Bucky Baxter, Steve Earle’s Wingman, Dylan’s Steel Secret, a Fearless Heart Finds the Sky

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If the credibility scare of the late 80s – the one swept in by Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris and Neil Young’s Old Ways – had a Scarecrow, a real honest-to-goodness “Wizard of Oz” Scarecrow, it was Bucky Baxter. Tall, thin, kind-hearted, goofy smile and fingers that could do untold things… 

He was Sancho Panza to Steve Earle’s Don Quixote, riding the white lines on the far rock edge of a kind of country that was jacked up, four on the floor, pistons pumping and a burn-through-safety kind of intensity. If Dwight Yoakam was hard Bakersfield with Pete Anderson as his once-blues-rock guitar-slinging wingman, Baxter was Earle’s sound of radial tires unraveling on scorching black top. Just as importantly, that steel when grafted onto the blue collar rust-country Earle was making gave the songwriter an eau du oil rigs, pumping, drilling, driving straight into the next shift. 

There was an urgency when Earle played, a fearlessness that came from blasting out of the places you fear would hold you hostage. His records had space between the instruments, the opportunity to hear every single player and the way those sounds expanded; but Baxter, that steel when he played, spilled all over everything. And like red wine, you couldn’t wash it out, but in the “new Nashville,” why would you want to lose that sobbing twang? It was working people’s music after all.

Not that Bucky was ever a sob story, or a buzz kill. Completely the opposite. He was a Newfoundland, always ready to climb up, to look around, to find the next adventure. He had a sweet heart, and it sometimes set him for high jinks.

Yes, he knew how to play steel to pass muster in any Texas beer joint, but he also understood the way he could cut through all the guitars and slice open the emotion. The steel ride on “Someday,” from GuitarTown, held all the frustration, the yearning, the desire to move on from a nowhere town, just as the hollowed out lonesome of that album’s closing “My Old Friend the Blues” wept openly in the lost hours with no one else to call by way of the raw texture of Earle’s voice and the plangent tone of how Bucky played the steel.

Guitar Town made them a sensation. Like rock stars, they took off into the night, playing everywhere there was to play, disappearing into the morning light. They rode hard. They played harder, and the Dukes forged a reputation as a tough band to follow. No tricks, just an alignment of world class players – Mike McAdam, Harry Stinson, Reno Kling, Baxter – who wanted to play better than any time before every time they took the stage.

When the dust settled, Steve was a massive star. The band finding their way the way those kinds of bands who are integrated into the solo artist’s music do. Present, powerful, contributing. If Earle wrote with a slightly jagged straight razor, the Dukes brought it just as intensely.

Having written that first profile for Tower Records’ Pulse magazine, the one Pam Lewis seeded to The LA and New York Times, Rolling Stone and Newsweek, my star as a music critic rose just slightly behind Earle’s. And Steve Earle doesn’t forget.

When a new editor, who had zero business running an entertainment desk, fired first the classical writer, then the tv writer went to The National Enquirer because he couldn’t “work like this,” it was obvious something was amiss. Me, the 20-year old with the aversion to shoes? I was next in his crosshairs; staying until all hours or suffer the indignity of having errors edited into my pieces, because he obviously knew better, was obviously part of his end game.

I would spend hours on the phone with Steve, talking about my plight, the fact the guy didn’t get music or life or passion at all. He’d laugh a gallows laugh, and marvel how they could have a writer contributing regularly as a freelancer to Pulse, MIX, Country Song Round-Up, Song Hits, Southern, Rock & Soul and so many other late, lamented magazines – and not understand they had a nationally recognized writer on their staff.

A few days later, there was a message on my machine. That voice, all raw South Texas growl, was to the point: “Call me.”

“Okay, there’s no press in these sessions,” he began, “and I’m probably gonna get a ton of grief. But we start tracking next week. Get up here.”

The editor who didn’t get it didn’t get that, either. Follow-up to one of the biggest records of 1985… closed session… total exclusive. I took vacation time.

Emerald Recording Studios on 16th was like Oz. Painted a deep brilliant green, it was the state of the art room for making records. Tony Brown, suddenly the hip producer with Lyle Lovett and Patty Loveless also on his roster, was again teaming with fellow Hot Band alum and longtime Elvis bass player Emory Gordy, Jr, as well as Anglophile Neil Diamond vet Richard Bennett to reprise the Guitar Town magic. The buzz was palpable; literally, you could almost see it in the air.

Skulking down the stairs to the studio, I tiptoed into the control room as a song was flying by. “There’s a road in Oklahoma, straighter than a preacher, longer than a country mile…”

It was electric. 

Honed by 16 months on the road, the Dukes about melted down the gear. Sitting on a sofa in front of the console, I could watch it all go down. Bounce from isolation booth to isolation booth, smile as a player caught fire. There was a surge and a backbeat to all of it that just picked you up, almost flung you forward.

