by Floyd Gilstrap
Carolina Faces Magazine
Greenville’s Michael Buffalo Smith doesn’t play a lot of gigs in the Upstate. Instead he takes his music to shows and festivals in places like Tampa, Florida; Norfolk, Virginia; Nashville, Tennessee; and Seattle, Washington.
“I might play once a year here in Greenville,” he says. “But most of the people here don’t even know that I am an entertainer.”
But he is an entertainer. With five albums and countless shows under his belt, Smith is also a writer and the editor of GRITZ.NET, a Southern Rock web magazine that, after ten years, has become a part of SWAMPLAND.COM, the home of “all things Southern.”
Known as “Buffalo,” Michael has established a fan base world wide for both his writing and his music. We sat down with Buffalo over coffee to find out a little about what makes him tick.
You were born in Spartanburg, right? Have you always lived in the Upstate?
Yeah, I was born in the General Hospital down in Spartanburg, South Carolina. I grew up in Wellford, in Spartanburg County. I graduated from Byrnes High School in Duncan. Later we moved to Spartanburg proper, and I ended up going to Spartanburg Methodist College and The University of South Carolina, where I majored in Theatrical Arts and minored in Creative Writing. Later on, after I left home, I lived in Atlanta for a while, and New Jersey, and moved to the beautiful Green Creek area of Tryon, North Carolina. Then in 1991 I moved to Greenville, S.C. to start an alternative entertainment magazine called EDGE Magazine with my friend, the late James Irwin. I met my wife while doing that magazine, and have been in Greenville ever since.
What were your early musical influences?
Music has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I recall the first song I ever learned, other than hymns in the church, was Roger Miller's "King of the Road." (Laughing) My parents used to put me on the spot, "Mike, sing your song for the neighbors!"
Back to influences. I guess everything we listen to has some influence on us as singers and musicians. If that's true, then certainly I was exposed early on to my dad's country music- Hank Snow, Johnny Cash, Ernest Tubb. Later I went through a major country phase where I became a life time member of the Merle Haggard "fan club." Growing up in a Southern Baptist home, I was subjected to to a lot of gospel, like the Blue Ridge Quartet and The Kingsmen. When I later became a disc jockey, I grew to love a lot of black gospel. As a young teenager, I got heavily into Edgar Winter's White Trash, and then The Edgar Winter Group. I also liked Johnny Winter, Alice Cooper, Deep Purple, Linda Ronstadt, The Eagles, The Carpenters- almost everything. And then one summer at the beach this guy turned me on to The Allman Brothers Band and Derek & The Dominos, and they became my favorite bands. Still are. Then the whole Southern Rock thing hit and of course I was made a lifetime fan of Charlie Daniels, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Delaney & Bonnie, Wet Willie and of course The Marshall Tucker Band. Tucker would remain an influence, and eventually I wrote the book about the band and other S.C. players called Carolina Dreams.
When did you start playing guitar and singing?
Well. I played "at" the guitar from the time I was a kid. I started trying to play along with TV shows back in the late ‘60's and early ‘70's, like Hee Haw, and Austin City Limits when that started. I picked the lead on "Jessica" off an Allman Brothers album, and learned a few licks here and there. The first full song I learned was "Fire On the Mountain." I made an attempt at playing bass with my friend Doug Hooper during high school. He taught me a lot. But I didn't really begin to learn until about 1980 though. My first ‘real" gig was in a band called The Buffalo Hut Coalition. Then I started trying real hard. With Greg Yeary I started doing duets and the BHC, playing everything from Southern gospel to country to blues to rockabilly to popular tunes by The Cars and Springsteen.
Tell me about your recordings so far.
I did an EP called Fairytales back in 1992. That was a duo with my pal Donna Orzonno. Then in 1996 I recorded a full album called Happy To Be Here. Then in 2000 I recorded Midwest Carolina Blues in Lincoln, Nebraska, and in 2002 we didSouthern Lights in Alabama, with guest artists Pete Carr, Tommy Crain (Charlie Daniels Band) , John Wyker and Bonnie Bramlett, who sang a duet with me. That was quite a thrill. In 2004, we did Something Heavy, with guests Pete Carr, JoJo Billingsley (Lynyrd Skynyrd) and the late George McCorkle. (Marshall Tucker). I sure do miss George. I have been blessed to record with some great talents, including The Crawlers, who were the core band on the last two releases.
And you’ve sat in with some great bands onstage.
All the time. I love it. I’ve sung with Marshall Tucker several times, played guitar with Molly Hatchet, played with Southern Rock Allstars, The Charlie Daniels Band, Montgomery Gentry, Bonnie Bramlett, Tommy Crain & The Crosstown Allstars, Grinderswitch, The Winters Brothers Band, Tommy Talton, Paul Thorn, Jerry LaCroix, Artimus Pyle Band - so many. It is always a rush.
