Buck Owens Birthday Bash 20th Anniversary: Celebrating the sounds of Bakersfield
“Why don’t we do a whole night of Buck Owens music?” It was a simple question posed over twenty years ago by guitarist Casper Rawls that has created an Austin institution. Buck Owens Birthday Bash annually celebrates the man behind the raw, un-polished Bakersfield sound that shook up country music half a century ago and still influences Austin’s independent music community today.
“It’s not Nashville at all: loose, big old beat, twangy guitars, great singing and harmonies,” says Rawls of the Bakersfield sound that Buck Owens defined. “The best way to describe it is to listen to it.”
You can listen to it live this Friday at the Continental Club when a host of musicians gather for the 20th anniversary of Buck Owens Birthday Bash to pay tribute to the man who countered Nashville’s polish way before "rebel" was cool.
Rawls remembers the time the late Doug Sahm (founder of Texas Tornados) showed up unannounced with Alvin Crow. “He sang 'Together Again' and stole the show... unbelievable.”
“It emerged from our love of Buck Owens and the vibrant Austin music scene,” says Buck Bash Co-Founder Tom Lewis. In 1992, Rawls, a local guitarist, and Lewis, a local drummer, were both playing in bands who typically covered a few Buck Owens songs per set, but that was all. So Rawls posed a question, and with the help of Lewis and the Continental Club’s Steve Wertheimer, the first Buck Owens Birthday Bash took place on August 12, 1992, coinciding with Owens’ 63rd birthday.
The formula was simple: a gathering of ten local performers at the Continental Club who would play a few Buck Owens tunes each. They were backed by house band The Austin Buckaroos, featuring Rawls on guitar and Lewis on drums. “We had such a good time, and we just loved that music, you know, and playing it like it was on the records,” says Rawls.
At the time, Owens wasn’t making records. He had paired with Dwight Yoakam for the hit album Streets of Bakersfield a few years before, but his popularity had again waned. If he played at all, it was down at the Bakersfield fairgrounds with either Yoakam or Merle Haggard, two artists who clearly embodied his signature sound.
But Buck’s music was making the rounds in Austin, fueled by the newly conceived Buck Bash, and in 1994, Rawls heard from Owens himself. “Buck sent me a guitar,” says Rawls, “and on the pick guard it said ‘To Casper, I might see you August 12, 1995.’”
Owens kept his word and made his way to a little club on South Congress for the annual bash in his honor. “It was a secret,” says Rawls. So the house band played as usual, and then “sure enough, he showed up and sang three songs with us [the house band] and Loose Talk with Kelly Willis.”
“That was a magical night,” remembers Lewis.
Some years have been slim, others amazingly packed, but through them all Buck Bash has seen its share of memorable performances. Rawls remembers the time the late Doug Sahm (founder of Texas Tornados) showed up unannounced with Alvin Crow. “He sang 'Together Again' and stole the show... unbelievable.”
Though Buck only made it to Austin for one show (he died in 2006), his sound still fills the Continental Club each August, backed by some of the same Austin Buckaroos who started it off 20 years ago. This year’s house band is Casper Rawls, Tom Lewis, David Carroll and Dave Biller. “It’s not about us,” Rawls reminds. “We’re just there to support the singers, you know.”
This year, more than 30 performers will hit the stage. They range from relative newcomers to seasoned vets (five of whom were part of the inaugural bash) and include Redd Volkaert, The Texas Sapphires and Jason Eady.
And whether you expect it or not, chances are you’ll hear some familiar tunes. “Streets of Bakersfield,” “Act Naturally” and “Heartaches by the Number” are all on the bill, along with some more obscure tunes and a few instrumentals. “I look forward to all the performances,” says Lewis of the upcoming show. “It is very interesting to me the way individual artists translate a Buck Owens song.”
Decades past its height, musicians around town are still influenced by the Bakersfield sound that Owens pioneered. And it makes sense. “There are many similarities between Buck and the Austin music scene,” says Lewis. “Buck was an outsider.”
“All of these artists, they’ve got the Austin-meets-Bakersfield sound,” says Rawls. “They do music their way… the way Buck used to do. Buck didn’t take orders from anyone.”
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The 20th Annual Buck Owens Birthday Bash is Friday, August 12 at the Continental Club. Doors open at 7pm and the music starts at 8pm. Proceeds benefit the Center for Child Protection, a charity selected by Rawls and Lewis at the celebration’s naissance. “It’s all about the kids of Travis County and how we can raise more money for them through this music,” says Rawls.
Casper Rawls plays every Thursday from 6:30pm - 9:30pm at the Continental Club.