Singer-songwriter, guitarist and ace harmonica player Buddy Greene has been living in Nashville for a long while now, where he’s played with Jerry Reed and recorded with the likes of Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Riders in the Sky and Bela Fleck. But Macon is where Greene was raised, and where his parents still live. And he comes here often, to be with family and friends, and to revisit the place of many of his earliest musical inspirations.
“I think the first thing that made me realize that Macon was a special place was Otis Redding,” Greene says. “Early on it was Elvis and Pat Boone. But by the time I was 11 or 12 years old, I was starting to pay attention to soul music. And I remember seeing Otis one time. I was with a friend down on Cotton Avenue, at Bibb Music Co. We were on our way into the store when Otis came walking out, bigger than life, holding a guitar, and he got into this big, souped-up convertible.”
Greene remembers sneaking into the balcony at the rhythm and blues variety shows at the City Auditorium, where stars such as James Brown and Arthur Conley performed. But like so many kids who grew up in the ‘60s, the Beatles captured his imagination. In fact, Buddy’s first group was a Beatles cover band called the Flying Beatles. That soon evolved into Buddy’s Buddies. “And very quickly, we started playing Motown and Memphis soul,” Greene recalls.
In the following years, Greene got back to the roots of popular music, as he was stirred by the Allman Brothers and others to explore the blues. He also started listening to early folk, bluegrass and country after hearing the Will the Circle Be Unbroken album.
All those influences are apparent in the music Greene makes today. But he says the direction of his life changed around the time he went to work for Jerry Reed, who hired Greene as a rhythm guitarist and background singer, but soon discovered his skills as a harmonica player. Greene played with Reed from 1983 to 1987, a time he calls “a great apprenticeship.” And it was his return to the church during that period that he says set the stage for his career ever since.
“I’d been raised in the church,” Greene says. “But I was a prodigal son. I was drifting away from everything my parents stood for. By the end of my 20s, I was really spiritually hungry and wanting to know if there was any truth out there. So I started reading the Bible again, and sneaking into church and listening to sermons. Long story short, over a three-to-four year period, I came to faith in Christ, and I got the job with Jerry. That whole time that I was touring with him, and developing more as a musician, I started writing songs—and mostly songs about my faith.”
Greene’s songwriting brought him to the attention of producer Bob MacKenzie, one of the great movers and shakers of contemporary Christian music. MacKenzie offered Greene his first recording contract and introduced him to gospel superstar Bill Gaither, who took Greene on the road with him.
“I walked into this whole new world of Christian and gospel music, which I didn’t know anything about,” Greene says. “So it was probably a pretty good thing that I landed with Bill, because he loved entertainment, and the fact that all my training was as an entertainer kind of appealed to him.”
Since 1986, Greene has made nearly a dozen Christian music recordings, including a Christmas album featuring “Mary Did You Know” (co-written by Buddy and Mark Lowry), a song that has become something of a modern classic, with versions by artists ranging from Kathy Mattea and Reba McEntire to Natalie Cole and Christopher Parkening and Kathleen Battle.
In 2002, Greene assembled a bunch of friends, including Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Ron Block, Chuck Leavell and Ashley Cleveland, for a duets album titled Rufus (his longtime nickname) that featured his harmonica playing and a batch of bluegrass, blues and gospel tunes, as well as a cover of the Beatles’ “All My Lovin.” Greene’s latest is Hymns and Prayer Songs, a vocal and instrumental collection of old and new hymns, with guests Kirk Whalum, the Whites, Russ Taff, Bonnie Keen and Kelly Willard.
“It’s been an interesting journey, the last almost 20 years now,” Greene says, “Being a quote-unquote gospel artist. The things that formed my songwriting and playing were probably more from the realm of bluegrass gospel, like the Stanley Brothers or the Louvin Brothers. And when I brought that into the world of contemporary Christian music, stylistically anyway, it was a real oddity. So I was always a marketing nightmare and continue to be. But after all these years, I have carved out a little niche.”