Casper. That’s a ghost’s name. A friendly ghost, but a ghost nonetheless. Ghosts are quiet, that’s for sure.
Rick “Casper” Rawls is quiet; he’s also unassuming, self-effacing and exceedingly polite.
But Casper Rawls is not a ghost. Casper Rawls is a monster; a guitar-playing monster whose good manners and good taste never quite obscure his musical chops.
When the name Casper Rawls comes up in a music conversation the first thing most people talk about is how he’s such a nice guy and then . . .
Producer/multi-instrumentalist/songwriter/nickname purveyor R.S. Field sums it up well.
“When The Howlers, later Omar & The Howlers, moved from Hattiesburg, Mississippi to Austin in 1976 one of the first friends we made was a guy from San Antonio (we couldn’t pronounce Helotes) named Rick Rawls. He was such a good friend to – and supporter of – our band. He was such a nice, generous, unassuming and guileless person that he and I really hit it off,” Field said.
“The first time he sat in with us, the intensity and facility he brought to his guitar playing was stunning. Back then his main thing was blues, like Cobra-era Otis Rush and early Clapton, and the contrast between his musical style and his off-stage personality just seemed to demand that I give him a stage name – Casper. I had named Omar ‘Omar’ – and I was soon to name Webb Wilder ‘Webb Wilder.’”
Having worked through the years with Kent “Omar” Dykes, Webb Wilder, Mark Germino, John Mayall, Sonny Landreth, Buddy Guy, Los Straitjackets and a slew of other all-out music makers, Field knows more than a little something about guitar champs – and nicknames.
Conversely, having worked with Field through the years, when it finally came time for Casper Rawls to make “Brave World,” his debut album as a leader, it was a cinch for Rawls to tag Field to produce the disc.
Though “Brave World” is Rawls’ first outing with his name in big letters, he’s no stranger to a recording studio. Casper has recorded on more than 75 albums as a band member and as a sideman with projects including five LeRoi Brothers albums as well as discs by a diverse list of artists such as Toni Price, Miss Lavelle White, Doyle Bramhall, The Derailers, Teisco Del Rey and Juke Logan. He’s also taken several turns in the producer’s chair.
“I was honored to be asked to produce the record,” Field said. “Really, I don’t have the words to competently say how much it meant to be asked to help with it, or how much it helps my soul to know how pleased he is with how it turned out.”
“Brave World” showcases Casper Rawls not only as the bandleader and chief guitarist, it also features his vocal talents and chops as a songwriter and co-writer as well as his good taste in selecting songs to cover.
The 13-track album, recorded in Austin at Wire Studio with Stuart Sullivan at the controls, includes older songs, new songs, ballads, rockers and rollers, an array of top-flight players and a very special surprise guest. “Angeline” is a mellower reworking of a revved-up rocker Rawls penned for the LeRois, “Don’t They Know (Who We Think We Are),” a Rawls/Suzy Elkins co-write, is fun and funny, “The Day Don Rich Died” is a salute to the Buckaroos’ guitarist, a huge influence on Rawls’ style. For covers, Rawls looked to George Harrison (“Any Road”), J.J. Cale (“Thirteen Days”) and Rick Gordon and Walter Hyatt (“Houston Town”).
“Brave World” closes with “A Little Bitty Piece of DNA,” a Buck Owens song that features the late Owens himself.
“I talked to Buck shortly before he passed away, just to see how he was doing and if I could get him to come back to Austin,” Rawls said. “I knew he was doing some recording in his office, demos for a new album, maybe, and he was recording all the instruments himself.
“When I started working on ‘Brave World’ I called Jim Shaw, Buck’s keyboard player who was a Buckaroo since ’69. I asked if Buck had done any instrumental tracks that I could play along with and put on my album. Buck Owens Productions sent some songs to Dwight Yoakam, Brad Paisley and me. One song, the DNA song, wasn’t an instrumental, but, when I heard it, I knew it would dovetail with the Don Rich song. I asked if there was a chance I could have the song for my record. Jim talked to the Buck Owens Foundation and to the family. A month later I got the track. We added on to Buck’s demo and I sang harmony.”
“I guess I initially thought (“Brave World”) was going to just have an emphasis on guitar for guitar’s sake, but Casper really wanted it to be about songs, largely his songs, and covers that meant something to him,” Field said. “I really liked the stylistic variety of the songs, and I was so impressed with his singing and the feeling he brought to it all.
“Casper had picked a great lineup of musicians – some of whom were mutual friends of ours – and some I didn’t know. They were all great. That made everything fun and creative and the studio (Wire) and recording engineer and mixer (Stuart Sullivan) were as good as it gets in my opinion.”
The cadre of players on “Brave World” is a “Who’s Who” of simpatico roots musicians: guitarist David Grissom, bassists Glenn Fukunaga and Brad Fordham, drummers Dony Wynn and Chris Searles, pianists Floyd Domino and Earl Poole Ball, organist/accordionist Stefano Intelisano, pedal steel player Tommy Detamore, mandolinist/fiddler/harmony vocalist Warren Hood, harmony vocalist Marshall Hood, Chris Carmichael on strings and string arrangements, and playing acoustic guitar and Dobro and singing – Buck Owens.
Rawls’ music career started in Helotes (hello-tess), a former farming community, now booming suburb just northwest of San Antonio, where his family settled during Rawls’ dad’s Air Force tenure.
