Buddy Harmon: Nashville Superstar

“They say nobody can play a country shuffle like I do, I don’t know,” laughed Buddy Harman modestly when asked if he is best known for any one style.

A pioneer of the Nashville recording scene, Harman was really the first full time studio drummer in that area, and he has certainly not limited himself to any one style, having done an excess of 15,000 sessions. While he has played for such people as Dolly Parton, Waylon Jennings, Roy Clark, Chet Atkins and Willie Nelson, that’s Harman on Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman,” the Everly Brother’s string of hits including “Bye Bye Love,” “Cathy’s Clown,” and “Wake Up Little Susie,” and he’s played for such people as Brenda Lee, Perry Como and Simon and Garfunkel.

Growing up in Nashville, Harman was greatly influenced by the fact that both his mother and father played in a band, and once in a while, they would take their son to a job. Watching his mother on drums had a profound effect, and at age 14, Harman decided to make drumming his profession. While working as an usher at a local movie theatre, he purchased his first set, a Gene Krupa model Slingerland set, paying $3.00 per week, and everywhere Harman went, his snare was sure to go. In fact, he would wait until the theatre emptied each night and sit and practice before closing up.

Instead of being mostly affected by the Nashville country music and the Grand Old Opry, Harman was mostly interested in big band music, citing Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich as two prime musical influences, and although he has had limited opportunities to play jazz, it has remained one of his greatest loves. “I had a recording of Tommy Dorsey’s ‘Not So Quiet Please,’ featuring Buddy Rich, and also ‘Lover’ by Gene Krupa and when I heard those, I knew what I wanted to be.”

During high school, he got a band together, which played wherever it could, and upon graduation, Harman enlisted in the Navy, managing to play on each bandstand at every base. “I tried college after the Navy, but found I didn’t like it because I didn’t want to teach. I wanted to be a performer.” Instead, he enrolled at the Roy Knapp School of Percussion in Chicago where he remained for three years.

Returning to Nashville in 1952 to settle family matters and work through a divorce, Harman decided to stay because, “I knew a lot of people down there and I thought it would be a good place to break in playing. I didn’t really know what I was going to do there because I didn’t really dream of it becoming as big of a recording center, but I was just trying to get some training and I went on the road with a few territory bands and I played a few strip joints,” he laughed. “That’s really a good learning ground for drummers, though. You really can learn a lot like cues and reading music, things that every drummer should probably learn, not necessarily playing for the strip, but playing for shows.”

But because the music scene was just beginning to grow, after playing some clubs and doing a little road work, Harman was mentioned by some of the local musicians who suggested he be added on recordings. “At that time they rarely used drums on anything that was recorded out of Nashville. In fact, a lot of them didn’t use electric guitars at that time either. We got to use just a snare drum with brushes only. It was just to fatten up the rhythm sound, which is what they wanted, but they didn’t want anybody to know it was a drum,” he recalled.

His first session was with old time piano player, Moon Mulligan, and Harman says, “It was quite an experience. You have to play entirely different on sessions than on another type job. Everything you play is going to go on that record and be heard many times, and it all has to fit. On the road, you can make mistakes or rush or drag, and while it may not make people particularly happy, you can get by. That performance is gone forever once you’ve played that, unless it’s recorded. You can play louder on the road and open up more too. We have opened up more on drums in the last ten years in the studios here, finally, but when I first went in, I didn’t know either, and I had to pay my dues. There was no precedent for me to learn from, though, so I just had to figure it out. I got the idea of what they wanted and it wasn’t like I was playing with a big band. It was like, give them a rhythm sound that they could live with to fatten the rhythm guitar up. I tried as much as I could get by with, as far as playing certain things on records. A lot of times they would say it was too busy and I would say that I heard it on another record and it sounded good, but they weren’t quite ready for that at the time. It was strictly keep a good beat and stay out of the way of the guitar for a long time. It had to be taken in degrees. We couldn’t just rush in there and start playing. Ultimately, I think that’s one of the reasons I got in doing a lot of sessions, because I really did keep it simple and play what they wanted, and for that time, that’s what was needed.”

In 1955, Harman was still playing at a club in addition to doing sessions, however, when he finally realized he was having to send a sub to the club more often than not, he decided to give up the club work and devote his full energies to recording.

“It was kind of like one big happy family around here. Everybody was just really into it, trying to make this a big recording center, and everybody was working together, and we worked many a long hour. We would do three or four sessions a day, six and seven days a week, and we would be in the studio all day and night. Many times I would leave the studio about 7:00 a.m., go home, clean up, eat breakfast and head out to the studio for another full day of recording. Sometimes I even slept on the couch at the studio, but I loved it.”

By the mid 60’s, he was probably averaging 600 sessions a year and had a near monopoly on supplying his beat on records for almost everyone, in addition to any soundtracks and jingles recorded in the area. As Nashville began to branch out and new producers began to record there, what had once been almost exclusively country became pop and rock as well.

