Mike Buck is a cornerstone of Texas roots music. He played with damn near every Blues and Rockabilly legend during his early years and at the beginning of the 21st Century has backed many of the younger musicians. He's the living thread that keeps it a viable musical form. Like most of his generation Blues, Rock 'n' Roll and Country were all around as a kid. The similarities were readily apparent and there was very little separation of styles.
"I started playing back in the early 60's. My dad bought me a drum set when I was probably about 12 or 13. That was when the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and all that were hitting, a lot of teenage combos were being formed and kids getting their guitars and drum sets for Christmas. It was pretty wide spread suburban phenomenon, probably all over the world but especially all over the U.S. Started listening to band like the Rolling Stones, who were my favorite, the Yardbirds and some of the more Blues influenced bands which got me interested in the originals. I'd already heard people like Jimmy Reed and Fats Domino, that type of thing. I didn't really think of it as Blues, it was just the kind of music that was on the radio, just part of the general landscape. Started investigating bands like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, who remain a couple of my favorites to this day along with Jimmy Reed and all that. Through most of the 70's I was mostly interested in Blues and Rhythm & Blues. I also liked Rock 'n' Roll, Rockabilly, Country music, pretty much any kind of good honest music I liked. Been lucky enough to have a chance to play Country and Cajun and even a little bit of Jazz, although I don't feel my chops are up for that I do like it and was glad to be able to at least try it, get some sense of that. I think all these elements rub off on my playing. My favorite drummer that I like are Charlie Watts and all the Chicago guys like Freddie Below, Francis Clay, Earl Philips; the Memphis guys, DJ Fontana and Al Jackson. I could go on and on. There's not many drummers I don't like, put it that way."
"I was doing the garage bands and playing the YMCA dances and stuff like that. Through that I gradually started getting gigs that paid. I played at The Cellar Club in Fort Worth which was kind of a notorious spot. A lot of musicians got their start there. When I was very young I played an early set then, they were open all night and had bands alternating. There's this guy Johnny Carol who was the music director there. I didn't know it at the time but he was a Rockabilly singer back in the 50's, made records. Later I reconnected with him, started playing with him and even got to record with him. Started playing at little Blues joints in Forth Worth like Mabel's Eat Shop with Robert Ealy & the Five Careless Lovers along with Sumter Bruton and Freddie Cisneros. Played a lot of little ghetto clubs; Bluebird Niteclub, Mary's Silver Dollar, Helen's Sugar Hill, bunch of different places like that. Got exposed to a lot of local black Blues musicians and learned a lot from them. I was playing with bands like that; Robert Ealy and different variations along with Sumter, Freddie, kind of a little core of musicians, Lou Ann Barton and Jack Newhouse, both of whom went on to move to Austin and play with Stevie Ray Vaughan. I started going to Austin some and checking out the music. Met Keith Ferguson, Jimmie Vaughan and Lewis Cowdrey. They had a band called The Storm that I was very taken with, they were a great Blues band. They played every Monday at this place called The One Knite. Struck up a friendship, then I got a call a little while later from Jimmie that they needed a drummer for his band the Thunderbirds, wanted to know if I was interested. So I moved to Austin, played with them for about three years and after that I started playing with the Leroi Brothers whom I'm still playing with to this day. And of course there's been numerous side projects along the way."
Much has been written about the early Fabulous Thunderbirds; how they were the house band at Antone's backing up Muddy Waters and other Chicago Bluesmen who came down to Austin; Muddy raving about them being his best band since Chess Records in the 50's; blowing away other bands on festival bills; Blues bands across the country changing their sonic and sartorial style after seeing the T-birds, etc. While Kim Wilson and Jimmie Vaughan deserve the credit they get the legendary rhythm section of Keith Ferguson and Mike Buck are equally responsible. In their hands lowdown, dirty and greasy became high art.
"It was exciting time (with the T-birds). The band was still pretty underground, I guess you could say. We had a following but weren't making any money, weren't attracting big crowds. We'd play some at Antone's, back up some of the acts that Clifford Antone would bring to town such as Walter Horton, Eddie Taylor, Jimmy Rogers, Hubert Sumlin, people like that. And we were also playing a Blue Monday at a place called the Rome Inn that had all kinds of music. We started developing a following at the Rome Inn, and more and more people would come and word got around. At one point Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top was coming there every Monday and he would even charter a bus from Houston and bring a bunch of people to party. He ended writing a couple songs about that little scene, including LOWDOWN IN THE STREET. That just kinda developed ad started getting a reputation from there."
"Started traveling a little bit with different degrees of success. We did well in Dallas, did poorly just about every where else. But then we made the acquaintance of Roomful of Blues and started going to Providence and Boston and developed a following there. That was the first place outside of Texas that we had any degree of success. Made a record and went to Europe. Toured Europe and things just started picking up from there."
The first T-birds album, GIRLS GO WILD, set the template. Their second, WHAT'S THE WORD, continued in the same vein but also marked a significant breaking off point. Midway through recording Buck was replaced by Fran Christina and the band never sounded the same.
