His nearly platinum-selling debut CD and hits like "Help Pour Out the Rain" and "Sweet Southern Comfort" introduced millions to his warm, expressive voice. But the performances on Times Like These are something else. These are the vocals of a man at the top of his game -- muscular, emotional and awesome in their impact. Turn off any recording-studio trickery devices: This guy is for real.
"I chose songs that I thought would stretch me a little bit," says Jewell. "On this album, I tried to grow as a vocalist. One of the reasons I chose Garth Fundis to produce is that he has worked with some of my favorite vocalists Keith Whitley, Don Williams, Trisha Yearwood. I figured if anybody could showcase my vocal range, he could."
The proof is in the listening. Buddy Jewell strikes a bluesy groove in his hit single "If She Were Any Other Woman." His harmony vocalist is another world-class singer, Vince Gill. Jewell soars like an eagle in full flight on "Me Lovin' You" and turns softly wistful on "Dyess, Arkansas." He's world-weary and blue on "Run Away Home," full of attitude on "Glad I'm Gone" and aching and heartbroken on "Back to You."
Pay heed to that powerful growl as he rounds the corner into the last chorus of the rocking "So Gone." Take note of the philosophical bent he lends to the lyrics of "You Ain't Doin' it Right" and "Times Like These." Listen to the way he softly leads you into the words of "Addicted to the Rain," then stand back as he roars the thrilling chorus of "I'd Run."
There aren't many singers who can tackle melodies as wide ranging as these. And there are even fewer who are so sensitive to lyrics. Many vocalists simply sing the notes. Buddy Jewell sounds like he has lived every word.
"A lot of these songs are sort of autobiographical, whether I wrote them or not," he comments. "My kids inspired me to write 'Addicted to the Rain' and 'Times Like These.' 'Dyess, Arkansas' is my Dad's story. I've been in relationships like the one in 'Glad I'm Gone.' And I've definitely lived 'I'd Run' and 'You Ain't Doin' it Right.'"
Buddy Jewell's voice is the voice of experience. It has a friendly, "lived in" quality because, as the old saying goes, he has "been around." Born to a working-class family in Arkansas, Jewell has been singing for his supper since the age of 21, from Texas to Tennessee. He has also driven a beer truck, been a nightclub bouncer, washed cars, bagged groceries, worked as a door-to-door salesman and labored on a loading dock. He is a husband and a father.
In April 2005, Buddy will be honored by the National Fatherhood Initiative as a recipient of their annual Fatherhood Awards - an award given to individuals who exemplify the ideals of involved, responsible and committed fatherhood.
He was mainly raised in Osceola, Arkansas. That's not far from Dyess, where his father grew up with Johnny Cash. Conway Twitty hailed from nearby Helena, and Glen Campbell is a native of Delight. Both of his parents were musical, and there were stacks of classic country records around the house. An uncle taught Jewell to play guitar. Enthralled with the instrument at age 15, the boy taught himself to perform Cash's "I Still Miss Someone," a number that remains in his stage repertoire to this day.
Buddy Jewell was a natural athlete, playing baseball, basketball and football. He was team captain and the quarterback of his high school team and played college football as well. But while in college, he began to perform in clubs and talent contests, igniting his passion for country singing. He left college in his junior year and married. Youth and his musical ambition soon broke up the marriage.
In the wake of his 1984 divorce, Jewell became the lead singer of the country band White Oak. The group signed up with a booking agency that also represented Canyon, Lariat and Bayou Speak Easy, the last of which was fronted by the then-unknown Trace Adkins. At a 1987 White Oak club date in Irving, Texas, Jewell met his wife Tene. They married the following year and had son Buddy III in 1989.
In the meantime, White Oak fell apart, and Jewell began performing solo. In 1990, he landed a job singing at Six Flags Over Texas. But that show wanted him to cut his hair, so he quickly took a role in the park's cowboy/gunfight production instead. At night, he continued to sing in clubs. In 1991, he entered a talent contest sponsored by the superstar group Alabama, which led to him opening for the band in concert. The following year he competed on TV's Star Search, winning Male Vocalist on several episodes. He was making progress, but finally realized that if he was going to get anywhere musically, the family would have to move to Nashville.
