Buttrey was born in Nashville, Tennessee, became a professional musician at age 11 and went on his first world tour at the age of 14 with Chet Atkins. He first worked with Charlie McCoy and went on to play with two of his own groups, Barefoot Jerry and Area Code 615. Area Code 615 was best known for its song "Stone Fox Chase," which was the theme song for the BBC music programme The Old Grey Whistle Test in the 1970s.
However, he was best known as a session player and worked with a number of well-known musicians. His best-known work was with Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Jimmy Buffett. He also plays on a number of early 70's albums by Al Kooper.
He appears on Dylan's albums Blonde on Blonde, Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait and John Wesley Harding; Young's albums Tonight's the Night, Harvest and Harvest Moon; and Buffett's Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes (including the hit "Margaritaville"). He also worked with Joe Simon, playing on Simon hits "The Chokin' Kind," "Farther On Down The Road" and "Moonwalk", J.J. Cale, Bob Seger, Gordon Lightfoot, Elvis Presley, Mickey Newbury, Donovan, George Harrison, Joan Baez, Peggy Scott and Jo Jo Benson, Dan Fogelberg, Kris Kristofferson, and Leo Kottke. In addition to studio work, Buttrey was a member of Neil Young's touring band, the Stray Gators. In 1972, he left the Stray Gators during their tour, saying all the fan attention was too much. Johnny Barbata replaced Buttrey in mid-tour. Buttrey also played in the group Rig. In 1979, Buttrey provided the drumming for Chuck Berry's studio album Rock It. Also in 1979, he played drums on contemporary Christian singer Don Francisco's album Got to Tell Somebody.
He was quoted as saying he was most proud of his drumming on Bob Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay", released on Nashville Skyline.
Buttrey died of cancer in Nashville on September 12, 2004, at the age of 59.
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