An exclusive interview with
Bucky Baxter

Conducted by Scott Marshall


In 1962, a young "Bucky" Baxter learned Lefty Frizzell’s tune, "Mom & Dad’s Waltz." The oboe, clarinet and guitar would eventually be in his hands. He developed an appreciation for Chet Atkins. And after hearing the hair-raising guitar of Jimi Hendrix, a seed was firmly planted: "Now I know what I want to do with my life." With a band called the Thirteenth Night, Bucky played his first gig in 1968 at his junior high school in Philadelphia. While learning to play mandolin and steel guitar in 1970, he soaked in the records of the Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe. A couple decades later, Bob Dylan fans would come to appreciate Bucky for his talent playing these same two instruments.

Back then, though, his course wasn’t so clear. In fact, Bucky skipped his high school graduation in 1974 and found himself in a field in Florida nursing a six-pack of beer, listening to Neil Young’s album, After the Gold Rush, and pondering his future. Pedal steel lessons from Buddy Carlton (Ernest Tubb’s steel player) followed.

As the years and his talent progressed, he played with Evan Johns’ band, the Cold Steel Benders; joined the Good Humor Band; worked with the Blue Ridge Quartet; eventually formed his own band, the Pep Boys; and also worked with some fine country acts along the way: Steve Wariner, Johnny Paycheck and Jean Sheppard of the Grand Ol’ Opry.

In 1984, he co-wrote "Girlfriend" with Steve Earle, and as one droplet is drawn toward another, things flowed. They went on to record and tour together.

At an August 19, 1989, gig in Springfield, Illinois, Baxter reached open waters–Earle’s band began to open for Bob Dylan. Bucky wound up giving Bob Dylan steel guitar lessons. And to his amazement by the end of the tour, Dylan had asked for his phone number. But "the call" was more than two years in coming.

When Bucky finally began contributing to Dylan’s "wild, mercurial sound" on March 18, 1992, in Perth, Australia, he got to play "Dolly Dagger," a song written by one of his early heroes–Jimi Hendrix. Bucky’s multi-continental voyage on the Never-Ending Tour lasted through the Munich, Germany concert of May 2, 1999–a run of over 700 concerts. Since Munich, Bucky has relaxed; fished for mackerel; played gigs with the Kudzu Kings & Leftover Salmon; participated in songwriters’ nights in Nashville; released an album (Most Likely, No Problem); formed a band, the Jamming Troubadours; and recently built–with the help of his friends–Three Trees Studio, in White’s Creek, Tenn., (aka "Hooterville" to Baxter "‘cause there’s so many owls around here"). Currently, he is working in a Nashville studio "helping out some folks."

Ever the minstrel traveler, he says when he next ventures forth he hopes to be singing his own songs and would like to see himself at the helm.

 

LM: Before we get started, your given name is William, where’d you get the nickname Bucky?

Because of my curly hair, they thought I looked like the Little Rascal character "Buckwheat" from the TV show "Spanky and Our Gang."

SM: Tell us about your musical background, what instrument did you first play?

When I was a kid I played oboe and the string guitar but I really didn’t get too serious about music until I was about 20 or 21. I bought a pedal steel guitar, and that basically was it. I started playing that, and about two weeks later I had a gig with a band, and then all of a sudden it was a few months ago and I was still on the road.

SM: What was your professional background before you started playing with Steve Earle, your gig just prior to Bob Dylan?

My first band was called the Cold Steel Benders. We played in the Virginia area professionally. The lead singer was Evan Johns. I played with Danny Gatton. And then I played with this band called the Good Humor Band. It was quite successful in the clubs, East Coast beach towns and stuff. It was like western swing, rock-a-billy, and some soul music. Then I lived in Nashville–starved–and then I took a job with the Blue Ridge Quartet which is one of the old time, first southern gospel groups. I just did it really to make money. I was pretty much of a heathen at that point. But they’re such good guys, and it was so much fun that I stayed with them for three years. Usually my attention span with a band is about three years.

