at the end, you know, when Frodo wakes up and sees that all his friends are alive, Gandalf’s alive. And he says something to the effect of what’s happened? Are all things sad becoming untrue? Or something like that. And so we kind of wrote a song based on that. And by the time it was finished, I just looked at it and I thought, man, if I’ve ever tried to sum up my life and my journey in a song, that’s it. So maybe I’d point to that one.
SMITH: Amen. Great. Well, Buddy, thanks so much for being on the program. It’s been really great.
GREENE: It’s been a pleasure. Thanks Warren, for having me and call anytime.
SMITH: I appreciate that. Thanks very much.
GREENE: All right.