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Buck Owens tribute comes naturally

For 20 years, the Buck Owens Birthday Bash at the Continental Club has measured the distance between Nashville and Bakersfield

Ed Crowell
The first three Buck Owens Birthday Bashes didn't feature the man himself, left. Then, in 1995, Owens came by to see what the hubbub was about. Casper Rawls, right, said if he'd known for sure Owens was coming, he'd have cranked up the publicity and hired a bigger hall. Owens slipped in the Continental's front door and took a seat at the bar, but soon was up on stage with a range of local acts.

Tribute shows occur on Austin stages at the drop of a hat, most often when a music giant drops dead. They're usually one-nighters with acts quickly coming together from the city's deep ranks to play honors to a fellow musician.

But two tributes, neither for homeboys, go on year after year at the Continental Club. One is for the universally worshipped and impersonated Elvis Presley. The other is for Buck Owens, whose brand of energetic country music hangs the moon for many Austin singers and guitarists.

Owens, originator of the unembellished honky-tonk music known as the Bakersfield sound, died in his sleep in 2006 at his California home a few hours after playing a concert. Long before that, local guitarist Casper Rawls started putting together the Austin tributes featuring an ever-changing cast of acts, each performing a couple of songs from Owens' extensive catalog.

In 1992, Rawls was playing with the LeRoi Brothers, and drummer Tom Lewis had been with the Wagoneers. "We both liked the sound of Buck Owens and thought we should do a night of his songs. Once we really got into his music and started rehearsing, we learned how complex it was on a lot of different levels," said Rawls. He had listened to Owens on radio growing up in Helotes, near San Antonio, and was familiar with Owens' 1960s hit records. But while Rawls admired Owens' singing and his cool Fender Telecaster playing, the Californian wasn't an obsession with him. Rawls had never seen him perform live, and Owens' touring comeback with Dwight Yoakam in the late '80s had peaked.

Nonetheless, Rawls' and Lewis' first Buck Owens Birthday Bash was followed the next year by another and another, raising money for an Austin child advocacy group. Rawls had contacted Owens' staff in Bakersfield about the tribute shows and invited him to come each August. The music continued to draw crowds to the Continental, where fans appreciated lively country with a strong guitars-and-drum presence and none of the over-produced slickness and pop sounds coming out of Nashville.

Owens' first run-in with country music's establishment was in 1954, when he was invited to play the Grand Ole Opry but drums were a no-no and sound techs controlled the show. Owens and his hand-picked Buckaroos band, which soon would feature the multitalented Don Rich as Owens' soulmate, wanted to be in command of their own music, says Eileen Sisk in her 2010 book "Buck Owens: The Biography."

"My problem with Nashville was simple," Owens once told the newspaper in Bakersfield, where he moved as a 20-year-old. "I don't like the way they do talent, and I don't like the way they cut records."

Born in the North Texas town of Sherman on Aug. 12, 1929, to a tenant farming family that migrated to Arizona, Owens put himself in charge of things from the git-go. During a 1950s stint in Tacoma, Wash., he bought a radio station. He got television experience there as host of "The Bar-K Jamboree." Later he bought more radio stations and became a partner in a booking agency that represented fellow Bakersfield songwriter Merle Haggard.

In 1965, the Beatles covered on their "Help" album the song "Act Naturally," the tune that started Owens' run of 15 No. 1 singles on the Billboard country charts in 1963 and '64. By 1965, his record sales at Capitol were behind only the Beatles and the Beach Boys. In his lifetime, he recorded more than 60 albums.

Television's corny country answer to "Laugh-In" in 1969 was "Hee Haw," a jokes, skits and music show on CBS that picked Owens and singer Roy Clark as hosts. It paid well, and years of syndication followed long after Owens stopped serious touring and turning out new records.

As the fourth Birthday Bash in Austin loomed, Owens got curious and sent Rawls a tease: one of the red, white and blue acoustic guitars that he favored as gifts. On the front, a shiny metal pick guard was engraved: "To Casper, I might see you August 12, 1995! Thank You, Buck Owens September 12, 1994."