After that I moved back up to Richmond, Virginia and started a band called the Pep Boys. It was more of the western swing thing. I did that for a while until I got married, then I took a job working in Nashville for this really corny band called Dave & Sugar. I only took it ‘cause being married with a baby on the way, I needed to get a steady salary, insurance, things like that. It was really tacky music, but I hung in and I did it for a year or so.

Then I took a job with this guy who at that time was just coming out, Steve Wariner. He’s a famous country singer now. He played with Chet Atkins and is a really good guitar picker. It was a good gig, we had a lot of fun. It was more like guys my age. So I played with him two or three years.

After that I worked with Paycheck for awhile. But Johnny Paycheck, he shot somebody and went to jail. So that ended and I took a job on the Grand Ol’ Opry, with Jean Sheppard, the ol’ Opry star. Then while I was playing with her, we made Steve Earle’s Guitar Town.

SM: I heard you had some sessions with R.E.M., too.

We’d made Earle’s Guitar Town (1986). And we were back at Ardent Studio in Memphis making Copperhead Road (1988). R.E.M. was cutting in the other room. And one of them, I think Michael Stipe, heard a solo that I play on the record, a song called "Once You’ve Loved." So they invited me to come down and record some stuff with them.

Only one song that I played–"World Leader Pretend"–made it on their record, Green. I actually just listened to Green for the first time about two weeks ago. Good record.

SM: May 2nd, in Munich, Germany, 1999, was your last show with Dylan’s band. You were an integral part of that band for eight years, over 700 concerts. How did you get that road job back in 1992?

I was playing with Steve Earle. We’d opened up a whole tour for Bob. So I was just playing with G.E. Smith on the sound checks when Bob invited me to sit in. He asked me to get him a steel guitar, so I bought him a steel in Nashville and gave him some lessons. Then when that tour was over he got my phone number and, I thought, "Well, cool, I’m going to get this great gig." But then he never called.

Two years later he called me up on like a Monday saying, "Be here Tuesday, we’re leaving Thursday for Australia." That’s basically how it happened.

SM: Did you have any inclination that you would be on the road for so long?

Well, if you’re a musician doing the road, that’s the way that it goes. I don’t have any plans to quit the road.

LM: Were you a Dylan fan or did you know much about his work before you started touring with him?

Yes. I wasn’t crazy about him, but I thought he was a good songwriter.

LM: Did you like his singing?

Yeah, oh yeah. But I like it a lot more now that I’ve actually worked with him.

SM: Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind album won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year, a couple years back, and you played on a handful of the songs. What did you think about being in the studio with Dylan?

Nah, I don’t want to talk about that.

SM: Did you like any songs that didn’t get on the Time Out Of Mind album?

Yeah, but I don’t think we should talk about that either...that’s his stuff. My favorite tracks didn’t even make it onto the record really. But, like I say, it wasn’t a Bucky Baxter record.

SM: Any favorites from that album that you especially liked playing on stage when you were on the road?

What my favorite songs are have nothing to do with someone else’s favorites. I like playing all the songs just fine. Bob’s a great songwriter. I never really remember any songs that I didn’t like. Sure, I got sick of playing "All Along The Watchtower." But on the other hand, there are songs like "Tangled Up In Blue" that we played seven nights a week and I never got sick of it.

LM: Do you feel like the experience working with him influenced you musically?

Yes, I learned a lot about a lot of things, the experience opened up my eyes. I grew as a musician ‘cause Bob lets you do whatever you want, you know, experiment.

LM: Describe a typical day touring. Is it exhausting traveling every day?

Not really ‘cause you develop a regular routine. The last year or so my routine was just sleep in, have a nice healthy breakfast, go for a walk, play fiddle, go to soundcheck, eat a good meal, play the fiddle some more, play your show and then back on the bus.

