Nashville Cats: Buddy Spicher

August 23, 2008
Ace fiddler Buddy Spicher kept returning to the word “family” when talking about the core group of talented musicians who worked on a bulk of the studio sessions in Nashville beginning in the 1950s and continuing into the 1970s.

As the latest veteran musician honored by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s on-gong Nashville Cats series, Spicher repeatedly pointed out how many friends and musicians were in the crowd. As if conversing at a holiday dining table, he would include his friends in the conversation, asking different people to help him tell stories and recall facts from the past.

“We were like family, we really were, and you can see that by how many of them turned up today,” Spicher said, noting that longtime colleagues Ray Edenton, Jerry Kennedy, Bob Moore, and Howard White were in the audience. “I see people here who loved it like I did. They’re all so special.”

Later, when talking about meeting and working with many of his idols in the country music business, he explained, “Just to make friends with these people was a wonderful feeling,” he said. “It’s a tight family here. If you’re a squirrel, you don’t make it. In other words, if you talk about yourself too much, or if you’re not a good team player, then you won’t make it here. We work together when we’re on a session. We’re a team. If you don’t know that, and it’s all about you, you won’t last long.”

The program began with a 1961 video clip of Spicher performing on the Pet Milk Grand Ole Opry TV program. Appearing as a member of Ray Price’s Cherokee Cowboys, Spicher let it fly with a high-spirited version of the traditional fiddle classic “Back Up and Push.” It was a good example of the spark and personality he brings to his sound, which draws on old-time fiddling, bluegrass, and western swing.

Interviewed by museum curator Bill Lloyd, Spicher traced his musical development in a ninety-minute program before a capacity audience in the museum’s Ford Theater. Born in Pennsylvania, Spicher grew up listening intently to live music programs on radio stations WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia, and WSM in Nashville. Spicher cited the key inspiration of such country stars as Cowboy Copas, Red Foley, Shorty Lavender, Ernest Tubb, and Hank Williams as being especially important to him.

At age eleven, Spicher began playing guitar; soon afterward, he started working in a band led by his older brother, Bob Spicher, a fiddler. The younger Spicher eventually picked up the fiddle to learn a few hoedowns and fell in love with the instrument. Before long, he studied the bowing techniques of Nashville session masters Tommy Jackson and Dale Potter, among other fiddlers.

Bob Spicher eventually joined the band of Hawkshaw Hawkins, which led to Buddy getting hired at age fifteen as a fiddler on WWVA’s Wheeling Jamboree. “We had always gone there to hear music,” Spicher said. “I even tried to hitchhike there, but I didn’t make it. We could tune into WWVA better than we could get WSM, and there were a lot of great people there.”

At the Jamboree, he met accomplished fiddlers Doug Kershaw and Kenny Baker, and by paying attention and learning, his own skills continued to grow. His first recording sessions occurred in Wheeling, at the WWVA studios, playing behind Skeeter Bond, Abby Neal, Dusty Owens, and others.

At the Jamboree, Spicher met Audrey Williams, the widow of Hank Williams, when she performed on the radio broadcast. After the program, Williams offered Spicher a job. “She asked me if I’d like to be a part of her band and move to Nashville,” the fiddler recalled. “She knew a place where I could stay, meet other musicians, and get some work.”

Spicher took the opportunity, moving into a boarding house in Nashville named after its proprietor, Mom Upchurch, who took in many musicians. “Mom Upchurch would help you out if she liked you,” Spicher said. “She told Carl Smith to hire me to play bass. I wasn’t even a bass player. That’s how it is sometimes. It’s who you know. But everybody loved Mom. She was an angel.”

Williams promised him eight dates a month with her band, and Spicher often traveled on package shows organized by Williams and Vic Lewis, her concert promotion partner. “We worked with a lot of the acts out of Nashville, and that’s when I met Dale Potter in person,” Spicher said. “I asked around about him, asking what he looked like and how tall he was. I felt good when I found out he was a little guy, like me.”

Spicher remembered meeting headliners Little Jimmy Dickens, the Louvin Brothers, and Hank Snow, whom Spicher eventually worked alongside. With Snow, Spicher got to play twin fiddle with another famed country sideman, Chubby Wise. The young fiddler also spent time on the road with Kitty Wells and Johnnie & Jack.

“Johnnie loved the fiddle,” Spicher said. “That’s one thing I loved about a lot of the old country music stars, a lot of them really loved the fiddle. Hank Snow would have me come over to his house just to play a fiddle tune, and he’d record it. Cowboy Copas would say, ‘Buddy, go get your fiddle.’ They loved playing the guitar with it.”

Spicher toured in the bands of other country stars, too, including Patsy Cline, Faron Young, and Ray Price, with whom he logged significant time as a member of the famed Cherokee Cowboys band. “I thought I’d died and went to heaven,” Spicher said of the number of stars he got to know during this time.

To get off the road, Spicher took a job appearing on a syndicated TV show hosted by the Wilburn Brothers. From there, he started playing recording sessions, often getting recommended by Tommy Jackson or Dale Potter, two of the most popular Nashville fiddlers of the 1950s and 1960s. “They actually didn’t like each other real well,” he said. “Subsequently, I got a lot of jobs from them.”

Spicher explained how the history of Nashville recordings often has found two primary fiddlers dominating sessions at any given era. Beginning in the 1950s, it was Jackson and Potter. By the 1970s, Spicher and Texas fiddler Johnny Gimble received the most session calls. These days, Spicher said, it’s Stuart Duncan and Aubrey Haynie.

As a session player, Spicher performed with nearly every country star of the 1960s and 1970s, including Country Music Hall of Fame members Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Roger Miller, Charley Pride, Marty Robbins, Statler Brothers, Hank Thompson, and Bob Wills. He also worked with such non-country recording artists as Joan Baez, Dan Fogelberg, Henry Mancini, Steve Miller, the Monkees, Elvis Presley, and Linda Ronstadt. He continued to work regularly into the 1980s, recording hits with John Anderson, David Allan Coe, Merle Haggard, George Strait, and Hank Williams Jr., among scores of others.

“All the other session players here can tell you, when you’re hot, you’re hot,” Spicher said. “When you’re working, you’ve got to keep on working. But it’s hard, especially on your family. Sometimes we’d do as many as four sessions in a day, and it could go on like that for weeks and months.”

On the side, Spicher found time to record with a couple of all-star session bands: Area Code 615 and the Nashville Super Pickers. “In Area Code 615, we mixed bluegrass and rock & roll, which, when you think of it, go together pretty well,” he said. “Forgive me, but I was never that much into rock & roll. But a lot of the guys I worked with, they were into it. I was there because they knew the fiddle would give it a country element.”

That sound, of a fiddle adding a country element to rock-styled rhythm, is prominent in contemporary country music. “What we were doing in that band is kind of what is happening today. (Area Code 615) is one of the ways that got started,” he said. “But I can’t take that loud boom, boom, boom of the drums, and the guitars with all the gimmicks. Please forgive me.”

Today, he stays active hosting a fiddle camp in his name, playing on bluegrass and swing albums, and running his studio in East Nashville. He ended the program playing a fiddle duet on an old-time tune with twenty-three-year-old Billy Contreras. “That’s what makes me happy,” he said. “I love playing that kind of music; it’s where my heart is, and I’m fortunate to still be able to play it.”

—Michael McCall