Saturday, August 05, 2017

WoodyFest #2, To Serve The Song: Interview with Terry "Buffalo" Ware

Terry “Buffalo” Ware serves at the heart of the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival (Woodyfest). He’s seemingly everywhere at once—at every venue, playing his own sets with collaborator Gregg Standridge and up on the main “Pastures of Plenty” stage behind various artists every night before leading the band in the Hootenanny for Huntington’s (Chorea, the disease that took Woody) on Sunday afternoon. The first time I visited the festival, I only hit the hootenanny, and I was blown away by the way Ware’s band seamlessly gave lift to over twenty different acts during the two hour set. My most distinct memory from that show was Ware’s presence, not drawing attention to himself but making sure everything worked as it should. I particularly remember the performance by the stunning Australian singer Audrey Auld (herself taken by cancer just four years later). She playfully called Ware “Buffy” and bragged that she alone among musicians could get away with this.

As Ware told The Oklahoman’s Brandy McDonnell, “Buffalo” actually came from a trip home to Woodward, Oklahoma during his college years. By college, Ware was already in his second rock band. He looked the part. “I had shoulder-length hair, wearing a fringe jacket, and I wore knee-high moccasins. And a friend of mine’s father saw me and said, ‘You know, you look like Buffalo Bill or something.’” His friends thought it was funny, and the razzing settled into a term of endearment and a nickname that clearly suggests something legendary about the guitarist.

That’s why Auld knew “Buffy” was mildly inappropriate. Terry “Buffalo” Ware is a musician’s musician. He’s backed everyone from Wanda Jackson to David Amram, Sam Baker, the Red Dirt Rangers and Eliza Gilkyson because all of these musicians want to play with him. He’s best known as a sideman with three greats—Ray Wylie Hubbard, Jimmy LaFave and John Fullbright. His playing makes anyone up front shine more brightly. On the four instrumental records he’s released since 2004, he dazzles in surprising, unassuming ways.

Each of his instrumental albums uses a sort of surf and drag framework but tackles the whole of popular music. Unlike any 21st Century radio station or music “scene,” he ties 70s guitar rock to 50s dance music, ancient folk songs lace with cool jazz, a cinematic reverie called “Cloud Dancer” casually attains all the heights suggested by its name, and he follows that with the grounded Western trot of “Lonely Dreams of the Silver Sparkle.” Latin rock folds into country rock and a gorgeous closing cover of Lulu’s 1967, “To Sir With Love.” 

For all of us who increasingly wonder where our place is in today’s celebrity-driven, commodity-oriented, genre-divided and individualistic music world, the music and musicianship of Terry “Buffalo” Ware is a lifeline. I’ve certainly clung to his music over the years. For all of the reasons above, I am thankful he granted an interview for my blog.

While I’m going to focus on Man with Guitar and Amp, I want to ask you about your career as a whole. I know one thing my friends and I have talked about a great deal is your empathy as a player. Not that showing off is a bad thing, but it’s not your style. Your playing stays in service to the singer and/or the arrangement as a whole. Would you say there’s something about what drew you to the guitar that gave you that sensibility?

The first music that I remember really affecting me was the rock 'n roll on the radio in my childhood, I was born in 1950, and also what I saw and heard on American Bandstand after we got our first television set. The first record I ever bought was "Breathless" by Jerry Lee Lewis, and I ordered the "autographed" copy from Bandstand. As far as guitar music in particular, I was a big fan of Al Caiola and The Ventures. I started piano lessons at 9, even though I'd been pecking around on it since I can remember, but even though I loved the early Ventures and other guitar instrumental music like "Apache" and "Raunchy," it took seeing The Beatles on Ed Sullivan to really light the guitar fire under me. I got my first guitar for Christmas in 1964. It was a Kay acoustic that my folks got with S&H Green Stamps. The first thing I did on it was pick out "Pipeline."

Both you and John Fullbright have a long piano history before the guitar, does that play a role here?

I know the piano background had a big impact on my guitar playing from the start because I immediately could "see" the notes. I also think with those early instrumentals and The Beatles influence, I had the importance of melody ingrained in me. I think that's the basic reason that I'm empathetic when I back up other artists. There's also two other major things that really steered me musically early on. One was an elective music theory course I took that was offered after school when I was in the 9th grade by a wonderful music teacher. The other was an intersession improvisation class I took in college during a Christmas break one year. The teacher of that course emphasized that the whole idea of improvising was that you are creating another melody. So I feel like I've always had a melodic approach to my guitar playing. I can't remember who I heard say it first, but I believe that when you play a solo it ought to be something you can sing. And as you pointed out, the most important thing is to serve the song. Without it, you don't have anything.

How would you describe the progression between your albums? Is each one simply a series of new instrumental ideas, or have you found yourself looking at the goal of each album in a slightly different way? To that point, this album doesn’t have the “reverb” in the title [the past three were Ridin’ the Reverb Range, Reverb Confidential and Reverb Babylon], which suggests it’s not part of the trilogy, yet it sounds to me like an extension. Is there a break in your mind or simply a different title idea?

