Casper and Buck
A tribute and friendship with a country music legend
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.
Before the maiden show, Casper phoned Buckaroos keyboardist (since 1969) Jim Shaw in Owens’ Bakersfield office to seek assurances that the star wouldn’t disapprove. Instead, Buck showed nothing but pleased puzzlement—why would a bunch of young Austin pickers want to be playing old Buck Owens songs?—which seemed to grow once Rawls gave Shaw a glowing follow-up report after the event. After that first one did prove so successful, Rawls and Lewis decided they’d do it again, but always as a benefit, so there’d be no question about who was profiting. Country music fan and former University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal recommended to them the Childrens’ Advocacy Center, as the center For Child Protection was then called; Royal’s wife served on the board.
Casper’s phone calls to Shaw continued to keep Buck informed each year. After the third party, Rawls and crew received a surprise in the mail from an increasingly intrigued Owens: a red, white and blue flat-top Buck Owens American guitar with, “To Casper, might see you August 12, 1995” engraved on its gold pickguard. The ’95 party actually took place on August 13, but Buck made good. After asking Wertheimer and Rawls to keep his plans on the hush-hush so he wouldn’t draw attention away from the performers, Owens arrived in Austin on a leased Lear jet with Shaw and Jim Lauderdale in tow. Buck relaxed for a while before the show in an RV Wertheimer had provided, easing into a reserved space at the end of the bar once the music began.
Before long, though, he was out in the middle of the dance floor, grinning and nodding his head while wiping away an occasional tear. Finally, unable to resist any longer, he strapped on his Tele and hopped onstage to sing “Loose Talk” with Kelly Willis, before whooping out exuberant versions of “Love’s Gonna Live Here Again,” “I Don’t Hear You” and “Tiger by the Tail.” Later, Casper recalled, “Buck said the show was like seeing his life pass before his eyes; he heard all those songs and he remembered where he was and what he was doing when he wrote them.” When Owens got home, he pulled Don Rich’s guitar and amp out of storage and began playing more guitar himself.
That’s undoubtedly the most memorable Birthday Party, but there’ve been other unforgettable nights. One year Doug Sahm climbed out of the audience to join Alvin Crow in an unscheduled version of “Together Again” that silenced the house. In 1998, original Buckaroo Doyle Holly sang a pair of songs, including “Streets of Laredo,” which he’d regularly done as part of Owens’ show; he came back several more times. Wayne Wilson, bassist and rhythm guitarist in a late version of the Buckaroos, came down from his home in Dallas one year, and Johnny Rodriguez turned up another. The Hager Twins, veterans of Buck’s revue and of Hee-Haw, showed up three straight years beginning in 2004; they made it a practice to call Buck, back in Bakersfield, from the stage so he could hear the crowd sing “Happy Birthday.” Party sets ran five hours-plus, usually ending around 2:30 in the morning, with about twenty artists doing about sixty songs written by or associated with Buck. Nobody who ever asked to play the Birthday Party was ever turned away; in 1997 and 1998 there were so many participants that Rawls and Lewis had to schedule artist nights and band nights back to back.
The Crystal Palace, Buck’s nightclub in Bakersfield, soon began holding a Birthday Party of its own the years he was in the mood for one; Casper was there for most of them to crank up “Rhythm and Booze,” one of Buck’s old Pep Records rockabilly obscurities that the LeRoi Brothers recorded. Once Casper went out for a non-birthday gig and wound up playing four sets in two nights with Buck and the Buckaroos. Whenever Casper visited the Crystal Palace, Buck asked him to play Rich’s silver sparkle guitar In 2002, Texas Round-Up Records released Happy Birthday, Buck!, a 22-track CD of Owens songs. Also a benefit, and also blessed by Buck, the album featured the live recording of his ’95 romp through “Love’s Gonna Live Here.” Though weighted heavily towards Birthday Party regulars, the disc also included artists (Rodney Crowell, Rick Trevino, David Ball) who’d never played the gig but clearly knew their Buck Owens music just the same.
Rawls also went to Bakersfield for Buck’s funeral in 2006. Afterwards, family and friends gathered at the Crystal Palace for some music, food and reminiscing. Eventually, Buck’s son Buddy Alan strapped his dad’s guitar on Casper. The Austin musician responded with his version of “Buckaroo,” the Owens band’s instrumental theme song, and the music twanged on into the night.
Written by John Morthland