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"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."
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.
With his diverse stylistic forays, and his penchant for driving twang-rock beats, Owens set himself apart in the early '60s as a catalyst for a new country style emanating from the West Coast. For those who try to characterize Owens as a limited honky-tonk artist, they simply need listen to his Bakersfield revamp of the Drifters' "Save the Last Dance for Me" or Chuck Berry's "Memphis." Certainly no one in country music ever received a more convincing stamp of rock 'n' roll approval than Owens. At the height of their fame in the mid-'60s, the Beatles sang his praises, even including one of Owens' signature songs, "Act Naturally" (penned by Johnny Russell and Vonie Morrison), on the soundtrack to Help!.
Of course, no Buck Owens tribute would be complete without a nod to the work of his guitarist Don Rich. One of the unheralded heroes of country music, Rich's punchy picking and train-whistle harmony were integral in the development of the "Bakersfield Sound." His musical partnership with Owens lasted nearly two decades, ending with his death in a 1974 motorcycle accident. Despite his untimely demise, Rich still casts a long shadow.
"Don Rich has been a big influence on a lot of people," says White. "If you listen to Greg's [Swanholm] playing, he's kind of a cross between Luther Perkins and Don. Jim Beach as well. Really, there's a lot of people who have been influenced by that style."
The Buck Owens birthday tribute has the potential to become a watershed for Tempe's music scene, bringing together artists with a sense of clarity and purpose that few events or causes have been able to muster. Aside from the main focus, the concert promises to unfold a number of smaller, but no less interesting, story lines.
Peacemakers front man Roger Clyne, known for his Southwestern pop ditties, will take a stab at performing straightahead country, singing lead on a quartet of Owens classics including "Tiger by the Tail" and "Hello Trouble." The show will also feature a rare performance from the Grievous Angels' Russ Sepulveda and Dan Henzerling, who have not appeared locally for close to a year. For musical mavens, the show promises to be especially memorable as it will pay equal tribute to Owens' legendary backing band, the Buckaroos. The highlight is a sure-to-be-dazzling dual steel guitar setup, featuring Haywire's John Rickard and Sleepwalker (and Grievous Angels) member Jon Rauhouse.
For White, the Owens tribute represents the first in what he hopes will be a series of shows that will celebrate other country giants. "We want this whole thing to be a nod to the traditional country veterans that you don't hear a lot of on the radio. A George Jones, an Ernest Tubb, a Merle Haggard, whoever. I think a lot of people will be into that."
After several hours of rehearsing, the musicians sit down to commiserate over beer and wings. After recapping the practice and making plans for the next session, the talk slowly turns to other things: amplifiers, pickup trucks, weekend plans. Eventually, the flannel-wearing crew packs up its old guitars and amplifiers into wellworn cases and heads out into the night.
While these earnest locals may not perform in matching Nudie suits, or play silver sparkle Telecasters, they're doing their best to ensure that the spirit and sound of Buck Owens, Don Rich, the Buckaroos and Bakersfield twang remain very much alive. -- Bob Mehr
A Salute to Buck Owens, featuring members of the Peacemakers, Flathead, Dialectrics, Grievous Angels, Pistoleros, Revenants, Haywire and others, is scheduled for Wednesday, August 11, at Balboa Cafe in Tempe. Showtime is 8 p.m.