The first album I did, Caffeine Dreams, was in 1979. Side 1 was vocal, side 2 was instrumental. The vocal side is pretty painful. The songs really aren't good at all. I wound up putting the tracks from the instrumental side on my second album, Buffalo Tracks, which was those songs and some other instrumentals I'd recorded on my old 4-track reel-to-reel over the years. Not long after I threw that one out I started writing and recording Riding the Reverb Range. By that time the reel-to-reel had broken down and I had a hard disc recorder. That was before I had my little studio in my converted garage, and I had the recorder set up on the coffee table in my living room. I might add that my wife, Jeannie, is very supportive, understanding and patient. I followed that album with Reverb Confidential and "Reverb Babylon. I decided three albums with "reverb" in the title was enough, and even though they weren't conceived as a trilogy I guess they are so to speak. And yeah, I'd say that each album is pretty much just a series of new ideas. I've always got a few instrumental ideas in various stages cooking.

I love “Jessie’s Eyes” (a very good quality in an album opener) because I get lost in it every time it comes on. You begin with this Thin Lizzy-type rhythm and something like a 15 note riff that defies expectations. Then, a new riff structure slows down the movement over the rhythm before building a kind of cathedral of sound. Can you talk a little about the inspiration for this?

That song evolved from an idea I had for a shuffle type feel that I'd tried writing a couple of different times. I was revisiting it and wasn't getting anywhere with it, again. I put it aside and just started hitting a drone on my low E string and fooling around on top of it and came up with the melody of the first section. I made a rough recording of that much of it and the rest just fell into place. I think I should mention that I do all my tracking in my home studio except for the drums, which I do at The Mousetrap here in Norman. My friend, Carl Amburn who has the studio is a great engineer and he mixes all my albums too. Anyway, Michael McCarty who played drums on the album was doing the drum track. He made the comment that the groove reminded him of "Doctor My Eyes." I blurted out Jesse's Eyes! Jesse Ed Davis is one of my favorite guitarists and a huge inspiration of mine. His solo on that song is legendary.

Did you know him? [The great Native American guitarist was from Norman, Oklahoma, where Ware went to college.]

No, I never had the opportunity to meet Jesse Ed Davis. I first became aware of him and his playing when I was in college listening to the Taj Mahal albums, Taj Mahal and Giant Step. I loved those albums and I still do. The main band I was in back then also played Taj’s arrangement of  “Six Days on the Road.” Then when Jesse Ed’s solo album was released, I got it and wore it out. I did meet Roger Tillison who wrote “Rock and Roll Gypsies,” that’s on that record around that time. He was living in Norman and I first met him one afternoon after setting up for a gig at a bar called “The Bar.” 

Jim Hoke, who plays everything from King Curtis-style sax to pedal steel here, seems particularly valuable as an instrumentalist on your records. What can you tell us about him?

Jim's contributions to the album really put it over the top for me. He's, without a doubt, the best musician I've ever known. He can play just about any instrument you can think of and play it as well or better than anybody. He also has an encyclopedic musical vocabulary. I've known him since the early '70s when he lived in Oklahoma. The first time I remember seeing him play was at a little place in Norman around 1970 or 71. I really got to know him a couple of years later when he was playing drums and sax mostly with The Lienke Brothers City Band, which was a great band from OKC. Jim moved out to California for a few years and then relocated to Nashville in the early '80s. He eventually became a master session player and also has had a lot of other projects. I feel really lucky that he likes my stuff well enough to play on it.

I love the “To Sir with Love” cover. I hear you reveling in the melody, and the possibilities of how to deliver that melody for the first couple of verses, then it seems to become about this massive arrangement. How do you approach your covers?

It's all about the melody. My friend, and another of my big inspirations, the late Bugs Henderson used to do a killer instrumental version of "When a Man Loves a Woman." I've listened to it a bunch and got to see him play it a few times too and it made me want to do something similar. I knew that when I was putting Riding the Reverb Range together I wanted to do a cover of a vocal song. I was in my car one day and "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" came on and halfway through the first verse I knew that was going to be the one. It's a great melody and I love Dusty Springfield too. Then with each album finding a song I love to cover has been something I intentionally do, but what I decide on has always happened when I hear something sort of out of the blue and I think it'd make for a fun song to do instrumentally.

You seem to have worked yourself to a place where you can pretty much do what you want to do musically…

Yeah, I feel like I'm in a good place right now. I've been really lucky in my career. I've had full time stints with three of the best, Ray Wylie Hubbard (two full time stints with him), Jimmy LaFave and John Fullbright. And I got to perform with John a couple of years ago on the David Letterman Show in the Ed Sullivan Theater on the stage where the Beatle lightning bolt zapped me from back in 1964. For me, it was a big deal. When we were there for the sound check, camera blocking and all that, there was some time to just go out and stand there and soak it in. I really had a reflective moment doing that. It really got to me. On top of all that, I've made some really great lifelong friends in the process of playing all that music and traveling all those miles. I'm sincerely grateful for all of it, too. 