In between all those working-stiff jobs, Jewell began to make contacts on Music Row. His larger-than-life voice eventually made him Nashville's most popular "demo" singer. That's an anonymous vocalist who is hired to record a demonstration of a song that is then played for a star's consideration. George Strait's "Write This Down," Lee Ann Womack's "A Little Past Little Rock," Clay Walker's "You're Beginning to Get to Me" and Gary Allan's "The One" were all first sung as Buddy Jewell demos. He has recorded more than 4,000 such tapes. In 1997, alone, Jewell sang 663 song demos. But he yearned for something more. He wanted a shot at the country-music big time.
Songwriters and music publishers loved him. The record companies did not. Buddy Jewell became increasingly frustrated as he was turned down for a recording contract by one label after another on Music Row. One offer evaporated when the interested label shut down. Another one vanished when the label was sold. He kept on patiently singing demos with dignity, slowly letting his recording-contract dream die. Daughter Lacey came along in 1994. Second son Joshua was born in 2000.
Encouraged by wife, Tene, Buddy entered the USA Network's contest Nashville Star in 2003. More than 8,000 performers tried out for the show; 125 of them made it to the semi-finals; 12 were chosen for the nine-week series. The national television audience reacted powerfully to Jewell's heart-in-throat vocal performances and voted him the champion. Columbia Records rushed him into the studio with producer Clint Black, and within weeks Buddy Jewell delivered his superb debut CD.
"I had a little website. The first night I sang 'Help Pour Out the Rain' on the show, it had so many responses that it crashed the website and cost me $600. I didn't have a clue that the song would have that kind of impact. Tene and I started printing out emails off the site. A lot of them were from parents whose children had died. I got hundreds of letters. We collected the print-outs and letters and put them in a binder. Not for public consumption. Just for ourselves. I'm honored that I had a hand in creating something that means so much to people. But it was bittersweet. You wish that it was for a happier reason.
"A week after I won on the show, I was getting offers to do concerts. I had to make decisions quickly. I had to make the record, chose a manager, find a booking agent, get an accountant, put together a band and hire a road manager. When you utter those words, 'I want a record deal,' you never realize what you're asking for!"
"I went from somebody who was home all the time to somebody that was doing 120 shows or more a year. My wife probably enjoys it some -- I wasn't always the life of the party, to be honest. When I leave on the bus, Lacey is pretty teary-eyed about it. But all in all, I think we've adjusted pretty well."
During the school year, the family travels with him if he's just going out for a weekend. In the summer months, the kids enjoy going to the various fairs where Jewell is booked, romping on the midways, riding rides and eating cotton candy. His most frequent touring partner during the past year has been his old Bayou Speak Easy buddy, Trace Adkins. Ever the fan, Jewell is thrilled that he's met such idols as Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, George Strait and Alan Jackson in the past year.
"When I was nominated for the Horizon Award at the CMA's, I got to share a dressing room with Kris Kristofferson and Hank Williams Jr. At the BMI banquet, Loretta Lynn kissed me!"
The year that followed his win on Nashville Star was truly a dream fulfilled for Buddy. He earned major award nominations from ACM for Best New Artist, CMA for Horizon of the Year and a Grammy nomination for his participation in Amazing Grace III a special gospel project.
Buddy Jewell has become one of Nashville's most visible charity volunteers. He is the spokesperson for the Minnie Pearl Cancer Foundation, frequently does events for St. Jude's children's hospital, participated in the Angel Tree fund drive, performed on the MDA telethon, volunteered for Compassion International and is active in a number of various other causes.
"I see this is an opportunity to make a difference in people's lives. And maybe that is really what my purpose as an artist is. If they want me, I'll be there if I can, to hopefully make a difference.
"I was rolling along, and before I knew it, it was time to do this record. It turned out, this wasn't an easy album to make. I was gone a lot doing shows. I was sick a lot. It turned out that the medicine I was taking was drying out my throat and giving me voice problems. They were bringing me cool songs, but I kept going, 'Where's the country music?' I had to tell them, 'Guys, I don't want to go back to the '60's and I'm not Buck Owens, but I don't want to stray far from what people liked about that first album.'
"So I was kind of fighting to make this thing as country as it is. Politically, Garth Fundis and I couldn't be further apart. And we were recording during the election, so that made it interesting at times. But you know what? We were just different enough that I think it worked out really well.
"I'm the same guy I've always been. Same house. Same car. But the car is paid off now, and hopefully in another year the house will be, too. We're doing little things, fixing it up one room at a time.
"Only one thing has changed: I'm having the time of my life."