“I think the biggest thrill I ever got was when I was called for the first Elvis Presley session I did,” he said enthusiastically. “I want to be tactful about this, because he had his own drummer, but a lot of times, back in those days, people had their own musicians, yet wanted to use others also. Since Elvis was kind of a rocker, Chet Atkins decided to be nice and use two drummers, so he called me in and both of us played all the time. Even on the movie soundtracks we did that, and sometimes they even added a third drummer when we went to Hollywood to do those soundtracks.”

Becoming one of Elvis’ steady drummers, Harman remained with him throughout his early career and until Elvis began to tour later on. “It was great working with him. He was a great guy, and to work with somebody of that stature was quite a thrill. I had recorded with a lot of biggies, but I guess he was really considered one of the biggest.”

Although Harman occasionally went to New York and Hollywood for jobs, after a while he felt he didn’t want to jeopardize his standing in Nashville by being absent too much.

“So I decided this was it and I just went ahead and put my jazz and big band days behind me and really enjoyed whatever I played.” Afraid to sound immodest, Harman hesitated before answering how he learned to execute the variety of styles during his career, but finally said, “Everybody just said that I had a natural feel for whatever we were doing. I had always listened to all kinds of music and I didn’t have a closed ear to any kind and I liked to learn. I wanted to be as well rounded as I could and I felt that I could sit up there and do a country song or sit up there and play with a big jazz band. Whatever came up, I wanted to be able to do it and that was great because we did some big band type jingles too.

“A good studio drummer has to have a good beat and not rush or drag, which was what I was told was one of my best assets. He has to be tempered just right and has to be able to get along with people and want to work with everybody. He has to give his ideas on what he thinks and try to create and really go at it.

“The artists that got more out of me than anybody else in the world were the Everly Brothers. They always had great ideas and they would say, ‘Try something different,’ or ‘What would this sound like?’ Then we’d work with that and come up with something really different for that time.

“If I come away from a session feeling like I’ve done a great job, the best I can do, and have really helped get those people a hit, then it’s a positive session. There are a lot of reasons you can come away from a negative session, but there haven’t been too many of those. Sometimes arguments happen or somebody is tempermental on the session, but we don’t have a lot of that here.”

Having done over 15,000 sessions, how does Harman keep his playing fresh and unmechanical? “I’ll tell you, if you didn’t enjoy it, you couldn’t, but I enjoy it and every session is different. You come in and you have to start all over again and sometimes it really happens great and other times it’s just average. But it’s still fresh because it’s enjoyable.”

He, in fact, entered a new phase of his career two years ago, at age 50, as a member of a band called the Nashville Superpickers. Comprised of a group of top studio people, Henry Strzelecki (bass), Phil Baugh (guitar), Buddy Emmons (steel), Willie Rainsford (piano and vocals), Terry McMillan (harmonica, percussion and vocals) and Harman, the band was originally formed to perform on a one-night basis for the Austin City Limits Show. People were so responsive to the music, which Harman described as “modern Country music,” however, that the members decided to keep it going.

“It felt great to play live after all that time,” Harman explained. “We all said, ‘Hey, this is fun. Let’s do this more often.’ Also, probably due to the economy, a lot of the smaller labels aren’t recording as much as they used to, and due to a lot more musicians on the scene and a lot of new producers who come into town who maybe want the younger set, for which I don’t blame them, work has slacked a little. By ’78, things started slowing down a little bit because of the influx of musicians coming into Nashville and everybody got a little piece of the pie and it thinned it out for everybody else. There are still plenty of sessions and I’m still doing a lot, but it has gotten less, so we decided that this could take up some of the slack time and it’s a lot of fun and we’re really enjoying it. I can’t say that I’m wild about travelling a lot, but it’s the only way you can get there, so to play those live shows, you’ve got to travel.”

Although the music does not lend itself to lengthy solos, Harman is enjoying being spotlighted some, but says it took some getting used to. “I remember playing down at the Carousel Club, back in the days when drum solos were hot stuff and you’d sit there and take about a 20 or 30 minute solo and drive everybody bananas, but it was fun for me. I hadn’t done that for a long time, so I had to ease back into it a little bit.

“If you’re doing a solo where you have to stay in time for eight or sixteen bars and then everybody comes back in, it has to be pretty simple or you can lose the band real easily. But I like the kind where the band just turns it over to you and you can go and change tempos and do anything you want to do. You can get down to nothing and build to a climax and maybe even a couple of times, and then bring them back into the original tempo. That’s the kind I used to like a lot, even though I don’t do a lot of that with this band. I do take a couple of short solos which I really enjoy.”

Last year Harman even agreed to go on short road trips with Floyd Cramer, whose drummer left. “We go back a long time,” Harman explained. “Floyd used to be a studio musician in Nashville as well, and we worked together a lot, and when he asked me to go out with him, I said yes because I was enjoying playing live so much again. He’s a great guy to work with and it’s a new experience because he works so much with symphonies, which is really wild. You have about 80 or 90 pieces behind the group because he does a lot of things with strings and horns and it’s really great having all those musicians behind you.”

