Alumnus’ 30-year recording career includes 20 albums and a popular Christmas song

1988
a man holds a harmonica
Buddy Greene. Photo courtesy Buddy Greene

Mercer University alumnus Buddy Greene didn’t expect much when he was asked to write the music for a new Christian song back in 1991. 

Greene — a musician and songwriter known for his masterful harmonica playing — was touring with gospel music powerhouses Bill and Gloria Gaither when entertainer Mark Lowry approached him with the lyrics. 

“He’s mainly known as a comedian, so I thought that whatever he was handing me was going to be probably something funny or a novelty song or something like that,” Greene said. “And it was a week or so that went by before I stumbled across them and read them for the first time and realized what good lyrics they were.” 

The music practically wrote itself, Greene said. Lowry liked it, and Christian singer Michael English recorded the tune for his first solo album. 

Since then, that song — “Mary, Did You Know?” — has become a modern Christmas classic. Artists across genres have recorded the carol, including Kathy Mattea, Kenny Rogers and Wynonna Judd, Natalie Cole, Clay Aiken, CeeLo Green, Rascal Flatts, Mary J. Blige, and Pentatonix. Multiple recordings have reached the Billboard charts. 

“I’m really grateful for something that was pretty much an accident,” Greene said. 

The song is one of hundreds Greene has written over the decades. His recording career spans more than 30 years and includes 20 albums. His most recent project, “Looking Back,” released in 2017, reflects on his journey as a Christian, songwriter, instrumentalist and interpreter of songs. 

‘A hothouse of musical inspiration’ 

A Macon native, Greene first started performing for audiences at age 10, playing guitar and singing with a neighborhood group called Buddy’s Buddies through his teen years. After high school, he enrolled at Mercer, and in 1976, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English. 

“I loved being in Macon. I’m sure one of the reasons I became a musician was being inspired by people like Otis Redding and Little Richard and then the Allman Brothers,” he said. “I was a huge Allman Brothers fan. It just felt like I was in a hothouse of musical inspiration.”

black and white photo of kids playing guitar and drums on stage
Buddy’s Buddies performs circa 1965. Photo courtesy Buddy Greene

He and his friends saw The Allman Brothers Band perform every chance they got. They would hang outside the band’s crash pad at The Big House, just to hear them practicing inside, Greene recalled. 

“When I was 12 or 13 years old, down at Bibb Music one day I saw Otis Redding as I was approaching the store,” he said. (The music shop in downtown Macon has since closed.) “That was mind blowing because I was a huge Otis fan. Things like that just will really spark a kid’s imagination, and it got the creative juices flowing in me.”   

Greene was at Mercer when he first picked up the harmonica. The instrument was featured in a lot of music he listened to at the time, such as songs by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and he liked the sound of it. 

“Once you get one and you find out how portable and cool they are — once you learn a few tricks like train whistles and how to bend a note, make it sound bluesy — then you’re just hooked,” he said. “That’s what happened with me, and I eventually was just obsessed with it and played all the time, and it became really my favorite instrument.” 

A big break and return to Christ 

There weren’t a lot of harmonica players, especially in Macon, at the time, so Greene stood out. His big break came in 1983 when he landed a gig in the band of country superstar Jerry Reed. In 1984, he and his wife, Vicki Greene, moved to Nashville, Tennessee.  

The experience with Reed allowed Greene to hone his craft, and within a few years, he received a record deal. His self-titled debut of original gospel music was released in 1986.

black and white photo of man holding harmonica
Buddy Greene in 1988. Photo courtesy Buddy Greene

Greene had drifted away from the church after high school, wanting to distance himself from anything related to the older generation’s authority. 

“We were the hippie generation. We thought we had it all figured out,” he said. “I more or less became agnostic but started making a lot of bad choices too, and that continued throughout my 20s until finally I was at pretty much a place of despair and hating where my life was going. … 

“I just went back and started reading the Bible. Once I started reading it, especially the gospels and trying to figure out who Jesus was, then I just became really attracted to him and to his gospel. Eventually, once I felt secure in my faith, then it was something I wanted to sing about and write about.” 

He next released “Praise Harmonica” which helped establish him as one of Nashville’s best on the instrument. Soon, he was touring the country with the Gaithers, who were wildly popular in the gospel music realm. 

Big crowds and intimate gatherings 

For decades, Greene toured the world and recorded music for himself and other artists. He’s performed at crusades of popular evangelist Billy Graham, including before a crowd of 250,000 at Central Park in New York. 

Millions have viewed his harmonica performance of the “William Tell Overture” at Carnegie Hall on YouTube. It was a moment that almost didn’t happen.

Buddy Greene performs the “William Tell Overture” at Carnegie Hall.

“I was supposed to just be playing with the band that day, and Bill (Gaither) just sort of last-minute during rehearsals asked if I wanted to do something,” Greene recalled. “We had done some schtick years before when I was a regular part of his tour, and I said, ‘Hey, let’s just do something like that, and see if it goes over with the crowd.’ And it went over in a big way.” 

Greene’s 1994 album, “Sojourner’s Song,” won the Gospel Music Association’s Dove Award for Best Country Album, and he has received nine other Dove Award nominations. 

And yet, some of his favorite memories are of more intimate events, like the times he played for his mother and other residents at Carlyle Place, a retirement and assisted living facility in Macon.  

“For an hour or so to sing hymns and old gospel songs with these people who were struggling with lapsing memories and all the problems of old age, they were some of the best memories I’ve ever had,” Greene said. “It was as easy as showing up with the hymn book and my guitar and my harmonicas and helping these old folks forget their problems for a little while and sing some praise and thanksgiving to God.” 

Greene retired in 2020 and now enjoys staying at home, keeping his music local to Nashville.

 

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