Sunday listening: “The Legend of Buford Pusser”

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This Sunday’s listening, purchased a few days ago at Secondhand Sam’s in Jasper, Alabama: Eddie Bond Sings The Legend of Buford Pusser, 10 songs on the life & death of the McNairy County, Tennessee, sheriff known for waging war against organized crime, prostitution and moonshine in south Tennessee. This album’s notes describe Pusser as “an American folk hero” and “rugged symbol of honest law enforcement”; he carried a huge wooden stick as all-purpose weapon and was famous (his memory still celebrated by many admirers today) for his relentless, ruthless approach to the law. Pusser made lots of enemies and was subject to a few assassination attempts. His wife was killed in 1967 in an ambush meant for the lawman; Pusser survived the attack, his mangled jaw put back together with wire mesh.

Eddie Bond was a one-time rockabilly singer who’d also served as Buford Pusser’s deputy — and who, at the time of this recording, was “the singing police chief of Finger, Tennessee” (a job, by the way, that Pusser helped him land). Eddie Bond Sings The Legend of Buford Pusser was produced by “Cowboy” Jack Clement and released in 1973 on a subsidiary of the STAX record label(!!); its release helped inspire Walking Tall, a movie about Pusser, which led to two sequels and a short-lived TV series. (A 2004 remake starred Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the Pusser role but gave the sheriff a new name and backstory.)

I’ve got The Legend of Buford Pusser on the turntable right now, and it’s something — all hero worship and country twang. In “Buford Pusser Goes Bear Hunting With a Switch” (a mouthful of a song title) the sheriff gets full-scale tall-tale treatment:

On the day that he was borned he weighed 42 pounds
He jumped out of bed and he stomped on the ground
He said, Listen here, doc, don’t hit me no more
If you do, you’re going to pick yourself off of the floor

He’s Buford Pusser! He goes bear-hunting with a switch
Ain’t a moonshiner in the county that big Buford can’t get

And so on.

A few other songwriters have remembered Pusser less favorably. Jimmy Buffett had a drunken run-in with the sheriff, himself — Pusser allegedly pummeled him and pulled a tuft of hair out of his head, after Buffett walked across the hood of Pusser’s car in golf shoes — and he alludes to the incident in a couple of songs, “Semi-True Stories” and “Presents to Send You.” The Drive-By Truckers devote two angry songs of their own to Pusser on their 2004 album, The Dirty South, both looking at the man from the vantage point of those who faced his brutal brand of justice. In “The Boys from Alabama,” singer Patterson Hood promises to tell “the other side” of the Pusser story, and in “The Buford Stick” he sings:

Now Sheriff Buford Pusser’s gotten too big for his britches
With his book reviews and movie deals

Down at the car lot making public appearances
For breaking up our homes and stills
I know he likes to brag how he wrestled a bear
But I knew him from the funeral home
Ask him for a warrant, he’ll say “I keep it in my shoe”

That son of a bitch has got to go
That son of a bitch has got to go

Pusser had already laid down his badge by the time his legend really took off outside McNairy County. In 1970, term limits prevented him from running again as sheriff; when he did run in 1972, he was defeated, even as his national celebrity was on the rise. Eddie Bond’s album and the first Walking Tall both appeared in 1973, and for a little while Pusser rubbed shoulders with the rich, famous, and powerful. On August 21 of 1974, he made a deal to play himself in the next movie about him, this one to be titled just Buford; he was feeling good, and maybe a little drunk, as he drove to his home in Adamsville, Tennessee. His bright red, custom Corvette, paid for with Walking Tall money, hit an embankment at high speed, just four miles from home, and Buford Pusser was thrown from his vehicle. He was killed on the spot. Rumors of foul play abounded. The legend grew.

And what of Eddie Bond? Poor fellow! When he died in 2013, the first sentence of his New York Times obituary emphasized what may now be his greatest claim to fame: that he “once told a teenage Elvis Presley that he would be better off driving a truck than trying to make it in music.” Well over half of the Times obituary is concerned with this story, which Bond had spent years trying to explain away; the rest of Eddie Bond’s life — including an unsuccessful run for sheriff of Shelby County, Tennessee — is presented as afterthought, condensed to a few sentences.

The Elvis story, for what it’s worth, goes like this: the unknown singer auditioned for Eddie Bond’s band in May of 1954. Bond was three years older than Elvis and already established in the Memphis music scene. He told the kid to keep his day job — but two months later, Elvis cut his first sides at Sun Records, and his truck-driving days were history.

A few years later, en route to Hollywood for the making of Jailhouse Rock, Elvis confided to a friend that Bond’s advice “broke my heart.” But, he said: “I wonder what Eddie Bond thinks now.”

P. S. If you like this sort of thing, you can support the endeavor by doing any of the following: follow this blog by signing up on the righthand side of this page (you’ll get about 2 posts a month in your email inbox); follow @lostchildradio on Instagram; or “like” my book and/or radio show on Facebook. You can purchase my book with Alabama jazzman “Doc” Adams online or at your local bookstore. Heartfelt thanks, sincerely, for any / all of the above.

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