Although he practices on a pad in the various hotel rooms on the road, Harman says he usually doesn’t get the chance to warm up before a live show. “There just usually isn’t the time or the place,” he stated. “Sometimes on a session, I’ll go a little early and work with the engineer for a little while to get a drum sound, but on live shows, we’ll do a sound check and that’s about it.”

Having secured an endorsement with Tama about a year and a half ago with the help of Tommy Winkler of Winkler’s Drum Shop, Harman has two sets, one for session work and one for road work. For live shows, he uses a 20″ bass drum, 5 1/2″ snare and 12″ and 13″ mounted toms with a 14″ floor tom, all wood. In the studio, his set consists of a 22″ bass drum, 6 1/2″ snare with 13″ and 14″ mounted toms and a 16″ floor tom.

He uses Remo heads, double headed on the road “because I’m playing more solos and I need a little more stick rebound and a little more tension on the heads, so I use the double headed, thinner heads. For sessions I use one head because I feel it gets a better sound in the studio and there aren’t as many overtones and overrings and I use one of the thicker heads because I don’t need the rebound. I am endorsing Deadringers. I’m crazy about them because they’re the exact kind of muffling that I like.

“Every drummer has his own tuning likes and I guess they try to copy some tuning off of some records and things, but I use a looser tuning in the studio than on the road to get a bigger, fatter sound in the studio and a little change in pitch when you hit it. Every drummer tunes to his own ear and what he likes to hear and if you had 10 different drummers, you’d get 10 different tunings.”

His cymbal set-up remains standard for both road and record work, using all Zildjian cymbals with 14″ hi-hats, 22″ and 20″ rides, an 18″ sizzle and a 16″ crash.

He is currently using Riff Rite Drumsticks, a new stick made of graphite, which is supposed to outlast wooden sticks. His rock model sticks are comparable to the wooden 5A which is what he previously used.

While he had great difficulty recalling specific career highlights, Harman has played for three U.S. presidents. The first was at the White House for President Kennedy with Chet Atkins, the second for President Ford at his golf tournament in Vale, Colorado with Floyd Cramer, and the third for President Carter at the White House, as drummer for Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn and Tom T. Hall.

“As far as highlights in the recording field, I guess it would be when I was working with Elvis. To work with people you’ve heard about for a long time, and here they come into record and you get to work with them. Things were always exciting. I even did something with Vic Damone years ago, and he’s a great singer. I almost got to work with Frank Sinatra about four or five years ago, and I would have really given anything to have done that. We were booked to record with him and something happened and they cancelled it and it was never re-booked. That would have been a thrill of a lifetime because I have admired that man forever.”

Harman would like to enter the field of producing later, as well, but currently his goals for the future primarily center around the Nashville Superpickers, and he hopes a major record label will become involved as well. “I would really like to get the group going and become an act, comparable, say, to he Charlie Daniels Band. I see the session work becoming less and less, and I think it would be great to have that recognition and identifiable role. I’ve been in the background for many years, which I have enjoyed very much, but I think I would like that now with the group. I enjoy playing out in front of people again and getting that feedback from them. We went up and did the Tom Snyder Show recently with Slim Whitman and that was a lot of fun. I really enjoy those things now. For about 18 years, I wouldn’t go out. I was just too busy, so all of a sudden, I’ve done a complete about-face and really am enjoying the playing out, especially when they appreciate it. When we played in England last summer, the crowd went crazy. I understand they follow music and know who is on every album and know all about you over there and it’s a real turn on to play for people when they really enjoy what it is you’re doing. I would have liked doing what Buddy Rich has done and have my own big band like that, but I’m no Buddy Rich and I went a different, route than he did and I’ve enjoyed it nonetheless.

“I think what I got into was kind of unique. I don’t think that situation will come about anymore, getting into that many sessions. The best thing to do, before you go into a session and blow it because you don’t understand what is happening, would be to play demo sessions and learn what it’s all about and learn what’s expected of you and how to get what you have to without wasting time. A lot of producers have brought in new musicians because they heard they were really great and then ended up scrapping the session or having to put somebody else over the new guy. He might have been a great player, but he just didn’t understand what to do or how to do it because he didn’t have any studio experience.

“It’s pretty rough now to break into the Nashville scene. It got to where there was no way to break in for a while, in the earlier years, because there was pretty much of a lock on it. It became easier, though, later, because more studios opened up and I couldn’t be everywhere and that opened the door for other people to get in. It’s harder now because we went through about 10 years where we had a large growth here and more drummers came in and they got session work and contributed quite a bit. From competition, though, you start playing better too. We never dreamed it would get like this.

“I’m 52, but I feel like I’m 35,” he said in conclusion. “It seems strange to say that I’m 52. I had dreaded the time when that age would get here, but now that it’s here, it’s fine. I still love doing what I’m doing. I’ve helped make a lot of hits for a lot of people and I’m hoping we can get one or two for our group. That would be one more ‘role’ to play in my drumming career,” he laughed at the obvious play on words. “Did I really say that?”