FINELINES Magazine, Austin Texas; Spring 2003
Michael Buffalo Smith -
Keeper of the Southern Music Flame
by Jeff Drake
Michael Buffalo Smith is a true jack of all trades. He's an editor, publisher, writer, guitarist, vocalist, actor, and even a comedian. Yet his horizons have never strayed far from his roots, and his roots are deep in southern soil. As the creator of Gritz magazine, Michael has been a chief proponent of southern music, new and old, and given a voice to a sound that most other publications ignore. A life-long musician himself, Michael has also recorded three solo albums - the latest, Southern Lights, being his masterwork.
Fighting through a life-threatening bacterial infection, Michael has proven that he is not only a survivor, but a dreamer who has worked hard and long to make his dreams come true. The FineLine caught up with the self proclaimed "Forrest Gump of Southern Rock" for an exclusive interview
Where did you get the idea for Gritz?
Well, that goes back to when I was in the hospital the first time which was
in 1998. I thought I would like to just start a southern rock newsletter
because I'm always talking to different people like Marshall Tucker and the
Charlie Daniels band and all that. So I decided to put it on the internet
when I got home. For a long time there I couldn't walk so I basically spent
a lot of time putting it together. At first I called it Hot Grits. And
then I collaborated with a partner for a little while there and that didn't
work out and there were some major things that happened and uh... I'll just
let them stay buried.
So, I had to restart the whole thing a year later and I changed the name to Gritz.
That is when it really started happening, because I just started calling
everybody and networking and doing interviews and more interviews and
reviews and all that stuff online. But I always had the dream of doing a
print magazine, and had that dream since high school when I'd buy Creem and
Circus and Rolling Stone and all that. I thought I'd do that kind of theme
like those magazines, but make it about southern music - not just southern
rock but all different types of southern music. Last June, we did the first
print issue and distributed that kind of on a grass roots basis. It's really
still in the major growing phase even now. We've put out our third (issue)
and we're working on our fourth issue.
It was like a breath of fresh air to walk into Barnes and Noble and come
across something like Gritz.
Well, thank you very much. Boy, I really appreciate that.
Did you ever consider expanding the focus of the magazine?
Well, there's always a growth process to see what works and what doesn't. I
think basically what I'm doing is just thinking what would I like to see in
a magazine, and I figure if I like that, then there's going to be an
audience of other people who do too. So we hooked up with this guy named
Derek Halsey up in Cincinnati, Ohio who is a huge bluegrass fan and he
started bringing a lot of bluegrass elements in that I probably would
otherwise not have done. I handle a lot of the southern rock and blues,
even some country and that kind of thing, but I let Derek handle the
bluegrass and picking stuff.
We are trying to make the southern food thing a big part of it, but not so
much that it is like Southern Living magazine, and I love that magazine, but
just have different stars telling recipes. Also, we'vegot a real good writer in Chattanooga, Ron Williams, who writes about food.
He puts a lot of humor into it and he's also a musician and producer and all
that kind of stuff, so we get a lot of good comments on that.
My wife is an astrologer and she does a thing called "Southern Stars,”
which kind of relates planetary things to some of the musical things. That
is kind of interesting because I find that a lot of the readers, especially
on the west coast, you know they really like that. And then some of the
southerners go, "Well, what's this mean? What's this about?" (Laughs)
You've had a really impressive list of people that you have interviewed.
Are there any that really stand out to you?
Well, I'll tell you, I've interviewed Charlie Daniels about six times now
and I always do different things on him because he is such an intelligent
man. I mean, you see him up there singing "The Devil Went Down to Georgia"
and then you sit down and talk to him and not only is he a poet and writer,
but he is also very big into world affairs and very big into treating
everybody right and all that kind stuff. I also had my two guitar heroes;
one of them is passed which was Toy Caldwell from the Marshal Tucker Band.
I never got to interview him. But Dickey Betts is the other hero. I have
interviewed him twice now and met him a few times, and find that he is just
as human as I am. Yet at the same time, when I am talking to Dickey Betts,
I have to kind of, I don't know, go outside my body or something (laughs).
