The ambassador of Southern rock Michael Buffalo Smith talks about the story and revival of Dixie rock

"Rock and roll taught me to just be myself, which also happens to be the advice given to me by my Grandfather many years ago. Be yourself and follow your heart."

Michael Buffalo Smith: The Ambassador of Southern Rock

Michael Buffalo Smith has been writing about music and performing for over 30 years, working with everyone from The Allman Brothers Band to Delaney & Bonnie to George Harrison, from Billy Bob Thornton to Charlie Daniels. He has written countless feature articles, review and interviews in magazines, and authored several books. His memoir, PRISONER OF SOUTHERN ROCK, with a foreword by Billy Bob Thornton. Before becoming a writer, Buffalo worked as a Radio Personality for many years and went to college to study acting and improvisation.

Buffalo invites you to join him as he interviews stars of the past, present and future in the worlds of music, movies, literature and more. He is a veteran of rock-n-roll, having performed in bands and solo since 1981, when he formed his first band in his hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina. Buffalo holds a degree in Theatrical Arts and has garnered leading roles in over 75 plays, making the stage his "second home." Buffalo has recorded five albums including his latest, Something Heavy, featuring Pete Carr, the late George McCorkle (Marshall Tucker) , the late Jo Jo Billingsley (Lynyrd Skynyrd) and The Crawlers. He has been invited onstage to perform with many artists and groups including The Marshall Tucker Band, The Charlie Daniels Band, Paul Thorn, Jerry La Croix, Artimus Pyle, Grinderswitch, Southern Rock Allstars, Bonnie Bramlett, Molly Hatchet, Ed King, The Winters Brothers Band, Montgomery Gentry, Bekka Bramlett, Lee Ann Womack, and many others.

Smith has opened shows for Blackfoot, Marshall Tucker, Charlie Daniels,Artimus Pyle Band, Molly Hatchet, Southern Rock Allstars, Pat Travers,Grinderswitch, Johnny Paycheck, Dr. Hook and The Medicine Show, Little Texas, Tommy Crain and The Cross Town Allstars, and others. Buffalo appears both solo acoustic, in duets and with the band BUFFALO HUT COALITION.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How important was music in your life?

Music is, and always has been, the single most important thing in my life. It was music that made the happy times happy, and music that helped me through my darkest hours. Even in my childhood, I latched onto the music my Dad listened to, like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Hank Williams, while also listening to my Mother’s old records. She listened to everything from Marty Robbins to Elvis Presley, but also folks like Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday. She had a huge stack of those old 78 RPM records – pop, country and blues too. Then The Beatles came along in ’63, I was in the first grade, and like everybody else, I wanted to do what they were doing. Over the years I listened to virtually everything – from The Allman Brothers Band to Alice Cooper, Eric Clapton to The Ramones.

How does music affect your mood and inspiration?

Music can lift my spirits like nothing else. It also gives me energy, makes me happy and makes me feel more creative. As a writer of both non-fiction and fiction, I always have music playing when I write. I couldn’t write without it. As far as playing music, after I play a show, especially with my band, I am higher than any drug could ever take me. I always said, who needs drugs; just give me rock and roll!

"Music is, and always has been, the single most important thing in my life. It was music that made the happy times happy, and music that helped me through my darkest hours."

How do you describe Michael Buffalo Smith sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

My sound I guess is, I suppose, like all other musicians. It’s the sum of its parts. All of the various styles and influences baked into a pie. Certainly there’s a lot of local influence, like my hometown band Marshall Tucker and Charlie Daniels, but there’s influences from James Taylor, Bob Dylan, and dare I say Frank Zappa and even Bruce Springsteen.

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

Well, that is best told in my latest book, Prisoner of Southern Rock (Mercer University Press). And it’s all in how you define interesting. I had a bacterial infection in 1998 and actually died TWICE in surgery. That was interesting. After I started GRITZ Magazine in 1998, I ended up interviewing and getting to know countless musicians I had grown up loving. Those were a great ten years. Many of the bands brought me onstage to jam, so I ended up performing many times with Molly Hatchet, Marshall Tucker, Charlie Daniels and others. Those were thrilling times. The best moment in my career (so far) was singing “Can’t You See” with The Marshall Tucker Band in front of my hometown friends during a sold out Volunteer Jam show in 2007. There have not been any worst moments, other than my ongoing health issues.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

There have been many. There’s an annual charity show Charlie Daniels stages each year in December in Florida for The Angelus. There are lots of great jam memories there. One night I sang and played on “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” with The Charlie Daniels Band, former CDB guitarist Tommy Crain, members of Marshall Tucker Band, wrestler Hulk Hogan, members of Molly Hatchet, Confederate Railroad, Trick Pony, cartoonist Guy Gilchrist, and a bunch of others. Great fun. Memorable gigs? Again, so many. I guess opening for Blackfoot in front of thousands of screaming bikers and biker chicks. Oh yeah. That was fun.

