Roll Out the Red Carpet

A group of admiring locals is set to salute country legend Buck Owens with a birthday bash

It's a Thursday, early in the evening, and the barroom at Tempe's Balboa Cafe is abuzz with more than the usual happy-hour rumblings. In a corner by the stage, amid the din of chatter, video-game noise and the clink of glasses, a group of local musicians is huddled together discussing song arrangements.

"Who's going to sing the harmony?" The question comes from Flathead bassist Kevin Daly. As he strides onstage and finds a microphone, the assembled group begins a run-through of a sad country waltz.

"Oh, it's crying time again, you're gonna leave me/I can see that far away look in your eyes."

Back to the streets of Bakersfield: Owens during his late '80s comeback.
Back to the streets of Bakersfield: Owens during his late '80s comeback.
Second fiddle to no one: A "young Buck" in an early Capitol Records photo.
courtesy of Buck Owens Production Co.
Second fiddle to no one: A "young Buck" in an early Capitol Records photo.

The stage is quickly split between two sides. In one corner, Peacemakers bassist Danny White and Flathead front man Greg Swanholm are all smiles, joking, and seized by the joy of performing their beloved brand of hard-core country for the curious patrons looking on. On the other side, Daly and the Dialectrics' Jim Beach are eyeing each other carefully, painstakingly working out the song's harmonies. In the middle of it all, guitarist Steve Larson is awash in the music, his face rapt with concentration, broken only by the occasional glance toward the jukebox, and the attractive girl leaning on it.

The reason for this outpouring of effort is a birthday tribute show for country music legend and Arizona native Buck Owens. Although Owens was born in Texas, and his music is closely associated with Bakersfield, California, he's always held a special place in the hearts of Valley residents. Owens and his family migrated to Arizona during the Depression. Settling in Mesa, he began his career as a performer, playing local radio shows and honky-tonks in the 1940s. Owens would eventually land in Bakersfield, where he honed a sound and style that would go on to become one of the most successful and influential in country music history.

The brain child of Balboa Cafe co-owner Alec Pappas, the tribute is closely modeled on other Owens salutes that have been staged in recent years, most notably a star-studded show at Austin's Continental Club in 1995. Pappas quickly enlisted the help of the Peacemakers' White to organize the affair and act as musical director. A recent transplant from Nashville, White says he was amazed by the level of interest expressed by local musicians when he approached them about getting involved in an Owens tribute. "I was very surprised how receptive people were to it and how well people knew this music out here. It was overwhelming," says White.

For the participants, it's a chance to honor an artist who (beginning with local radio spots on Mesa's KTYL) has been an integral part of local music for over 50 years.

"This kind of music, and Buck Owens specifically, they have pretty deep roots here in the Valley," says Jim Beach. "These people lived here, and this music came from here in large part. I grew up with it and so did a lot of these guys. I think that's what's really behind what we're doing."

In a town full of overlooked and underappreciated artists, Beach and his Dialectrics may be the most unjustly slighted. Beach is lithe, and longhaired -- in many ways, he epitomizes the rough look and image of a working musician. Yet he's articulate and thoughtful, especially when discussing his earliest memories of the music of Buck Owens.

"My dad played lead guitar in country bands when I was a kid. Every weekend he'd go off to play and he'd be leaving and packing up his gear, and I'd be sitting down to watch Buck Owens on Hee-Haw," recalls Beach.

"Once in a while, I got a chance to go out and see him play in bars around town. To me, those kind of guys were just heroic even though they were just regular guys playing in the Valley here. Not only Buck Owens and Don Rich and all those people that were famous, but also the people keeping the music alive in bars around town."

In a similar way, this generation of local musicians is also striving to keep Owens' honky-tonk torch aflame. The August 11 show will bring together a wide spectrum of the Valley's finest performers, from neo-traditional country acts like the Revenants to more polished, pop-oriented groups like the Peacemakers.

Tonight's rehearsal is the first of two planned get-togethers, and the makeshift band spends much of the first evening working through the most basic aspects: deciding what keys to play in, splitting up solos, doling out harmony and backing parts.

After a few hours, the group begins to hit its stride with an effortless version of the rig-rock standard "Truck Driving Man." The ensemble continues with a breezy run-through of "Sam's Place" -- a mid-'60s rock-flavored nugget with Swanholm on lead vocals. Freed from the trappings of Flathead's raw three-piece format, the unassuming Swanholm showcases a surprising vocal range and an unquestionable feel for Owens' style, tackling some of the most subtle and difficult material from his catalogue, including "Under Your Spell Again" and "Above and Beyond."

Afterward, Beach takes over. He offers an authoritative take on Owens' "Together Again," lacing it with a pronounced R&B feel. Reinterpreting the song through a soulful rasp, Beach's overhaul is a testament to the universal quality of Owens' music.

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