So I don't have to think about the fact that he is one of my real heroes.
Ted Nugent was one of the best interviews I've ever done. He said, "
Michael! Michael! I'm here on my ranch and I'll tell ya... These wild
dogs have been getting after my deer and I don't want anybody to kill my
deer except me! If I put the phone down and you hear small arms fire, then
you'll know I'm shooting at those dogs!"
So we're sitting there talking, and a few minutes later, he says, "Hold on,
Michael" and then I hear BAM, BAM, BAM, BAM! He comes back to the phone and
says, "Well, there's two coyotes that won't be bothering my deer anymore."
Then he just goes on to the next question and I am like, "Okay, Ted"! Yeah,
he's a wild man for sure. But he was a lot of fun, and very political, and
Gritz brought something to my attention that I wasn't aware of and that was
a really strong European southern rock scene.
Yeah (chuckles), that kind of blew my mind!
Tell me about that.
Its kind of mind boggling. There is a band called W.I.N.D. that is absolutely
Didn't they work with Johnny Neel?
Yeah, Johnny Neel, he toured with them. They're awesome. Then there is a
group called Flatman over there that is really good, they're in Germany. I
have got so many of those CD's. Like Lizard from Germany, they are
incredible. There is just a large amount of talent in Europe and my friend
Didier - not the guy from Saturday Night Live - Didier Demeslay does Bands of
Dixie magazine in France.
You even had a guy in one of your magazines, I think he was in your Fan Hall
of Fame, come over from Europe and try to catch all these .38 Special
I think you are referring to my friend known as Southern George, from
Austria. He is tattooed from head to toe with southern rock imagery!
Ronnie Van Zant's face, he's got a ticket stub from Greenville Memorial
Auditorium - that show was the last time Lynyrd Skynyrd played right before
the plane crash - but he got a tattoo of that ticket stub on his arm like it
is going up in flames! Very cool. I want to do some type of photo feature
of him to show his tattoos. Southern George and CeCe from Austria.
Yeah, there is a big foreign connection. And one time, I started a thing on
the website. It was a special page for writing about and reviewing the
foreign bands, and two or three of them wrote to me and said, "Michael, no
offense, but please don't separate us. Please include us in the regular CD
reviews with everybody else. We don't want to be a 'German novelty act' or
something." You know, like W.I.N.D. and Nocturn and all those bands - they're
as good as they get. It's all good stuff
What's the current state of southern rock? Are there any up-and-coming
bands that you recommend?
Well yeah, other than the "ol'boys", you mean (chuckles)? I think I would
see the Southern Rock All Stars anytime they are in your neck of the woods.
I just played all weekend long with those guys and got up and played "Train,
Train", and I felt like a train was coming through the room! So those are
old guys but a relatively new band. Go see Drive-By Truckers. “Southern
Rock Opera” is the record to buy if you like Lynyrd Skynyrd. Some of it is
tongue-in-cheek, but I thought it was one of the most creative things I've
heard in a while.
Rebel Storm is a younger band from Washington state that plays southern rock
like they were raised in Jacksonville! They just had their first European
tour that went extremely well and I'm going over there with them in the fall
for like a six-week European tour. Rebel Storm is a good band. Smoking Gun
from Washington, they are more like the Allman Brothers - I can't call them
southern rock. I'd have to call them blues cause they're more like
I like a lot of the bands that are southern, but they aren't really what you
would call southern rock - wave the rebel flag, drink a shot of whiskey
...that kind of thing. A lot of that is not really my bag anyway. I know a
lot of it goes hand in hand, but it's not really my thing. I like the
music, some of the songs. Like on Molly Hatchet and things like that where
they are talking about waving the rebel flag and getting drunk, all that
kind of stuff. I can't identify with those much, but yet over in Europe,
baby...woo hoo! That is what they want! (Laughs)
I like all the southern music; Sister Hazel is a really good Georgia band. The Derek Trucks Band, of course, everybody knows about them. Susan Tedeschi... I wish I could think of some more young ones, there are a lot
of young ones coming up now. It's not all us old farts! (Laughs)
I also want to ask you about the Best of Gritz book. It looks like this has been in the works for a while. Are you still planning on doing this?
