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Who Buddy Harman
What Music Row loses its heartbeat after Buddy Harman dies
When August 21, 2008
Where Nashville, TN

Buddy Harman, the percussion heartbeat of Music Row and Nashville's best-known and most-recorded drummer, died Thursday evening in hospice care. He was 79, and suffered from congestive heart failure.

A native Nashvillian born Murrey Mizell Harman Jr., Mr. Harman played drums on more than 18,000 recordings, including Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman," Patsy Cline's "Crazy," Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire," Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man," Ray Price's "Crazy Arms" and Elvis Presley's "Little Sister." He was the first staff drummer on the Grand Ole Opry and the first prominent drummer in country music history, and his work helped secure country's place as a viable, popular and modern art form.

"Buddy Harman set the standard, both quantitatively and qualitatively, for what a great country drummer should be," wrote David Cantwell in Heartaches by the Number: Country Music's Greatest Singles. "The mind boggles at the number of musically distinctive and emotionally fitting ways Harman found to lay down a beat."

Mr. Harman was a master of the hard-driving country shuffle (which he helped invent during the "Crazy Arms" session), and he was enough of a musical chameleon to play pounding rock 'n' roll on "Pretty Woman"; stately, restrained pop on "I'm Sorry"; graceful swing on Roger Miller's "King of the Road"; and straight-ahead country on Loretta Lynn's "Coal Miner's Daughter."

"He's Nashville's all-around drummer, and he's the best drummer I ever worked with," said Harold Bradley, who played on thousands of records with Mr. Harman.

Both of Mr. Harman's parents played music, and his mother was a drummer. He grew up fascinated by the instrument, and he attended the Roy Knapp School of Percussion in Chicago. He took the nickname "Buddy" in honor of his hero, jazz drummer Buddy Rich.

Nashville session guitar ace Grady Martin was an early supporter, and Martin saw to it that Mr. Harman got a chance to play on a Moon Mullican session in September 1951, when Mr. Harman was 21. The session produced no hits, but Mr. Harman demonstrated his ability to lock in with other players, and he soon found himself in demand at a time when Nashville began to assert itself as a recording capital.

In the early 1950s, drums were, at best, an afterthought in Nashville music. Sometimes they were actually forbidden. Mr. Harman joined Carl Smith's band, and when Smith played the Opry,the show's management didn't allow Mr. Harman to so much as bring a snare drum on stage. Instead, Mr. Harman used brush sticks to play a "drum head" that was affixed to an upright bass. It was, Mr. Harman admitted, "very silly looking."

Jerry Carrigan played drums on Southern soul classics recorded in Muscle Shoals, and in the mid-1960s he headed to Nashville. In Music City, Carrigan looked to Mr. Harman as a mentor.

"He was the cat," Carrigan said. "I remember him with red pants, red shirt with the collar turned up, a black belt and black boots. He always had the coolest car and the coolest drums. And he was the consummate studio musician."

While the driving rock drum parts Mr. Harman played in the 1950s and '60s compel many listeners, Carrigan said his most impressive talent might have been the ability to play at low volumes and still bring a groove to the song.

"Most people can't play soft with any feel," Carrigan said. "Buddy was articulate at any dynamic or tempo. Anybody that says they didn't copy Buddy is a liar. He was an innovator. I'm telling you, man, the guy was unbelievable."

Bass player Bob Moore, who joined with Mr. Harman to complete the rhythm section on thousands of records, credits Mr. Harman not only with musical virtuosity but also with an emotional intelligence that helped sessions feel comfortable and friendly.

"He had such a great musical mind, but he was also such a kind, nice person," Moore said. "Buddy was funny in the studio, and he kept everybody feeling good."

Mr. Harman's temperament was a key element in his ability to mix with musicians of different stripes, in potentially exhausting work conditions. In the 1960s, Nashville's first-call session players often worked on three sessions a day. The men would get their hair cut at the studio, because there was no time to drive to an appointment.

In the studio, Mr. Harman also sought new ways to produce percussion sounds. On the Everly Brothers' "Till I Kissed You," he tuned his drums to produce a resonant, ringing "answer" to the vocals. On another session, he made a clicking sound by lightly striking a guitar neck with his drumsticks. Many times, he played brush sticks against a cardboard box.

"I asked him once what the strangest thing he played was," Bayers said. "He said, 'a spare tire.' I said, 'Two-ply or four-ply?' "

Mr. Harman is survived by his wife, Marsha Harman; daughters Autumn Harman of Nashville and Summer Harman of Mt. Juliet; sons Mark Harman of Franklin, Stanley Harman of Nashville and Murrey M. Harman III of Nashville; six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren; and brothers Bob Higley and Richard Higley, both of Jacksonville, Fla. Son Richard Harman preceded Mr. Harman in death.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Alive Hospice, 1718 Patterson St., Nashville, TN 37203.

Services will be at 11 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 26, with visitation one hour before service time at Brentwood-Roesch-Patton Funeral Home, 9010 Church St. E., Brentwood, TN 37027. 615-373-3040.

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Contact Peter Cooper
The Tennessean


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