"Basically, without getting too much into detail, a lot of alcohol and drugs were involved. Everybody was getting a bit out of hand. I'm sure playing suffered. It boils down to they basically wanted to hire another drummer, Fran Christina, so they did. Of course I was disappointed, I didn't want to leave the band but I realized that's just kind of how things work, people come and go. So I was thrown into another band, the Leroi Brothers. Kinda started out actually as a band called The Headhunters with a fella named Keith Dunn, a black harmonica player from Boston who I met up there and had moved to Texas. Went through various personnel and ended up with Don Leady and Steve Doerr who were living in Fort Worth, they had just recently moved from St. Louis, and that kind of evolved into the Leroi Brothers. Started doing pretty well with that band, getting a bit of a following. Playing more of a Rock 'n' Roll type thing."
The Leroi Brothers have come to personify the Austin Roots Rock revival with their B-movie gumbo of Blues, Rockabilly, Country, Cajun and Texas twang. The first Leroi Brothers LP, CHECK THIS ACTION, roars out of the speakers like a hillbilly hot rod with the pedal to the metal. It's the third LP with the Buck/Ferguson rhythm section and the first with Buck, Ferguson and guitarist Don Leady. The second LP to feature all three was the appropriately named, all instrumental, Grammy nominated TRASH TWANG & THUNDER. Under the moniker Big Guitars From Texas it also features guitarists Denny Freeman, Evan Johns and Frankie Camaro.
"We did a 4 song EP in one day, MOON TWIST, came out on Amazing Records. We did CHECK THIS ACTION on the off hours. TRASH TWANG & THUNDER was the brainchild of Gary Rice, who was helping the Leroi Brothers at that time. He wasn't an official manager but he kind of assumed managerial duties, helped book us and was sort of a cheerleader for the band. Set up this big parade down South Congress for our record release party for CHECK THIS ACTION. We had these low rider clubs in it and some Shriners showed up, it was a pretty 'South Austin' type event. Pretty cool. We played on the back of a flatbed truck made out of an old Cadillac hearse."
"It was Gary's idea to get a bunch of his favorite guitar players together just to see what it sounded like. That turned out pretty successful, we actually got a Grammy nomination for it and went out to L.A. for the ceremonies. That year Stevie (Ray Vaughan) was nominated in that category too, Best Rock Instrumental. As I recall we lost out to Jeff Beck. Just going out there and being around all that was pretty thrilling."
The song CHAINSAW features Buck's legendary chainsaw solo. "The chainsaw kinda went with the song. Maybe Gary came up with the title. The song just kinda screamed for that. Went with our crazy image. What else are you gonna do with a song called CHAINSAW but put a chainsaw on it?"
The first two T-birds albums, the first Leroi Bros LP and TT&T feature some impressive guitarists but what really drives them is the infamous rhythm section of Keith Ferguson and Mike Buck. Musicians and music aficionados alike speak of this combination in reverent tones. And while there were many good bassists and drummers around (especially Gary 'Mudcat' Smith of The Tail Gators) the Buck/Ferguson pairing set the bar and put Austin on the musical map as a Blues & Roots town. It was an instinctive pairing and the pocket they laid down together flowed as naturally as a river. Perhaps this is why when asked to reflect on playing with the iconic bassist Mike Buck is at a loss for words.
"I don't really know, we just had a chemistry. We think along the same lines. It just seemed to gel, especially with the Thunderbirds. We've done some other recordings too. We'd be hired for Blues session by other guys thinking to capture some of that, for lack of a better word, 'magic'. Whatever we had. It didn't always work. It was a combination of Keith and I plus the other payers. Jimmie Vaughan himself is a very rhythmic player, very easy to play with. Keith and I just kinda had a chemistry. Every project we did together it varied. Some were more successful that others. But as far as playing onstage I can't think of anyone I'd rather play with."
Keith Ferguson died nearly 15 years before this interview with Mike Buck was conducted. Like Stevie Ray Vaughan, his death left a hole never to be filled while simultaneously propelling him to mythical status.
As the years rolled by The Leroi Brothers slowed down a bit and pursued other interests on the side. Chief among them is Eve and The Exiles, the band he formed with guitarist/vocalist Eve Monsees. "Eve have known each other for a while. She used to play on 6th Street with some bands and I'd go sit in with them. Started becoming close then she became my girlfriend. We worked together here at Antone's, we actually bought the store and Clifford's estate last year. We have a lot of similar musical taste so just it seemed natural that we'd have a band together. A fun band, playing a wide variety of Blues and 60's type Rock 'n' Roll. We're playing the Rauma Blues Festival in Finland this summer. We've actually been to Finland the last two years and have a little bit of a following there. I'm not sure why Finland but someone contacted us from there and we started going there. It's been very nice for everyone concerned. The audience are great. It's nice to play before appreciative audiences. Places as jaded as Austin that doesn't always happen."