And he did.

The show was about to begin when the man himself quietly walked through the front door of the Continental Club and took a seat at the bar. Rawls and club owner Steve Wertheimer knew Owens was coming, but few in the audience were aware of it because Owens told Rawls he didn't want to disappoint people if he couldn't make it. Otherwise, Rawls said, he and Wertheimer would have rented a bigger hall and publicized Owens' appearance.

In his white cowboy hat and embroidered jacket, Owens soon got on stage, thanking the not-quite-full audience for honoring his old songs and noting, "I'm old like dirt." Then he launched into a spirited "Loose Talk" duet with Kelly Willis before bringing up singer Jim Lauderdale and pianist Jim Shaw, who had flown in with him. Alongside Rawls, they did "Love's Gonna Live Here," "I Don't Hear You" and a driving "I've Got a Tiger by the Tail." A birthday cake presentation kept Owens on stage for a few rambling jokes and more thanks for the tribute shows. Then he stepped down.

Rawls said one of the night's most touching moments came later when the Derailers played in matching suits that looked like what Owens and the Buckaroos used to wear. "Buck stood in front of the stage with tears in his eyes and you could see it was like a mirror image of him playing a club in the old days," said Rawls. "He became great friends with the Derailers after that. And I'm truly blessed to have known Buck."

Employing "the idea he got from us about playing the old songs with other people," Rawls said, Owens started his own Birthday Bashes in Bakersfield at his lavish Crystal Palace museum-club-restaurant, which was built in 1996. Rawls was invited to play alongside such stars as Yoakam and Marty Stuart.

Since the beginning of the Austin shows, each has benefited the Center for Child Protection, a nonprofit group that helps abused children. The center, by agreement with law enforcement and prosecution officials and the state Child Protective Services agency, does the first interviews with mistreated children and provides continuing services, helping more than 2,700 children last year.

More than $60,000 has been raised for the center through admissions. The benefit came about because Edith Royal was on the center's board, and she and her husband, legendary former University of Texas football coach Darrell K Royal, are big music fans and knew Rawls' guitar work. Center chief executive officer Sandra Martin said, "The wonderful thing about the Buck Owens birthday party is that Casper and the Continental Club do all the work and it's so much fun. We get unrestricted money so we can meet the many needs of our children."

At this year's show, up to 60 songs are planned. That means at least 30 acts, including the reunited Wagoneers and Bob Holly, brother of Doyle Holly, a Buckaroo from 1963-'71. No doubt someone will sing "Hot Dog," which bookended Owens' career. In 1956, he recorded the rockabilly song about a hot dog stand and a hep-cats hop under a pseudonym because it didn't fit Nashville's image of a proper country singer. In 1988, he recorded it again on an album of the same name with other old songs sung anew, including "Under Your Spell Again" with Yoakam. It was an announcement of sorts that Buck Owens, as Austin would recognize, still had something to give a younger generation.

Two towns, one Buck

Austin and Bakersfield have a common musical hero — Buck Owens. Here's how the two scenes compare:

BAKERSFIELD

The place: Middle of California in fertile San Joaquin Valley, about 350,000 population, hot and dry, Friant-Kern Canal aqueduct through town, blue collar.

The music: Besides Owens, the Bakersfield sound claims Merle Haggard, Dwight Yoakam, Gary Allan and Austinites Dale Watson and the Derailers. Nods to the town are in the Rolling Stones' "Far Away Eyes" and Social Distortion's song "Bakersfield."

The fun: Rockin' Roots Festival, Lowrider National, drag racing, Scottish, Greek and Basque ethnic fests.

AUSTIN

The place: Middle of Texas in the Hill Country, about 800,000 population, hot and dry, Colorado River through town, university and high-tech types.

The music: Willie Nelson once king, then Stevie Ray Vaughan, now all over the map with singer-songwriters, punk revivalists and atmospheric bands.

The fun: SXSW, Austin City Limits Music Festival, Pachanga Latino Music Festival, Fun Fun Fun Fest and clubs galore.

20th Annual Buck Owens Birthday Bash