Buddy Jewell: Meaningful Stories & Topping the Chart
by Kara M. Bachman
When Buddy Jewell won the first season of the USA Network’s reality competition “Nashville Star,” he had no idea the impact he’d have on people. He never imagined his first Columbia Records recording would debut in the #1 slot on the Billboard Top Country Album chart. Even more unexpected, it scored as a crossover hit, hitting #13 on the Top 100 Pop Album chart. You’ll understand why if you recall the considerable airplay his “Sweet Southern Comfort” got at the time. It was everywhere.
Hearing Jewell reflect upon his success is fascinating. It seems not so much measured in those numbers or dollars, but how his music touches the people he encounters.
Another song from that album had personal significance to Jewell and, to this day, continues to be meaningful around the globe. “Help Pour Out the Rain (Lacey’s Song)” also landed with “Sweet Southern Comfort” in the top five of the singles charts. Jewell wrote it for his daughter, and it’s taken on a life of its own.
Something he neither intended nor imagined, Jewell said, “So many people associated that song with the loss of a loved one, and for a lot of them, it was children. Before my dad died, he said, ‘Son, find a way to make your mark on the world.’ And I didn’t know that’s how I’d do it. I can’t tell you how many thousands of people who have said, ‘I played that at my dad’s funeral.’”
Jewell said when he travels, people will come up to him after gigs and talk about how the song hit a vulnerable spot deep inside, how they related to it, how it helped them deal with things that seemed insurmountable.
“It’s a really humbling thing,” Jewell said. “You’re standing there and talking to a mother whose two-year-old drowned…it breaks your heart. What a blessing that God chose to use me to be a part of the healing process for so many.”
Jewell seems to have music running through his veins. His parents were from the little town of Dyess, Arkansas, which just happened to be the home of Johnny Cash, so even before Jewell sang on stage, his family intimately connected to the beating heart of country music.
“The Jewells and the Cashes interacted a lot during that time,” he recalled.
Jewell never knew Johnny Cash, but the legend’s music mightily influenced Jewell.
“From the time I had one of those RCA suitcase-looking record players, I was a Johnny Cash fan,” he said. “I picked up my first guitar when I was 14,” Jewell said. His uncles helped him learn the basics, and then he made investments in his future by saving money from his job as a grocery bagger. He used the savings to “buy songbooks with chords.”
He somehow fit music around the sports he played, such as football. He was so devoted to all his simultaneous passions he’d sometimes go to choir rehearsals still dressed in his sports uniforms. His mother pushed him even further …and thank goodness for that. He had “always been very shy,” so “my mom insisted that I sing in the children’s choir” at church. “Believe it or not, I still get nervous when I go on,” he said, laughing. “And if it’s people I know, it’s even worse.”
He paid his dues in Little Rock, where at around age 21, he was performing in bars and restaurants. He eventually “graduated” to a road band called White Oak. In time, Jewell moved to Nashville – where he’s lived for the past 30 years – and he’s a top singer for demo recordings. In 1993, mega-songwriters Don Schlitz and Fred Knobloch hired him for his first demo recordings. After nine years or so, he had created so many Jewell could no longer keep track.
Jewell’s public breakout came in 2003 with “Nashville Star.” Reality singing competitions were new back then, and the public had not tired yet of this new format for identifying promising talent.
“It was the first year after “American Idol” had their first winner,” Jewell said. “God saw fit to let me win the television show.” It had surprised Jewell, who, as the oldest contestant, didn’t think he’d have a chance.
“Miranda Lambert was on. She was like 19 years old,” he said, referencing his now-famous competition.
He’d thought at the time: “If I can just sell a few t-shirts and CDs, I’ll be happy.” He had no idea.
Since then, he’s had chart success most can only dream of, coupled with a fulfilling personal and professional life (he just became a grandfather …TWICE). He’s recorded several successful albums, including the most recent he’s still promoting, Bluebonnet Highway.
He’s looking forward to a music cruise he’s performing on that departs from Galveston in late April and early May. He’s also spending a week in Denmark soon, part of a full-circle moment for this boy whose parents were friends with a young Johnny Cash.
“I’m in rehearsals for a show with Johnny Cash’s youngest grandson,” he said.
Jewell loves performing live requests, staying in touch, and sharing energy with fans. He uses Facebook for this.
“Every Tuesday at 6 p.m. central, I do a Facebook Live called Tuesday’s Tune. I enjoy it,” he said.
What can fans expect in the future?
“If I have a goal, it’s to get enough stuff written to go into the studio next year,” he said.
He also says he won’t make hard-and-fast predictions for future work despite whetting fans’ appetites with this tidbit. He’s not one to rush his creative process. It all comes together when it comes together, and that’s that.
“I wanna write something meaningful,” he said.
The goal isn’t to rush music to market; it’s to develop more real songs that move people continents away and give meaning to his life. He wants to write things that remind him of why he loves country music. He wants to participate in a grand musical tradition he said is best illustrated by the music of Hank Snow or songs like Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” or Marty Robbins’ “El Paso.”
“It’s like reading a novel that is three-and-a-half minutes long,” he explained. “It’s the story songs. The lyrics.”
And we’re guessing Buddy Jewell fans can’t wait to hear what story he’ll tell next.