They took another take, came in to listen. High spirits, much laughter. Music when it’s molten just feels good. Yucking it up behind me, I could hear bragging about something – and the kind of laughter that suggests somebody’s gonna get it.

“Well, no, I came out of gospel…” was the protestation, “and that’s just a different world. You boys think you’re nasty, but you know, and I was a young guy.” 

There’s more talking, more white noise amongst them, then it all fell silent.

“No, you don’t get it. They all couldn’t believe I could drink that much and still get it up, and I was like, ‘Well, I got a 100 dollars says I can…’”

Raised by golf pros, I knew I was the con. Keep my head down, let this – whatever this story was – play out. But man, gospel? get it? drinking? This was gonna be good.

“So they all get their money out, lay it on the table with a buncha porno magazines, and I go to work. You know, just going after it and you know, faster and faster ‘til I splattered all those pictures…”

The assembled were howling, far too much for a story of that sort of road hijinks. “Well, they paid me,” he protested, trying to figure out the gag. And that’s when like a periscope slowly rising, the top of my head, then eyebrows, then nose came up from behind the console.

“Whatta lovely story,” I cooed. Raised by golf pros, it was just another day in the back room.

“WHAAAAAAAAAAAA…..” he howled, turning purple, then starting to run out of the room. “You guys… didn’t…” he stammered, stopping, turning back, unsure of what to do.

Everyone laughed. I laughed. It was one of those too good to be true pranks.

Bucky stood there, dripping in it. “Holly, Oh My God, I am so sorry… I would’ve never…”
“I know, Bucky, that’s what makes it so funny.”
“But, but… I would never ever ever tell a story like that in front of a girl.”

He was white now, shaking a bit, but trying to hold himself together.

“I know, Bucky. I know. That’s why I’m not offended.”
“But I’m sorry.”
“Well, you don’t have to be. You didn’t know I was here, and your friends let you walk right off the cliff.”

The boys were all still laughing, big Cheshire smiles all around. Sometimes the opportunity is just to do something unthinkable. Especially in a closed room.

“I know, but…” 
“No, no, it’s all good. Bucky, you would’ve never done that if you’d know. We all know that, and that’s what makes it funny. You don’t have to apologize. We’re good. Promise.” 
“I feel awful…” 
“Because you did it? Or your friends ‘got’ you?”
“I don’t know.” 
“Well, don’t bother. You guys are playing great, and that’s all that matters. Please get back out there and rock.”

Rock they did. The next song was a blazing bit of shredding the tread called “The Week of Living Dangerously.” The piano hurled itself forward, the drums crashed, the six string bass thum-thum-thum’d as Earle raved through the tale of a 9-to-5 married guy who – blown off by some hot chick in traffic – “throws the car seat in the dumpster and heads out into the night.”

The protagonist’s meltdown is classic Earle meets Twain and Hunter Thompson stuff, right down to the bailiff, who tells the blacked out hero, “How you got across that river alive, I don’t know/ But your wife just made your bail, so now you’re really dead for sure…” Brazen, loose, frenzied, but Baxter’s steel was a fishtailing, donut monster that lathered and lacerated the proceedings with the proper amounts of grease and pursuit.

When the final notes died, a single laugh poured from Earle. Then they all poured into the control room. Combustion it was, that take was deemed irreplaceable – and what you hear on Exit 0 is what went down on that first take.

And that was Bucky, quite possibly channeling the horror of the moment into the zeitgeist of some square’s revolt. Though Bucky could wring a steel guitar out in any state, just push those pedals with his knees, slide that metal bar and let it bleed, sob, snort or whatever else was called for.

Yet for all the brazen, he was a sweet guy. Indeed, for all the brio of Earle’s music, his bands have always been pretty great people. But when you’d run into Bucky at a gig, sometimes killing time before, or the tedium of waiting around after, he’d always have a smile and a quick catch-up. Always some kind of adventure, some kind of story, he was as busy living as he was being a Duke.

Years later, I was in New York City staying at Rhiga Royale when it was the hotel “everybody” stayed at. I’d done “Live with Regis & Kathie Lee ” with a very straight client, and we were waiting for the car to do CNN. Jockeying outside the hotel for cars could be an Olympic sport even when you knew the doormen… And this day, the cars were backed up.

I noticed Collin staring at a lanky man, dressed all in white leather, making a face like “what kind of hippie b.s. is this?” 

I looked closer, squealed like a little kid. The thin man in white rushed up, threw his arms around me and spun me like I was 6 years old.

“BUCKEEEEEE!” I howled to the psychedelic looking figure from my past.
“HOLLEEEEEE!” he echoed. “What are you doing here?”

It wasn’t a question about the purpose, but the company I was keeping. “Work, you know…,” I protested, as he eye-balled my client the way Dennis Hopper did in “Easy Rider.” 

Feeling the right wing rising behind me, I just kept talking. “And what are you doing here?” 
“Waiting for my car. We’re playing at Madison Square Garden.”
“So you love Bob Dylan?” 
“Yeah, what’s not to love?”
“Well, the songs can’t get any better, and he’s restless, so you’re always stretching out.”

