Kenny Buttrey: 1945 to 2004
If alternative-country has ever had a definitive drummer, it would be Kenneth A. Buttrey. After a long battle with cancer, Buttrey died at his Nashville home on September 12, 2004. He was 59.
Buttrey brought the mercury to the thin, wild sound Bob Dylan captured on Blonde On Blonde, and with longtime friend and collaborator Charlie McCoy, he is the musical soul of Dylan’s John Wesley Harding album. His bongos and cowbells on “Lay Lady Lay”, his favorite recording, are wholly sui generis. He was a consummate arranger, perhaps the most musical drummer outside of the jazz field, with a stroke as light and elemental as oxygen. The parade of singer-songwriters — including Loudon Wainwright, Steve Goodman, Gordon Lightfoot, Dan Fogelberg, John Stewart, Eric Andersen and Jimmy Buffett (yes, that’s Buttrey’s snare hit that opens “Margaritaville”) — who followed Dylan’s country lead made career albums in Nashville in large part because of his mesmerizing, flash-free, fluid touch.
As a member of Neil Young’s Stray Gators, Buttrey embodied the minimalist grace of Harvest — his cymbal taps on “Heart Of Gold” come and go like sunbeams — and though he appears on just one track of Tonight’s The Night, he fuses “Look Out Joe” when every other force would tear it apart. On the doomed Time Fades Away tour of 1973, he was savaged by Young for not playing loud enough, though his hands bled by the end.
Harvest producer Elliot Mazer recalled Buttrey as “a guy living in Nashville who hated country music,” a quote that deserves some context. Buttrey was born and raised in Nashville. His early professional gigs found him on Printer’s Alley, working with Charlie McCoy and the Escorts, then joining sessions throughout the ’60s with Bobby Helm, Johnny Paycheck, Hank Locklin and Bobby Bare. But his playing, with quick, funky little fills and a metronomic groove, sounded more like his soul idol Al Jackson Jr. than anyone on Music City’s A-list. He felt most at home and did most of his best work with McCoy and sessioners such as Ken Lauber, Pete Drake, Wayne Moss and Mac Grayden, with whom he founded the instrumental band Area Code 615. Their sound was soaked in R&B and jazz, with Buttrey orchestrating the jams through a haze of pot smoke.
His countercultural affinities and on-the-fly arranging skills made him an ideal fit for the rough-edged musicianship of the singer-songwriter movement. Not only could he keep time with the rhythmically idiosyncratic likes of Young and Jerry Jeff Walker, he could find time where none existed, and could match the intricate melodies of Leo Kottke or Mickey Newbury with an understated elegance when other drummers might have settled for mere adornment. Buttrey always listened closely and intensely — as should we to him, for his lyricism and imagination won’t swing this way again.