When guitarist Casper Rawls and drummer Tom Lewis organized Austin’s first Buck Owens Birthday Party at the Continental Club in 1992, they meant for it to be a one-shot, not an institution. And yet for 25 years it went strong.
Rawls and Lewis, who were both in bands (the Leroi Brothers and the Wagoneers, respectively at the time) that played several Owens songs, had been kicking the notion around for some time before proceeding with that first show on Buck’s birthday of August 12. The format featured various Austin artists each playing three or four Owens songs, backed by a Buckaroos-like house band. Everyone said they’d never draw a crowd for something like this, but that wasn’t the main idea anyhow: the tribute was.
“Some of my musical heroes growing up were Buck and Don [Rich, Owens’ great guitarist, fiddler and sidekick, and a key architect of Buck’s classic “freight-train” sound, whose death in a freak 1974 motorcycle accident led the anguished country star to essentially shut down his own career]. Buck’s band had such a unique sound, and they played so good together. I always admired him for using his own band on his recordings, too,” Casper says. Adds Lewis: “I liked it that they had a little more rock and roll to them than other country bands. Buck really showcased his band, but each player also stood out as an individual.
“So really, we did that first show just to have a good time. Those songs are so much fun to play,” Tom continues. “We didn’t really expect anyone to show,” Casper adds. But it turned out to be a packed house.”
Much is different today, of course. Casper is solo after working with The LeRoi Brothers for 25 years. Following an eleven-year stint with Toni Price, he’s also been a hired gun for Doyle Bramhall Sr, Kelly Willis and Sunny Sweeney.. Lewis is best known as the founder of Heybale! and member of The Wagoneers. The most momentous change has been that Buck, who blessed the celebration by showing up and contributing a mini-set of his own in 1995, died on March 25, 2006. He was 76 years old. But the annual Buck Owens Birthday Party lived on until recently. While some musicians were reluctant to play that first bash, there was never any problem since then filling out the show; indeed, for two years so many artists joined that the party had to be extended over two nights.
And yet much stayed the same. Since its second year, the event served as a benefit for The Travis County Center for Child Protection, and later for the Health Alliance For Austin Musicians (HAAM). The party was always held at the Continental Club. The house band remained surprisingly, if not completely, stable: joining Rawls and Lewis were Kevin Owens, Ricky Davis, Nathan Fleming on steel guitar and Craig Pettigrew, then Brent Wilson, then David Carroll on bass, with Wilson also doing a stretch on acoustic guitar. In the late 90s—nobody remembers the exact year–pianist Earl Poole Ball joined the band, and some years there was also a fiddler. For repeat guests, the party became as much an annual highlight as it was for Rawls and Lewis. Though Casper was the only person to play every year—Lewis missed three—Susana Van Tassel, Roy Heinrich, Monte Warden, Ted Roddy, Cornell Hurd, and the Derailers were all at least semi-regulars; in recent years, they were joined by up-and-comers like Miss Leslie Sloan, Sunny Sweeney, Brennen Leigh, Dallas Wayne, Bobby Earl Smith and Mike Barfield. Tom Clifford and David Beebe served as hosts for many years. And it was as festive a birthday party as you could ever hope to attend.