Helotes also is home to one of the most famous honky-tonks in Texas, John T. Floore Country Store, a place immortalized in song by Willie Nelson in his classic “Shotgun Willie.”
“I started out with the Ayala Brothers in Helotes,” Rawls said. “Their mother made us tune up with a piano and practice with a metronome. Our first gig was at Floore’s. We’d play before the bigger bands, the older bands. We played a lot of quinceaneras (debut parties for 15-year-old girls) and other parties. At the time instrumentals were big. I could play ‘Buckaroo,’ Ventures songs and the Standells’ ‘Dirty Water.’ “
When Rawls graduated from John Marshall High School in San Antonio in the early ‘70s, he headed to Austin and the University of Texas. He didn’t get a degree, but he got a musical education. In Austin he played places such as Spellman’s on W. Fifth Street with the likes of Townes Van Zandt and Blaze Foley and Rome Inn with The Howlers. Casper also played a lot at The Skyline, the place where Hank Williams did his last gig.
Rawls also spent lots of time in seminal Austin nightspots including the original Antone’s on Sixth Street, in his words, “as a student listening to and watching Muddy Waters and all the blues legends who came through there.”
It didn’t take long for Rawls to establish a considerable reputation as a sideman: 11 years with Toni Price, six years playing alongside Doyle Bramhall Sr., a couple years backing Kelly Willis, a few years with Sunny Sweeney, and more than 25 years gigging with the LeRoi Brothers.
“Being a sideman, it’s different every day. You wear whatever hat you pick up on the way out the door. As a sideman you have to be as prepared as you can. You’re there to support the artist and serve the song. As a leader, you take the solo out to Mars – if you can,” Rawls said, laughing.
Producer Field also has something to say about that.
“I guess what appeals to me so much about his playing is, besides being a take-no-prisoners lead – or take-off – guitar player, he also listens to what the other musicians are doing, and he is pretty much a master of just about any style or musical zeitgeist that has ever held any real interest for me.”
It doesn’t hurt a thing that Casper Rawls has a world of music whirl experience that has nothing to do with playing guitar in – or near – the spotlights. In the late ‘70s he toured with Styx, Heart, Kansas and Charlie Daniels as a roadie with the American Concert Sound company. He went on the road with Styx to set up speakers. Rawls was one of the guys rigging speakers in the rafters of arenas.
“I always had a guitar on the road,” he said. “We had a band of roadies. We sounded pretty darn good. We got to jam at Madison Square Garden on a Styx tour. But it was really hard work.”
In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s Rawls bounced around. He spent time playing music in the Rio Grande Valley, went to Mississippi and worked with The Drapes, a band that included vocalist Suzy Elkins and the pre-Webb Wilder Webb Wilder. Casper also did a stint as a rigger on Supertramp’s final tour with the original members.
“It was Roger Hodgson (the Supertramp singer and songwriter) who gave me the kick in the pants to get going as a guitar player,” Rawls said.
So it was back to San Antonio for a while where he played blues with Tony Rico then on to Austin to start a long run with the roots rocking LeRoi Brothers. Casper and his wife, Nancy, now call the family place in Helotes home.
Since Supertramp’s Hodgson applied that proverbial boot in the britches, Casper Rawls has developed a unique string-slinging skill set. He’s a master of acoustic and electric guitars, including his near-signature white Fender Telecaster equipped with a Parsons/White B-Stringbender System; a Rube Goldberg-looking contraption that, by pulling down on the neck of a Bender-equipped guitar, enables a player to bend the guitar’s B string and sound like a steel guitar.
“Casper is very humble. He does not toot his own horn,” said Gene Parsons who, along with the late guitarist Clarence White, developed the unique B-bender system. “Casper’s approach is a little different than most because he uses short strokes on the guitar rather than the long strokes Clarence used. He’s a brilliant guitar player and a sweetheart of a person.”
Casper Rawls also is a consummate music fan. He’s played host to an annual Buck Owens birthday party/benefit for 25 years at Austin’s Continental Club, traveled to Bakersfield several times for a weekend and to play alongside Owens at the country music legend’s hometown birthday celebrations. Rawls also counts legendary guitarist James Burton as both a huge influence and a friend. Rawls backs Burton when the guitar legend visits Austin to make music at car shows, and Rawls is a regular at Burton’s annual James Burton Foundation festival in Shreveport. Rawls has followed Burton’s lead when it comes to developing the range of musical interest necessary to build a career that lasts.
“Casper is a real good player,” Burton said. “He loves the B-Bender and he’s pretty much figured the instrument out. Music is a feeling. It comes from the heart. Every guitar player has a feeling. Casper has his own ideas, his own feeling and can play off the top of his head. Music is about what you play and where you play it. Casper always seems to come up with the right thing at the right time.”
And Burton’s respect goes beyond that of picker-to-picker.
“It seems like when we first met we’d been friends all our lives,” Burton said. “Casper and Nancy, to me they’re like family. Working together and playing together is a treat. He’s a wonderful Christian, him and Nancy. They’re family to my wife and I. It’s a thrill to play with him.”
It’s possible to be quiet like a ghost AND make a big musical impact. Rick “Casper” Rawls is proof. Welcome to his “Brave World.” – Jim Beal Jr., September 2015