LM: You rode with the other guys?

Yeah. It’s a standard tour bus.

LM: Spending so much time together, is that like being married?

Yeah.

LM: So you all get along pretty well?

Yeah. Some of the guys whine a bit [he laughs] but I usually managed by staying pretty much to myself.

LM: How do you get a break from being cooped up on the bus?

Well, once you get to the hotel, you’re on your own. You can do anything you want.

LM: Did you ever get out and see the places where you were playing, the towns, the people?

Oh yeah. I’ve traveled all over the world.

LM: What was your favorite venue?

Oh, I liked it all!

LM: Did you collect anything...like, souvenirs?

No...not really. Except maybe, guitars.

SM: What are your recollections of the Pope gig that you did in Italy?

To me it was just a big public relations gig. It was no big deal to me. Basically it was just an attempt to get kids into the Catholic Church. So I guess they figured well, we’ll throw a rock concert then. But the Pope was sitting up there, you can see him, he’s half asleep. Doesn’t care a bit about me or Bob Dylan or anybody else. I just felt like he was kind of Bill Gates sitting over there, you know? Trying to sell some more computers. Corporate concert. Company picnic.

SM: Just another stop on the tour for you then?

Well, it was a special thing, people made a big deal out of it and there were people there outside the hotel, it was interesting. It was better than your normal gig. But when I go play I want to play a couple hours, not three songs.

SM: I saw you perform at Woodstock on Pay Per View TV in 1994.

Woodstock was pretty fun. Tony [Garnier] and I, and a couple guys from the Hell’s Angels, rode our motorcycles up there. This one publicist with Jeff Kramer said, "Boy, your band sure knows how to make an entrance," he said, "go into the dressing rooms on your Harleys!" One of the Hell’s Angels had a hook, his hand was missing; the guy was holding onto his motorcycle with nothing but a hook!

SM: Have you been riding for a while?

Yeah, but I gave [my street bike] up, sold it. I was getting too wild on it. But I got a couple dirt bikes up here. Love to ride.

SM: I saw you play Vienna Wolf Trap...

That’s where I was raised. I lived in Vienna, Virginia the whole time I was in high school. I used to ride dirt bikes right there where that theater is.

LM: Where are you from originally and where do you live now?

I was born in Melbourne, Florida, in 1955. And now I have a cabin in White’s Creek, Tennessee.

SM: Tell us about your album you’re promoting, Most Likely No Problem. When was it recorded?

I think I recorded it around ‘92 or ‘93.

SM: Why is it just coming to light now?

Well, I just didn’t have time to deal with it. We’d go out, play with Bob and I’d get home, and the last thing I wanted to do, really, was more music business. I was just never home long enough to get it out there.

LM: When you were out on the road with Dylan, did you get stalked by fans?

I wouldn’t call it stalking. Gawking, maybe.

LM: Does that bother you?

It’s a little weird at first. I mean, we’re musicians, we’re out there playing everyday where they can see us... I thought it was ridiculous, at times. First of all it’s not that interesting. I don’t know why anybody would want to come and watch you eat your breakfast, you know?

LM: Do you get in trouble when you’re in Dylan’s band, or any band, if you’re talking too much with fans?

No. Every guy does it different. I, like I say, keep pretty much to myself.

LM: Were you, as a band member, ever aware of any Dylan publications?

Not really. I saw a couple [issues of one fanzine]. The issues I saw in particular were chock full of misinformation. It’s kinda funny how much speculation there is.

LM: Were you ever buddies with Dylan at any point?

No, I didn’t really try to be. I just worked for him. And we had a good working relationship...but I never went to his house for Thanksgiving, or anything. I think that’s why I lasted so long–I conducted myself professionally and let him be. I never bugged him.


You’ve just read an excerpt of the interview with Bucky Baxter. The complete interview appears in On the Tracks issue #20 and is available from Rolling Tomes.









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