Yeah. I can sum up the Best of Gritz and why it's not out yet - lots of
money! We're pumping everything into the print magazine. I have this book,
380 or so pages, laid out with the best interviews and best articles, and it
is going to be so good when it does come out. I have already put together
Best of Gritz II. I've got both of them on the computer - just tons of
interviews and articles and stuff like that. Maybe by the end of the year I
can get the first one out. At least I hope so.
I hope so too. Well, best of luck with the magazine. You've also written a
book called about that regions musical tradition. I'm
guessing the research must have been exhausting. Did it take you a long
time to put that book together?
Well, I should have taken longer, cause there wasn't nearly enough in there
about the Toy Caldwell Band. I've become real good friends with Tony
Heatherly - he plays bass for Marshall Tucker now - but he was in the Toy
Caldwell Band and he told me that when that book came out, he thought that I
hadn't given the Toy Caldwell Band their due. They've played for many years
and they did lots of shows. I kind of got in a hurry right there in the
I did a lot of research. I've got these plastic boxes that you buy with the
plastic lids by Rubbermaid or something like that. I've got ten or twelve
of those full of magazines and clips and tons and tons of interview tapes.
I've also done an equal amount of research on the book that was supposed to
follow it up called Still Searching for a Rainbow. That book will
hopefully come out one of these days. But between those two books I
interviewed a lot of the same people, just tons and tons of interviews.
I had a lot of fun with that and I have plans in the future, probably on the
Gritz imprint, to do a Carolina Dreams II about all these other musicians
that I didn't even know. After I did this, I found out about all these
other guys that came from our area that I didn't even realize were from
I think that it is really obvious in your writing that you have a passion
for this music. Did that make it difficult to write about a subject that
you are so passionate about?
My whole goal with that, and any articles that I write, is to remain
positive. To not spread dirt. For instance, the Lynyrd Skynyrd article
that was in Spin magazine a couple of years ago was nothing but negativity.
And my momma told me a long time ago, that if you can't say something good
about somebody, just don't say anything at all (chuckles). And that is the
truth. And you know, I've always done that. With Carolina Dreams,
everything I wrote was from my heart. I didn't really over-think. I
thought that this is just what it is and I hope somebody likes it.
I don't really have a huge vocabulary. I mean, I write like on a seventh or
eighth grade level for readers. If you start throwing those forty-dollar
words out there, unless the reader is a scholar, they'll loose the gist of
what you are saying. So, I just try to be honest, okay? I guess that is
the main thing. I'm honest about what I remember, and being honest about
putting down what people say in their interviews and stuff. Straight off
the tape. I don't want to misquote anybody or anything like that.
It makes for a real good read, Michael.
Well, thank you, man.
And props to your momma cause she taught you well. It's nice to read
positive writing like that in this day and age.
Well, thank you so much
Let's switch from Michael Buffalo Smith the writer to Michael Buffalo Smith
the musician. I want to talk now about your new album, Southern Lights.
Have you officially released this yet?
No, actually it's being manufactured right now by the Oasis Corporation who
does an outstanding job. But they're just now getting to work on that
because I wanted to make sure that it was as good as the master CD. I am
not saying that it's so good cause its mine. I'm saying it because it's
like a family reunion or something.
The guys down there in Alabama (the Crawlers - backing band on the
album), first of all, we met by chance a couple of years ago. I was playing
a Christmas charity thing in Huntsville and met the Crawlers and really hit
it off with them. I got up and jammed and everything. Man, I was blown
away with the guitar player, Ray Brand. He used to play with David Allan
Coe, and he knew Marshall Tucker Band, knew Warren Haynes... he's been
around. He's older than I am. I don't know exactly how old he is, maybe mid-50's.
But he played just like Duane Allman! I was also fortunate to have Stephen Foster co-produce and play on the album. Stephen is a wonderful keyboard player, singer, multi-tasking musical genius.
Then I thought, "I'm going to have some of these guys I had interviewed in GRITZ play
on the thing." So the first person I talked to was Tommy Crain of the
Charlie Daniels Band. Well, not anymore. I have to keep that straight.
