Kenny Buttrey, one of the most influential session musicians in Nashville history, died at home in Nashville on Sunday (Sept. 12) of cancer. He was 59.
He was most in demand as drummer and arranger on sessions with a host of artists ranging from Bob Dylan to Neil Young to Jimmy Buffett and on classic songs ranging from “All Along the Watchtower” to “Tonight’s the Night” to “Margaritaville” and other landmark recordings of the ’60s and ’70s. He began his career as the drummer with the Nashville band, Charlie McCoy and the Escorts, a staple in Printers Alley.
He later was a co-founder of the groups Area Code 615 and Barefoot Jerry, with such session players as McCoy, David Briggs, Mac Gayden, Wayne Moss, Weldon Myrick, Buddy Spicher and Bobby Thompson. Area Code 615’s Trip in the Country, especially, remains a favorite album among musicians. Barefoot Jerry was popular in Japan and Europe and once played 31 straight sold-out concerts at Paris’ Olympia Theatre. Area Code 615 played in public only twice — at San Francisco’s Fillmore West and on Johnny Cash’s ABC-TV series. The group’s “Stone Fox Chase” harmonica instrumental was adopted as the theme for BBC-TV’s Old Grey Whistle Test in the 1970s.
In addition to playing on Young’s Tonight’s the Night, Harvest and After the Goldrush albums, Buttrey also toured with Young in a band that included Ben Keith (steel guitar), Tim Drummond (bass), Jack Nitzsche (piano) and Danny Whitten (guitar and vocals).
Artist Ken Lauber wrote about his experience recording an album with Buttrey, “All of the guys, Pete Wade on Dobro and rhythm guitar, and of course Kenny Buttrey, added something to my album that really hasn’t been heard since. A kind of arranged jam-type backup, which later became the [Area Code] 615 format. Buttrey really did most of the arranging right from the drums. He always did that on sessions. Probably the only real band leader-arranger, as a drummer, that Nashville ever knew. Those were the real good times in Nashville. Kristofferson, Baez, Neil Young, Mickey Newbury, Jerry Jeff Walker all cutting week after week with this great bunch of musicians who could catch bass (the fish) as well as they could play music. … There’s never been a studio band out of Nashville that has had as many hits, with such a diverse list of artists to their credit.”
Buttrey played on Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, Nashville Skyline, John Wesley Harding and Self-Portrait albums, as well as accompanying Dylan on the Johnny Cash Show on TV in 1969.
In a retrospective of Dylan’s recorded work, Village Voice critic Robert Christgau wrote, “Though Dylan has known great rhythm sections (in Muscle Shoals and, especially, The Band), his seminal rock records were cut with Nashville cats on drums–Kenny Buttrey when he was lucky, nonentities when he wasn’t.”
Other landmark Buttrey recordings include Buffett’s Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes (which yielded “Margaritaville”) and Linda Ronstadt’s Silk Purse.
Other artists with whom Buttrey recorded include Bob Seger, Elvis Presley, Steve Goodman, Dan Fogleberg, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Donovan, George Harrison, J.J. Cale, Joan Baez, Kris Kristofferson, the Everly Brothers, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, the Beau Brummels and John Hammond.
Buttrey’s wishes were to be cremated, according to his wife Cheri. Plans for a memorial service were pending at presstime.