Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Incomparable Buddy Bell

One of the most popular local entertainers of all time is Charles Glyn Bell. You probably know him best as ‘Buddy Bell.’

The first time I can ever remember seeing Buddy perform was at the Old Kentucky Barn Dance in Burkesville. Right away I knew he was a crowd favorite. It may have had something to do with the way he was up on that stage braying like an old flop-eared mule. Over the years, Johnson's Old Grey Mule has become his trademark song stage, and he performs it well, even today at the age of 84. It didn't take long for me to develop a great admiration for Buddy Bell. Off stage, he is quiet and extremely laid back. But on stage, it's as if someone turned the YOU’RE ON light on as suddenly Buddy Bell would fall into step with the one thing he loved to do most - entertain.

Everywhere Buddy performs, audiences love him. He is one of those acts that folks can’t wait to see up on that stage. Although he might not do it as often as he once did, when Buddy Bell would sing his bluegrass and country songs superbly well, and even occasionally show off his versatility by playing guitar, mandolin, banjo and bass, the one thing he’d do that really got the crowd going was reach into his shirt pocket, pull out his comb, wrap a piece of tissue around it and play Yakety Sax. Another thing he’d do that the crowd loved was cup his hands over his mouth and emit a sound that made you think you were sitting there listening to Charlie McCoy playing harmonica.

Charles Lynn Bell was born May 11, 1925. His father was an old showman with a rodeo circuit, and Buddy learned how to entertain by watching his dad. He sang country and bluegrass songs, and always tried to throw in an hymn before his time on stage was up. But, it was the novelty side of his performance that kept the audience laughing and smiling and cheering for more. It was a routine that he would use the rest of his performing career.

Buddy started singing when he was about six years old. He has performed at several different venues in his lifetime, from the studio's of WANY to square dances, cake walks and on the bigger stages like at Renfro Valley, Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop, the Brown County Jamboree at Bean Blossom, Indiana, the Tennessee Jamboree at Knoxville, Carl Story’s Jamboree in North Carolina, on Channel 13 in Bowling Green, and on most every radio station in the area, including the legendary WNOX in Knoxville.

Buddy loved playing music with my dad, and also the late Elmer Goodman. I have recordings of him performing with both of them, and they are priceless! During his time at the Old Kentucky Barn Dance, Buddy performed with Big Don Burchett and the Pole Cats. He was also a member of The Suppertime Boys, which sang gospel music. Today, when he performs, it is usually with the Cartwright Express. I took the boys to Stony Point Baptist Church last October for the annual alternative-to-Halloween event. The boys went for the fun and games. I went specifically to see Buddy Bell. The place was packed, but I found him sitting over in a corner being his normal quite and reserved self. Once he hit the stage, I could tell by the crowd that I wasn’t the only one who had shown up to watch him. As the band started to play the familiar strands of ‘Johnson’s Old Grey Mule,’ Buddy came to life, and so did the crowd. On this night, when he finished the song, I gave him a standing ovation.

Buddy never learned how to drive a car. He has always depended on someone else to drive him places. That night at Stony Point, I found myself loading his guitar in the back seat of my car, and then it was off toward town, and his apartment. When we reached Hoot Owl Hollow, he started singing a song he had written about Bill Monroe after the father of bluegrass had passed away. About four miles from town, Buddy realized he had messed up the words, so he started over. One of Elijah’s friends, Nash, was in the back seat, and while Buddy sang as we traveled down the highway, occasionally I would look back and see Nash smiling. For even a 12-year-old boy, it was a fine, fine moment! As Buddy has said, he has appeared on stage with the great and the near-great. That night, I was with THE great, the incomparable Buddy Bell.

When we reached Buddy’s apartment, I helped him inside. Back in the car, Nash said, “That Buddy sure is one of a kind!

“Yes, he sure is, Nash.”

Johnson had an old grey mule and his name was Simon slick
He would roll his eyes and curl his tail and how that fool would kick
He took him down to the foot of the hill to try him out one day'
He kicked and pawed and he brayed all around and this is what that mule would say
He'd say, Whoa Boy!

Yee haw, haw, haw, yee haw, haw, haw
And down the trail he'd go

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