He's not there now, but he was with them for fifteen years. He co-wrote
"The Devil Went Down to Georgia", so he is hot and (he's) got a new band
called Gone South. But Tommy is like, "Yeah I'll be there," and he did come
and brought a truck full of instruments! I thought he was just going to
bring a guitar, but he brought a banjo, and a dobro, and a pedal steel
guitar, and he enhanced the crap out of my songs! I was just totally,
absolutely, unequivocally blown away!
Bonnie Bramlett agreed to come from Nashville. The day before I knew she was coming I decided that, "Hey man, if Bonnie Bramlett is going to sing in on my album, I can't just let her be background - I've got to write something so she can shine"! So that night, or a couple nights before the session, I wrote a song, "I Don't Want to Say Good-bye". It actually came from a conversation she and I had a couple of days before when she called me and we were talking. She said, "Well I've got to go, I just called to say I love you, honey", and I said, "But I don't want to say good-bye" or something like that... just cutting up a little bit. I wrote it with me singing a verse and I got Bonnie singing a verse about two people that have broken up, but they don't really want to break up, they really want to getback together and in the end they get back together. She wails on that
Then Pete Carr played on it. Originally Pete Carr was in Hour Glass with
Gregg and Duane Allman and then he went on to an illustrious career with
Muscle Shows playing guitar on most of the recognizable Bob Seger records.
Playing the lead on "Main Street" and a million of those Bob Seger songs.
And then John Wyker is a real good friend of mine and he is on the record.
He had a hit in 1972 called "Motorcycle Mama". But John has always been a
very eclectic musician and he wrote this song called "Hookers Boogie". The
first thing everybody always thinks about is a hooker, but it is not about
hookers. It's about John Lee Hooker and it's done in John Lee Hooker's
There are only two songs on there that I didn't write; Wyker wrote "Hooker's
Boogie", and then we got one called "Ride On My Friend" that was written as
a memorial to Toy Caldwell by Tony Heatherly. I thought the song was
awesome when he showed it to me and we took it down there to Alabama and
Tommy Crain played all over it. Tommy was a good friend of Toy's, so he
brought all that flavor in there, and I'll be dogged if it didn't end up
sounding like an early Marshall Tucker Band song! That is another "wow"
moment in my life. I have had a few where I go, "Wow, I can't believe this!"
I've done three solo albums and one duo album in my life and I loved every
one of them. I loved the experience and everything, but none of them were
the type of album I would just sit and listen to over and over, until this one.
There was an instrumental that I wrote (for Southern Lights) called "Gemini Soul", and
it has five different guitar players doing five different lead
interpretations. Kind of sounds like Santana meets the Allman Brothers!
There's kind of a rush to sit there and go, "Ok, that's me playing" and then
Tommy Crain is getting down and I go, "Okay, that's going on now", and then
Ray Brand is the last one on there, and he is the guy from the Crawlers and
I'll be dogged if he sounds like Warren Haynes all over again
Yeah, he really does.
I have to say it was like a gift from God because I had no idea that the one-week recording session was going to be such a thrill for me. You know, all these people would just come in and do these things, basically for nothing, other than the fact that ... you know, I've written nice things about them and all like that, and I guess they were just doing something to help me. I just think that every one of those people on the album are just some of the sweetest people in the world.
Let's talk about the song "Gemini Soul". Was that recorded live or did you
have to punch those solos in?
We recorded the rhythm the drums and the bass, then we went back and did
each individual guitar player and none of them were in any order. I know
John Huber did the second lead, and then Tommy Crain did his, which was the
third lead. Then late that night, I recorded the first lead and also
recorded my overdub. It sounds much like a digital delay effect, but its
not. I play two overlapping things at the very beginning. I ended up
doing this as a tribute to my wife who is, like I said, an astrologer and a
Gemini. So I thought, "Okay, we'll keep coming back to the twin lead part
that Tommy Crain and I did", and then Pete Carr came in weeks later and put
in his lead that just blew me away. Then Ray Brand, one of the last nights
that we were recording, came in there and it must have been midnight when he
recorded the last lead on that thing and he cranked it up and it sounded
like Warren or something!