Those three stints--Ray, Jimmy and John. Do you want to say a little about what it was/is like working with each of them? Is there something distinct you took from each of those experiences?

Working with Ray really shaped my career and set its course. Playing with him I got introduced to a lot of music I’d never known about and also met a lot of great songwriters and musicians, and a lot of them became good friends. My first full time stint with him was at the beginning of the “progressive country” movement in the early ‘70s and we were smack dab in the middle off all that.

I left Ray in early 1979 and played locally in a Norman based band, The Sensational Shoes, until I went back with him in 1986 and stayed full time with him until 1998 and saw him reinvent his career. We did a lot of touring in the states, Europe and Canada.

One of the tours we did was a songwriter tour in early 1998 with Kevin Welch and Jimmy LaFave. Randy Glines was playing bass with Jimmy and he and I backed all three of them. Ray and Jimmy were both being booked by Val Denn. Jimmy didn’t have a regular guitar player at the time and not long after that he was making a run to do some shows in Florida and asked if I could do it. I could and did. For a few months I wound up playing with both Ray and Jimmy. I’d do a tour with one of them, get home for a few days and then go out and do the exact same tour with the other. After a while, Ray started doing quite a few solo shows and I joined up with Jimmy full time.

The great pleasure of playing with Jimmy was getting to hear him sing. He truly had a distinctive voice both in texture and in his phrasing, not to mention a great range. He also let the band stretch out and I got to play with some really good players in his band. And as it'd been with Ray, I met a lot of great songwriters through Jimmy.

I left Jimmy in April of 2000 and instead of trying to find a full time gig with somebody, I decided to freelance. I worked semi-regularly with a band out of Dallas, Macon Greyson and also semi-regularly with a local singer, Camille Harp. I was also backing up a lot of artists at The Blue Door in OKC. Some of them were friends of mine and some were people I didn't know. Greg Johnson, who owns the place, would tell people about me and if they wanted a guitar player to back them up when they played there he'd arrange for me to be that guy. Between shows there with Ray and Jimmy and backing up other folks, I'm pretty sure I've been on that stage more than anyone.

I started teaching guitar in a local teaching studio in mid 2004. I enjoyed it, but by the time I turned 60 in 2010 I was getting pretty burned out. I kept teaching, but quit taking on new students. Not long before that, I started doing some shows with John Fullbright.

The first I became aware of him was at the Woody Guthrie Festival a couple of years before that. People were talking about this young kid from Okemah hanging around the campgrounds who was really good. It was Greg Johnson who suggested to John that he might ask me to back him up on some shows.

I started playing with John quite a bit and traveling some with him. Then I started traveling with him a bit more. Then we recorded the From the Ground Up record and I started touring with him a whole lot. I was down to about a dozen students and had been shuffling my schedule around my work with John. It didn't show any signs of slowing down. I'd been wanting to quit teaching altogether, so that gave me my reason.

Working with John is great. His writing and musicianship is at a really high level and it's been some of the most enjoyable and fulfilling music I've ever played. Through my playing with John, as with Ray and Jimmy, I've been lucky to play some great gigs and meet even more great songwriters and musicians. I guess that's what I've really taken away with my time with all three of them and I think that it's helped me become a better musician along the way. I'm still working on it though. You never stop learning.

What’s next?

I'm always working on something or another. I've got an instrumental project I've been working on. So far it's a bit more stripped down than the previous ones, but we'll see what happens. I've also been working on a vocal project that I think I'll eventually get out. It's stuff that I've written and that I've co-written with my partner, Gregg Standridge. We've been writing together for about 8 years or so and did an album together, Everybody's Got One. [Editor’s note: a beautiful record, by the way, reviewed in my year end list….Not on the album, check out their new protest single, "Can't Stand Still" ]

I also play my piano quite a bit these days. I write on it and just for my own amusement like sitting and playing standards; looking for different ways to voice the chords. I even    took a piano lesson fairly recently with Louise Goldberg, who is just a great player and can play those tunes as good as anybody, looking at that kind of thing.

I made a decision this past fall that I wanted to take an extended break from touring, not just with John, but with anybody. I'd just like to not be in a lot of motion for a while. I'm still playing quite a bit, but I'm not going very far to do it. I haven't played a gig since September that I couldn't get back to my house after it was over. I'm producing an album for [Tulsa artist] Susan Herndon that we've been working on and are taking our time with, and I've got another possible production coming up in the fall. Over the last couple of years quite a few folks have told me I should write a memoir. I've written down some things and have a vague outline, so I may pursue that. I'm not sure the world needs another one.  I plan to keep writing more of my own music as much as I can, instrumentally and otherwise. Actually, I don't have choice in that matter.

Special thanks to Vicki Farmer for all the wonderful photos!


Unknown said...

Nicely done.

katsii said...

Ware won my heart the first Woody Fest I ever went to and I've never wavered in my addiction. Terry is the guitarist's guitarist. He's the song's guide and spirit. Thanks for a GREAT interview!