When Buddy Killen visits the members gallery at the Country Music Hall of Fame, it’s like turning the pages of a family album. He toured with Hank Williams, Ray Price, George Morgan and Jim Reeves, signed Roger Miller and Dolly Parton to songwriting contracts, performed on the Grand Ole Opry alongside such giants as Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb, co-wrote a No. 1 hit for Conway Twitty and built a music publishing empire with 1989 Hall of Fame inductee, Jack Stapp.
This week Killen, who began his career as a performer in his native Alabama, releases his first solo album, Mixed Emotions. Recorded with an orchestra, the album consists of six pop standards, a Hank Williams classic and five of Killen’s own compositions, including the 1960 Top 10 pop hit “Forever.” Killen produced the album and issued it on his own KMG label.
Featured on Mixed Emotions are “Mack the Knife,” “New York, New York,” “My Way,” “I Believe,” “Don’t Let Go” (with additional vocals by Bobby Goldsboro and Ronnie McDowell), “As Time Goes By,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Forever,” “”How Far Our Love Goes,” “We Love Each Other,” “I May Never Get to Heaven” and “When I’ve Learned Enough.”
“All the time I had the Stockyard [Restaurant in Nashville],” Killen says, “I’d get up and sing with the band. I didn’t know probably two songs when I first started. But I kept learning them. I’ve written hundreds of songs, but I couldn’t even sing them. I just didn’t remember them. But through the years, I’d get up there and sing, and people seemed to like it.”
While he was learning songs and polishing his act, Killen was also putting up a website to sell his 1993 autobiography, By the Seat of My Pants (My Life in Country Music). “Then I thought, maybe I need something else to go along with it,” he says. “So I said, ‘I’ll just do a little album and put it with the book.’” He recorded the album last fall, offered it on his site and handed out copies to his friends in the music industry.
“I just did what I felt would make a good album,” Killen explains. “I wanted to make sure that the music was exceptional. I’m an adequate singer — I certainly don’t think of myself as a great singer. But I have found through the years that you don’t have to be, if you’re believable. Most people who sell records are not that great singers. They’re great communicators. Hopefully, I’ve taken the songs and communicated properly with them.”
Response to the album was so favorable, Killen says, that he decided to take the next step and distribute it to record stores. He found a distributor in Memphis-based Select-O-Hits and then hired marketing consultant Mike Martinovich to call attention to the project. Martinovich advised Killen to re-do the album cover. He agreed. “The first cover was just a generic kind of thing,” Killen says. “You couldn’t tell if it was a singer or an instrumentalist or what.”
Martinovich then suggested that Killen bring in a record promoter to build interest for the album at radio. It worked “instantly,” Killen reports. According to Martinovich, cuts from Mixed Emotions are now being played on stations in Los Angeles, Nashville, Birmingham, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, St. Louis, Houston, Corpus Christi, Reno, Des Moines and Detroit.
“Most of them are the adult standard stations,” Killen notes. “But they have tremendous listenership … We’re getting anywhere from one to six cuts played … And some of the stations are doing big promotions on it.”
All this airplay came as a pleasant surprise, Killen observes. “When I decided to record, I said ‘I’m not chasing radio. I’ve been around too long to start doing that. I’m going to record the songs I want to record the way I want to record them. If people like it, wonderful; if not, I’m having some fun.’”
Killen has always found joy — and usually profit — in his work. He built Tree Publishing (now Sony ATV Tree), where he started as a $35-a-week assistant, into a country music behemoth. He eventually became sole owner of the company, which he sold in 1989 for a reported $40 million. During the 1970s and ’80s, he produced a variety of high-charting acts, including Bill Anderson, Ronnie McDowell, T. G. Sheppard and Exile. He even ventured into acting, playing the role of a minister in Louis Malle’s 1985 film Alamo Bay.
In addition to promoting his new album, the youthful-looking 67-year-old co-hosts a weekly radio show, continues to write songs and perform and is authoring another book, this one “about how we have that unseen enemy that keeps us from doing what we want to do.” Obviously, it’s not autobiographical.