Truth was the Dukes were so indelible, one wonders how a player gets beyond that. 

For Bucky, it was a recording studio, living on boats, playing with whomever got his magic, time on the water, being handy, producing incredible indie artists talking about his son. “Yeah, all those things. You wanna come to the show?”

“I have to fly home. Meetings in the morning. WAH!”
“Well, you look pretty…” “Thanks, Bucky. And you look crazy, but awesome crazy cool.”
The doorman came over and touched my elbow. “I gotta go.” 

We hugged, and it was a rib locker of life, love, fierce music, crazy adventures, heroics and childhoods that ran through each other so naturally, it seemed part of the weave. I bounced off, waving as I disappeared into the car.

“You know that guy?” the dyspeptic client asked aghast.
“I do,” I replied. “He’s Bob Dylan’s steel player, and one of the original Dukes. That guy is all soul and heart — and he can burn you with what he plays.”

The manager gave the artist a look. The artist decided not to take it. 
“And he’s your friend?”

“Yes, for years and years and years. I’ve seen him in bars and Farm Aid, theaters and the studio. We’ve shared catering and dreams, watching things go so good and bad. Do you have a problem with that?”

The manager said, “No, we were just a little surprised at your friend’s outfit.”
I looked at him. 
The manager made a joke. “And you know, if we’d needed to thump him, we had you.”

Thump him? The gentlest soul in the world? Shows how judging a cover is a bad idea. 

Mostly, though, running into Bucky wasn’t heroic. It would be at a coffee shop like Bongo Java, or Baja Burrito by the Berry Hill Studios. He’d see you and smile, sit down and start talking. All kinds of things, all kinds of dreams. Sometimes he’d talk about his son Rayland, who was a pretty good songwriter, too. You could tell he was proud, and he was also not gonna be the kind of Dad who couldn’t stay out of his kid’s affairs. He wanted his son to have every bit of integrity and awesome that he’d lived as the man who poured sterno on sad songs, churning songs, even happy songs that needed to glitter.

By the time Rayland Baxter had his first record coming, the buzz in the underground was there. Grace Potter gushed to me about him one late night, and Kacey Musgraves, too. 

Interviewing him for a Nashville magazine, you could see the dreamer, the love of life inside – and you wondered if maybe whatever’s in the blood can fill the void of a father mostly gone, because those qualities were very much what marked Bucky. Every bit the artist, living in a one room shack behind a house out by the fairgrounds, Rayland figured his music out with another group of gypsy dreamer kids…

The news Bucky was gone came to me backwards. Someone asking if it could be true. I’m supposed to be off the computer. Too many hours, burning eyes, blah blah blah. A couple calls, a couple texts. Checking with Steve, he confirmed the sad news; said he thinks it’s a stroke, Bucky’d suffered from high blood pressure.

I think about those two, the kid with the kinky hair who was so quick to laugh and the solid guy with the black hair streaming behind him always redolent with working-class brio. The trouble they got in, the music they made, the places they went.

If Steve’s first live album was Shut Up & Die Like An Aviator, then maybe Bucky engineered the perfect exit. Boom! And gone. In these terrible days of COVID-19, the encroaching sense of profits over fixing people and bleeding them dry by a healthcare system now run by insurance companies more than doctors, Bucky had a moment, then he was stars.

That’s how I want to think of it. Because anything else is just too hard.

I think, too, of Rayland, equally lanky, with a cockeyed smile and so much music running through his veins. He absolutely cut his own path, had created some of the most lovely singer/songwriter stuff of the last decade, and yet, when an artist loses a parent?

Expressing that to Steve, he texts back, “I think he’s good.” Then clarifying his meaning, he comes back, “I mean he can write.”

No higher praise.

And so, another elegy, another light snuffed out like a taper on the table. Thinking about Bucky, though, I know he lived every last drop, tasted the moments and found the beauty of so many things most of us might find tedious.

To laugh, to pour out music like that was no effort. It is a gift, and a gift he shared with so many along the way. But just as important was how that music made you feel, the way it grabbed you and pulled you straight into the whirlpool.

Up in heaven, he’s probably looking for where he can swim with some dolphins, throw a line in a quiet fly fishing stream. St. Peter may’ve even shown him to a houseboat that’s pretty sweet. No doubt there’ll be a jam, and most likely, he’ll be sitting in.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I met Bucky when he played for Steve Wariner. We played a lot of basketball at Steve’s parents’ and pulled several practical jokes on the road when I went on a few trips with them. He was extremely talented and funny, and such a nice guy. We bonded even more when we realized we had a few other mutual musical friends and interests. I haven’t been on FB lately due to so much arguing, etc. I am so saddened to hear the news, but so grateful for the beautiful heartfelt tribute. Thank you, and also, I am sorry for your loss, too.

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