"I do miss the openness of the old jams. It just seems like back during the 70s you never knew who was going to show up on stage playing together." (Photo; Buffalo and Charlie Daniels)

Why did you think that the Southern Rock music and culture continues to generate such a devoted following?

Because it’s real, and honest. It’s music for the workingman. Blue collar. It combines everything my generation grew up on – country music, blues, rock and roll, and sets it all up with lyrics about working hard and playing hard, men and women who are real- no matter if they are cooking up some poke sallet, fishing, driving a truck, riding a Harley…. It’s all about the honesty.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? Which memory makes you smile?

I have been really blessed to meet so many folks that I simply adored from afar back when I was in High School. Some I can now even call friends. I have grown to dearly love Bonnie Bramlett. I have had way too much fun with Doug Gray of Marshall Tucker Band. He’s a great guy. Sadly, many of the folks have passed on in just the past few years. The happy memories of time shared with these folks always makes me smile, with a tear in my eye. Jakson Spires, Tommy Crain, George McCorkle, Dru Lombar, JoJo Billingsley, Ray Brand, Tony Heatherly, Frankie and Danny Toler, and just this month, John D. Wyker of Sailcat. I learned a lot from all of these folks in the short time that I knew them, and I feel that it is my job to help keep their memories alive with my writing. And then there’s Billy Bob Thornton. A few years ago I did an interview with the Oscar-Winning actor, who was touring with his band The Boxmasters. We hit it off, and I have had great times talking to him about music. He loves it as much as I do, and is a huge fan of The Allmans, Marshall Tucker and Grinderswitch, to name but a few.

What do you miss most nowadays from the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of music?

Well, I do miss the openness of the old jams. It just seems like back during the 70s you never knew who was going to show up on stage playing together. As time moved on and the record companies became more and more involved they started looking upon the jams as more of a commodity that they could capitalize upon. So that is when what I call the brotherhood began to crumble at its foundations. No longer were musicians allowed to simply get up on stage or drop by the studio and record with friends just for the fun of it, they had to run it through management and by the time several guys in three-piece suits voted yes or no the magic was all but gone. Don't get me wrong; there are still some outstanding southern rock jams out there. Charlie Daniels has always endeavored to keep that magic alive – after all, he's the Godfather of Southern rock. Warren Haynes brought Southern rock jamming back to the forefront in the late 1980s after he joined the Allman Brothers band. Since then, Warren has brought together southern and classic rock musicians, country artists, jazz players, blues players and just plain talented artists from all around the world. I've got to say, I do see more jamming recently than I have over the past several years – and this is a good thing. As for my hopes and fears for the future of music, I can truthfully say I have no fears. Music will always find a way. Whether it's the old model of the major record label signing the bands and putting money behind them and then robbing them blind; oir the newer model of independent artists recording and releasing their own products, the entire industry is always evolving. I have my own opinions on things of course. I guess I'm old school in that I’ve never been able to get nearly as excited over a compact disc as I was over a vinyl album. It's not just the larger format with all the wonderful liner notes and inserts and photographs, it's also the sound. The warm analog recordings simply far exceed the thin sound of a digital product. Of course most artists have figured out now that the best way to go is to record their project in analog and then mix it down digitally. I've been really happy to see bands releasing albums on vinyl again as well as all of the re-issues on vinyl albums. The MP3 format is very convenient for sure, but the sound is so compressed that you are really missing out on a lot. My biggest hope for the music industry is that the consumers will come to realize that illegally downloading music is not cool. For some reason, a lot of folks, especially are younger generation, have a sense of entitlement. They feel like the music should be free, period. The only problem with that is, it doesn't work that way. Would you go into the doctor’s office and not pay? Why should an artist work their ass off on project, invest tons of his own money, and go head over heels in debt only to have his record illegally downloaded. It's just not fair. And I don't care if we're talking about Blackberry Smoke, Taylor Swift or the Allman Brothers Band. Artists deserve to be paid for their hard work just the same as anyone else is paid. Okay, I'll get down off of the soapbox now.

What are the lines that connect the Blues with Soul and continue to Country, Rock n’ Roll and Southern Rock?