What got you into journalism and writing?
I was on the staff of my high school newspaper and yearbook staffs, usually as a cartoonist or photographer, but I started writing music articles in the paper. This was 1972-1976. It was fun. I didn't go to college until 1982, and I began writing for the college paper and yearbook, and experimenting with fiction and poetry. I was majoring in Theatrical Arts and minoring in creative writing. I started writing a lot of songs then too. In the mid-eighties I started writing a Lewis Grizzard type column called "Southern Accents" for some area newspapers, as well as doing record reviews. I worked for several newspapers and radio stations during those years as well. Later I would help to found a short-lived ecology newspaper called Utopia and in 1991, an alternative entertainment publication called EDGE Magazine. That lasted about four years, after which time Jill and I - along with Greenville folk artist Bob Jones- started The Color Green, an arts and entertainment publication in 1994. Around the same time, I started writing reviews and features for my first national magazine gig, Goldmine. Later I would start writing for online magazines like Y'all, The Southerner, and The All Music Guide, as well as magazines like Rolling Stone, Relix, Hittin' the Note, Sandlapper andMOJO.
When did you start Gritz and how?
It all started out as an idea I had to report on Southern Music by doing a page on my website, and just updating it. No biggie. Then I teamed up with a partner and we launched the web zine, called Hot Grits in February, 1999. After about a year, we dissolved the partnership, and I took my ideas and streamlined them into what is now GRITZ. So we went through that 3-year phase as a print magazine before returning to our true internet roots. Then about a year and a half ago we merged with a forward thinking guy from Florida and his SWAMPLAND.COM. I am really excited over how that has all worked out. Now visitors have so many other options. They can read James Calemine’s Mystery & Manners, Penne Elk’s Rivervue, sports, news - hours of good stuff. And the Gritz archive is massive.
You are an excellent writer. I know you wrote Carolina Dreams, and you self published a collection of interviews called Outlaws, Rebels and Renegades. Do you have any other books?
I have completed my memoirs, but it has not been published yet. Same with the biography of Marshall Tucker Band lead singer Doug Gray. And I am working on several novels and three screenplays.
Do you read a lot?
Oh yeah. I think all writers do. If I’m sitting still, I’m writing or reading.
What are you reading now?
My wife bought me a cool book for my birthday called This is Your Brain On Music. I’m digging that one, and a book on screenwriting and the old Larry Brown novel Fay. I am usually reading 2-3 books at the same time, depending on which room I am in at the house.
Who are some of your favorite authors and maybe a few favorite reads?
Stephen King has always been my favorite. Harlan Ellison, Joyce Carol Oates. I love everything Dr. Hunter S. Thompson ever wrote. Larry Brown. Books? King’s On Writing. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Poems of Dylan Thomas. Lots of biographies and histories of the sixties and seventies, especially music oriented. The Uncensored History of Rolling Stone Magazine. I love that one. A book called Mutant Message from Down Under, a true story about a lady who goes on a walkabout with the Aborigines people. My favorite King novel was Misery. The movie was good, but the book kicked the movie’s ass.
Speaking of movies. You do movie reviews in Gritz as well. What summer movies do you recommend?
It’s a great summer for comic book movies, which are some of my favorites. Iron Man rocked, as did The Incredible Hulk. Wanted was based on a comic too, and there’s the fringe benefit of Angelina Jolie, who is at her best when playing a badass. But the one we are all waiting on is The Dark Knight. I think they may have finally gotten that one right. As a real Bat fan, I have always wanted to see the “darker” Batman on screen. Joker too. The new Indiana Jones was quite good. I’ve seen so many films this year, I’d have to go back and look at my list to give you a good answer.
Favorite movies of all time?
The Wizard of Oz, number one. Slingblade, number two. Pulp Fiction, The Apostle, Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown, Phantom of The Paradise, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Apocalypse Now - anything with Billy Bob Thornton, Robert Duvall, Al Pacino. Scarface is another one. The Godfather trilogy.Goodfellas. Man, it is a long, long list.
What’s the worst movie you ever saw?
The Green Slime. A rip off of The Blob. Also the worst theme song ever. (Sings) "Green Slime, gonna mess up your mind.." (Laughs)
Besides Southern rock, what are some of your favorite albums or artists?
I love so much music. I must have several thousand CDs and LPs. It’s a fever. An addiction. I love it. Just a few... The Beatles, Paul Thorn, Kate Bush, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Evanescence, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan - those are only scratching the surface though.
What does the future hold for Buffalo?
Hopefully lower gas prices. (Laughs) I hope to record another album in the next year or so, hopefully with some of my old Capricorn Records alumni friends. Writing several fiction books and always adding to GRITZ and making it bigger and better. That’s my day job and my first priority. We have a fall tour coming with a couple of other bands, and I’m just going to keep moving forward and doing my best to be the best person I can be for myself, my wife and kids. •