Buddy Jewell Recalls ‘Living Off Bananas and McDonald’s Coupons’

Buddy Jewell didn’t think he’d win the very first season of Nashville Star, but television producers did. In fact, they were sure of it after just one week.

Twenty years ago next month, the (then) 42-year-old from Lepanto, Ark., topped John Arthur Martinez and a teenager named Miranda Lambert in the Season 1 finale. Then, the real work began.

As a demo singer (Fun fact: he cut the demo for George Strait‘s “Write This Down”), Jewell had gotten to know artists like Lari White and Collin Raye, so he knew well enough that he’d need more than a shot of fame to make a career of it.

“I kind of knew some behind-the-scene things and I knew it’s something where you gotta build, build, build,” Jewell tells Taste of Country. “I think I had a pretty clear head about if I’m going to do that, it’s going to take some doing to get there.”

“There was one confrontation I had with one of the girls on the show … I thought they were gonna kick me off after that, and one of the producers pulled me aside and said, ‘You don’t understand, we want more of that.'”

“Help Pour Out the Rain” was his debut single and it hit No. 3 on radio airplay charts. “Sweet Southern Comfort” came next and did likewise. In 2023, this is still Jewell’s most famous song, which is half the reason he’s re-recorded it as an all star collaboration.

Against his wishes, a bluegrass-inspired song called “One Step at a Time” was chosen as his third single and it flatlined (Jewell and — as he remembers — radio stations nationwide wanted “Abilene on Her Mind”). Sony released a second album of his, but the moment had fizzled, and so did his commercial radio career. He holds no hard feelings toward anyone involved.

“It’s funny when I see me on the one-hit wonder playlist,” Jewel says, laughing. “Actually, I had two.”

The Bellamy Brothers, Clint Black and Marty Raybon join Jewell for the 20th anniversary edition of “Sweet Southern Comfort.” The timeless Southern ballad stays true to the original, with all four vocalists trading lyrics throughout. The other reason he chose this song to celebrate 20 years is that it lends itself better to collaborations with friends.

Even though he’s never watched old episodes of Nashville Star, Jewell enjoyed the nostalgia of it all. Talking to ToC, the country veteran detailed some of the peculiarities of that first season before revealing that it was never really even a competition.

“They said after the first show, ‘We knew you were going to win. We couldn’t tell you, but you were so many millions of votes ahead that nobody was going to catch you,’” Jewell says.

(This conversation took place during Country Radio Seminar in Nashville.)

Taste of Country: How do you look back on your time on Nashville Star, and has it changed?

Buddy Jewell: That was a blessing straight from God. I’d been here for 10 years. Moved here in ’93. I’d been passed over by every record label, literally at least twice — majors, independents, it didn’t matter. I’d just about given up all hope on getting a deal. But I was making a good living singing demos, and the show came along and I almost didn’t do it. I’d done other stuff — Ed McMahon’s Star Search back in the early ‘90s — but my wife … she’s like, “We left Dallas and everything there to come do this. If we don’t turn over every stone, we might as well pack up and go back.”

The label (Columbia Nashville), they pretty quickly tried to distance me from the show and I never understood that. I guess they didn’t think it looked good to have a reality show winner on the label, but if you think about it, they didn’t want me before they got me anyway. I’ve always been really proud of it. I’m the first Nashville Star, you can’t take that away from me!

As the oldest artist on the show, did you think that gave you an edge?

Man, I thought I was going home every Saturday. I turned 42 when I was on the show. I looked at Miranda and there was a guy there that played harmonica … Jamey Garner was on the show with me (he) looked like an underwear model. I thought, ‘He’s gonna win it or one of these pretty girls is gonna win it,’ and every Saturday there was no one more shocked that me who made it to the next week.

Nashville Star tried to position itself as being more about music, less about image. People bought into that, it seems.

They did a great job that first year of letting the audience get to know the contestants. They took us to our hometowns. We lived in a big house on Music Row. We were supposed to cook our own food and we wound up living off bananas and McDonald’s coupons because we never knew when they were going to pull us to go film. Then, they wound up in subsequent years living at the Opryland and eating room service. It’s kind of hard to get to know somebody like that.

You were all living in the same house? How did that work out?

Yeah. I couldn’t believe they found a house that big, first of all. Of course everybody had to have a roommate, and John Arthur Martinez and I got to be — and I loved everybody on the show. The guys. Some of the girls I could have probably done without. John and I wound up in the same bedroom. The two oldest guys were together, and that was fine. We were pretty calm. It was an interesting dynamic, especially when somebody got voted off. You had rotten food in the refrigerator you had to get rid off. They wanted us to fight each other … and everybody had been trying so hard to get a record deal, we felt sorry for the other ones on the show and we all really kind of got along well.

There was one confrontation I had with one of the girls on the show, and that was about it. I thought they were gonna kick me off after that, and one of the producers pulled me aside and said, “You don’t understand, we want more of that.”

What was it over?

She didn’t wanna rehearse. We were singing the National Anthem at a Titans game and she didn’t wanna rehearse. She wanted to save her voice, but she was out drinking and smoking cigarettes to four, five o’clock in the morning and not taking care of her voice, and then she didn’t wanna rehearse. I kinda got a little ticked about that and told her what I thought.

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