So, now that song is actually being considered for the Weather Channel!
(Laughs) They already play an instrumental by the Crawlers on the Weather
Channel every once in a while. Ray gave me the contact information and
everything, so I am pretty sure the guy is going to start playing it on the
Weather Channel. You know you got something when they play it on the
elevators and the Weather Channel! (Laughs)
I don't know, that instrumental still blows me away because Pete Carr is
like a legendary guitar player and Tommy Crain's played on "Still in Saigon"
and "Devil Went Down to Georgia" and "In America", all those things. Who
would have thought it? When I was in high school, I would have never
dreamed it, but it just shows you that dreams can come true for anybody. It
doesn't necessarily mean that they are going to come true when you are the
age of Brittany Spears or Avril... that one chick, whatever her name is. So you don't have to be a baby. You can be an old guy like me and still have your dreams comingtrue around you, which is a cool thing. Hey, Colonel Sanders didn't even
start Kentucky Fried Chicken until he was the age of 65! Just remember that. That is an interesting aside for the old people (laughs).
You have a song called “Ride on My Friend,” which is dedicated to Toy
Caldwell. It's obvious through your writing and your music that you have a
deep respect for this man. I'd like for you to talk about Toy for our
readers that aren't familiar with him.
Well, I remember being 14 years old and pretending I was 18 because I was a
big boy even then! I was going to a club called Uncle Sam's in
Spartanburg, South Carolina to see the Toy Factory. I remember walking in
one night, and I had heard about that guy, and I said, "Well, look at that
guy, he's got one of those Ronco Stud-makers and put his name Toy Caldwell
in studs across the back of his jacket". I thought, "Boy, he thinks he's a
doggone star or something, sitting over there drinking beer.” Well, then he
proceeded to show me that he was!
There must have been 30 people or so there that night. Toy and Toy Factory
get up there and I remember the first thing I got blown away with was "When
a Man Loves a Women" and Doug Gray (vocalist) was the blackest white man I'd
ever heard! He sounded great, just great. Then I started watching Toy. I
was watching his thumb and I could not believe that this guy was playing
without a pick and his thumb was going so fast I couldn't see it! It was
like a blur! I thought, "Whoa".
I remember walking up to Toy that night after the show was over. I go, "Mr.
Caldwell" and he goes, "Mr. Caldwell? That's my daddy.” I said, "Toy...
man, that was great!" And he said, "Thank you, man, we love to play, we
love to play." That's all he would say! "We love to play.” That blew me
away because he was nice and it has a lot to do with it - when people are
nice to you. I might have loved his music but if I would have walked up to
him and he would have been an ass, I probably would have said, "Screw this"
and would have never listened to him again. But he was real nice. That was
the only time I saw the Toy Factory.
Then the Marshall Tucker band started up in '72 and I was in high school,
started going around and seeing them, and reading about them and they were
the biggest thing in the world - maybe not the biggest thing in the world,
but to me they were. I remember back then we listened to AM radio and we
had WORD in Spartanburg, and Billy Mack was the DJ and after he did the top
countdown of 1972, he said he had a special surprise and they were going to
debut the first album by Marshall Tucker and they tracked it. Played each
cut. I was like, "Whoa, this is cool man"! Never heard anything like
them. I went out and bought the album and became such a fan.
I saw a video clip recently of him talking and they asked him how would he
describe his own music and he said "honest". Charlie Daniels is really quick
to brag on Toy because he loved him to death. His songwriting was just
amazing. I just love Toy Caldwell's playing and singing. He influenced me
more than anybody else. I like a lot of guitar players, but I studied him.
I could never play the fast stuff he did when he would just go 90 mph! I
just can't do that. I didn't practice enough. But I play a lot of the slow
stuff that has that "chicken-pickin" kind of sound. It comes natural
because I listened to Toy so much.
Thanks for the interview, Michael. Best of luck with the new album. It's
got a lot of potential.
Thank you! It will be for sale on the online Gritz Store! Everybody come on over!