How did a city as small as Austin become a music capital? And why did it focus on Blues and Roots music? What made it almost other-worldy, as if the stereo-typical Classic Rock radio and other fads didn't exist within the city limits?
"I may be too close to the scene to view it objectively. Austin has always kinda been the oasis of Texas so more creative people end up coming here. Big art community. As far as thriving, in some ways yes it is. There's plenty of bands playing that. There's just not much money to be made, so many bands willing to play for little or nothing. The Blues thing has kinda died out, although it's showed signs of some younger people reviving it. The thing with the Thunderbirds and Stevie was kind of a double edged sword. At the time it was very different and no one was really playing like that. Then there were so many imitators it kind of became a cliche and a lot of people started to look down on that music to some extent. There are a lot of sincere people playing it but also a lot of posers too. I have mixed feelings. I'm very proud of everything we've done."
But the Austin of the 70's and 80's has become a dim memory at the beginning of the 21st Century. Like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Keith Ferguson themselves the city has become an historical icon, but no longer the same living entity it once was. Like any city that gets 'discovered' musicians flood in and the not-so-great ones start undercutting the others, playing for less money and often for free, driving down wages for working musicians all around. And the music itself which once differentiated the town has been watered down by scores of imitators who lack a real knowledge of its history.
"There's a backlash. I think so. Plus a lot of people moving into Austin from other parts of the country are not necessarily into the music. It's changed a lot, it's become very expensive to live here. A lot of the cool buildings are being torn down and condos put up. It's hard to hang onto Austin's past. Kinda become yuppified, for lack of a better word. Doug Sahm always used to rail against that. It's even more so now that he's gone. Now they're using Blues for beer commercials and stuff. It's become somewhat cliched and people are getting away from the real spirit of it to some extent. It's not one way or the other all the way but there is a lot of watering down involved."
South By Southwest generates lots of attention for the music industry and keeps Austin's title as "live music capital of the world" cemented. But when the musicians aren't getting paid the title is a farce.
"For our record store business SXSW has been a great economic boon. I have mixed feelings about that too. Again, the bands don't make any money and you gotta jump through a lot of hoops to try and get on one of the shows. It's hard to get around town, traffic is bad, so I guess it's a mixed blessing as well. Definitely helps the economy here, I will say that."
'Keep the Blues alive' is a popular cliche in Blues circles. Actually keeping the music going means continually building on its history. The early records have to stay in people's ears. Newer players and their albums have to be featured alongside the older showing and ever evolving history that current players and audiences are in the midst of. Regulate it to a museum or a clique and all the life goes out of it. Mike Buck does more than most to keep it alive. Having played behind so many of the greats, helping put his own generation on the map and backing many up-and-comers he's taken over Antone's Records. Half of his week is spent running the store that's practically a library. Rare and hard-to-find classics sit alongside obscure jewels and the latest releases by current groups. The living history is alive and well within those store walls.
"I started working here [Antone's Records] part-time back in the 80's whenever I had some downtime from the road. I'm a big record nerd, have a huge record collection. I was always here anyways so it was natural I'd start working here. As I started traveling less I started working here more, taking over some of the duties, ordering product for the store and this and that. Clifford never was involved with the day-to-day business here, the employees pretty much kept it going, did all the managerial and legal stuff. So after he passed it was natural for the employees to take over. Clifford's sister and the estate offered to sell it to us, me and Eve and Forest Coppock, the third partner who was a long time manager here. He actually helped Clifford get it started back in the day, then left for a while and came back. Clifford's taxes were a mess and I think his estate didn't want the IRS to seize the business so they sold it to us. That had something to do with it as well. I feel very fortunate to take on and keep the tradition going here. Business is up and down, always has been. Seems like the place has always been on a shoestring but we keep it going somehow. This is kinda what I do, either play music or be around music. I still enjoy playing but I don't really want to tour all the time anymore. That's lost it's allure for me, getting in a van and driving to Omaha or something. So I'm glad to have this to fall back on."
Being a musician has often been described as a 'feast or famine' existence. Trends come and go. In recent years musicians have been hit the hardest since the Disco era. DJs, karaoke and theme restaurants have become the norm. Wannabe Rock-stars continue to play for cheap or free. The U.S. economy has seriously curtailed people's spending with entertainment getting cut first. And the general dumbing-down of America by big business interests and the politicians and media they control has left the general public completely oblivious to the what it is musicians do. In fact, the word 'musician' has almost completely disappeared from the popular lexicon, replaced by such meaningless phrases as 'Rock star' and 'in a band'. American culture has been marginalized, sanitized and desecrated. Even a living legend is not immune.
"It's hard to really encourage someone to get into such a business like this, it can be really cutthroat. But I'd say if you truly love it just keep at it. Play what you like and try to find like minded people that you enjoy working with and don't give up. And if it's really what you want to do I would say take a hard look at the realities, 'cause it's very hard to make it in this business."