Well, it all goes back to the blues. I'm talking about the original blues of the American South. Folks like Robert Johnson and Blind Willie McTell. All of those blues artists born out of the cotton fields incorporated Gospel music into their blues and somewhere along the line that music ran headlong into hillbilly music. Then along comes Elvis Presley, a white boy with a black soul, who mixes it all up in a big old pot of gumbo. Here's this kid singing gospel, country, blues and eventually rock 'n roll- setting fire to a whole new wave of musical styles. Some folks have called Elvis the original Southern rocker. I really can't argue with that. But the southern rock music that we know and love is basically nothing more than a melting pot of various musical styles. So your southern rockers are made up of equal parts country, rock, jazz, blues, gospel, and more. When it comes right down to it, southern rock is just a name that someone came up with somewhere along the line. I have heard it attributed to Jerry Wexler, which would make perfect sense. But in all truth, Southern rock is a state of mind. It's all about the people, their common loves and interests and their own musical roots.

Do you believe in the existence of real Dixie Rock nowadays?

Real Dixie rock is alive and well. It's alive with Gary Rossington and Johnny Van Zant; it's alive when the Allman Brothers band; it's alive with Doug Gray and Marshall Tucker; there are still plenty of old school Dixie rockers alive and kicking, and they had been joined by new generations who keep the traditions alive and well. As a matter of fact, I feel like we are trending toward a Southern rock revival. It would not surprise me at all to see southern rock come back around in a huge way very soon.

What do you learn about yourself from the Rock n’ Roll culture? What is the best advice ever given you?

Rock and roll taught me to just be myself, which also happens to be the advice given to me by my Grandfather many years ago. Be yourself and follow your heart. It's as simple as that.

"It combines everything my generation grew up on – country music, blues, rock and roll, and sets it all up with lyrics about working hard and playing hard, men and women who are real- no matter if they are cooking up some poke sallet, fishing, driving a truck, riding a Harley…. It’s all about the honesty." (Photo: Buffalo and Billy Bob Thornton)

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the southern rock circuits?

Well, emotionally, one of the things that really got to me was the recent “Skydog” boxed set. It is simply amazing. Duane's daughter, Galadrielle, did an outstanding job on it. The music is awesome and the liner notes book alone is worth the price of admission. Duane is such an icon and nobody deserved a lush tribute more than he did. Another product that simply blew me away was the deluxe reissue last year of “Brothers and Sisters.” That one has always been one of my favorite albums and now being able to enjoy the outtakes and alternate versions and read all the extensive liner notes is a sheer joy. And if you want to talk about ecstatic moments, the Rock Legends Cruise II that took place about a year ago was one of the most fun experiences my entire life. There was music going on continuously. So much, in fact, that I had a hard time deciding which venue to go to at what point. Although I had just they come very ill prior to the cruise I still managed to have the time of my life. One of the highlights of the cruise was the Marshall Tucker band's set. It went only until the wee hours of the morning and Doug brought out player after player to jam with the band – old-school style. There were members of 38 Special, Foghat, Black Oak Arkansas, and countless others. Now, let me be perfectly clear, the guests jammers were great, but so is The Marshall Tucker Band. Today’s lineup sounds excellent, especially Chris Hicks. That young man rocks.  I got to see multiple sets by Molly Hatchet, Devon Allman, Swampdawamp, Kentucky Headhunters, Atlanta Rhythm Section, Paul Rogers- man, it was amazing. And did I mention Artimus Pyle and his band playing a blistering set of Skynyrd songs, including several with Bob Burns on a second drum set. History right there, buddy. Plus, there’s such a leisurely attitude onboard. You can easily walk up and talk to your favorite stars, as long as you do it with respect that is.

"Real Dixie rock is alive and well. It's alive with Gary Rossington and Johnny Van Zant; it's alive when the Allman Brothers band; it's alive with Doug Gray and Marshall Tucker; there are still plenty of old school Dixie rockers alive and kicking, and they had been joined by new generations who keep the traditions alive and well. As a matter of fact, I feel like we are trending toward a Southern rock revival." (Photos: Buffalo with Bob Burns & Artimus Pyle of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts)

Where would you really want to go via a time machine and what from your memorabilia would you put in?

Ah, the old-time machine question. Well there are a lot of different variables and that question. If I had a time machine and could go back to certain times for a brief visit and then return to my time, that would be fun. I wouldn't want to live out my life in any other time than the one I have lived in. It's been great. But I would get in my time machine and go back to 1969 and attend the Woodstock Festival, making sure to avoid the brown acid.

Then I would set the machine to go back to the first volunteer jam that Charlie had in Tennessee. One by one I would travel through history and attend those jams. I would go back and be in the audience during the recording of the Fillmore East album. Of course every time I went back I would be sure to bring some goodies with me for my memorabilia collection. The last thing I would do would be to get into my machine and travel back and start this interview all over again!

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