Artist Profile: Casper Rawls – The Gentleman B-Bender Guitar King, From Sideman To Star
I’ve been aware of Casper Rawls’ guitar chops for decades now and that he’s one of the nicest fellas in this music business, but hadn’t really sat down and discussed music with him until a few days ago. He has a new CD out, Brave World, full of 13 cuts that seem to traverse his career dabbling in the country field, as well as the roots rock of the famed LeRoi Brothers. The CD’s red meat are Rawls’ compositions augmented by covers from George Harrison (“Any Road”), the Walter Hyatt/Rick Gordon number, “Houston Town,” and the tender “Blessings,” a Don Poythress/Leslie Satcher composition. In addition there’s also a track by Buck Owens, “A Little Bitty Piece Of My DNA,” recorded during the close-out of the legendary Bakersfield’s Buckaroo’s life.
Rawls has had an ongoing Sunday afternoon “Planet Casper” gig at The Continental Club on Congress Avenue for 8 solid years now. The star players rotate in and out depending upon who is available to play that’s in town. Consider his playmates: Glenn Fukanaga on bass, Dave Grissom on guitar, Dony Wynn and Chris Searles on drums, one of my favorite piano players, Floyd Domino, as well as Stefano Intelisano on B3, Earle Poole Ball on keys, Tommy Detamore on pedal steel, Warren Hood on mandolin and fiddle, Brad Fordham on bass, and too many more to list, but the star is Casper. He has a unique honey-meets-whiskey – meets -JJ Cale voice that meshes perfectly on his material. He plays Fender or Stuart guitars equipped with the Parsons/White or Parsons/Green, B -Stringbender system. His Guild acoustic guitar is also set up with the Gene Parsons prototype acoustic B-Bender. He usually plays this through a Bad Cat guitar amp, which he is in love with. Producer R.S. Field did a great job coaxing these takes and tracks.
What IS a B-Bender?
A B-Bender is a guitar add-on that allows the player to mechanically bend the B-string up a whole tone (two frets) to C-sharp. There are several different types like the Parson/White and Parsons/Green, but all use pulleys inside or outside the guitar body are activated by a pull or push of the instrument’s neck, body, or bridge. Casper has it down. It is what the Casper Rawls sound is all about. Rawls’ road to being a B-Bender started when he was a Les Paul man, he had a 1968 classic “black beauty” but eventually, after listening to the Howlers’ Danny Dozier (who was a Telecaster player who could sound like Merle Travis and Albert King on the same song) he was introduced to the Telecaster world through him as well as Roy Nichols. “We opened up for Merle Haggard in the Rio Grande Valley and I got to spend the day with Roy Nichols and he let me play his guitar. He loved my Les Paul which was cool, so we were swapping guitars off and on. So, that’s when the light bulb went off in my head about Telecasters. From then on I was a Tele player.”
“We came to Mississippi and a fellow named Blewett Thomas, who was the road manager for a blues singer Big Joe Williams (songwriter of ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’) had gotten a guitar and sent it out to Gene Parsons out in California, put a B-Bender in it, then brought the guitar to us at a gig in Columbus, Mississippi and he said, ‘You know, I really like your style, but there’s something missing in your playing. I want you to take this guitar and try it.’ And I thought, this is wild, you have to pull a strap, it bends a string, I just don’t know…The more I played it, the more I realized he was right because my brain was doing something my hands were trying to catch up with. Then I started thinking about Clarence White and started rethinking some of those licks and, pretty soon I couldn’t play a guitar without a Bender. I moved back to Texas. Blewett called me up and asked ‘Where’s my guitar?’ and I said, ‘You’d better find another one [laughs] I’m not giving it back, tell me what it’s worth,’ and so I eventually got two more Benders through the years.”
Casper’s Early Years
“I got my first guitar when I was eight years old. My father took me to the music store. He was in the air force and we didn’t have a lot of money. He said, ‘Go pick any toy you want,’ so I picked little cowboy guitar. In 6th grade I got my first electric guitar. I then played in a Christmas show in a popular bar in Helotes, Texas called John T. Floor’s Country Store. I realized then that people liked to hear me play guitar and I was off like a rocket in 1966 when I was 11! And I realized early on that girls like guys who played guitars.”
Early on he found himself playing Quinceañeras as two of his band mates were Hispanic-American. “I was like the token white guy. I’d play Buckaroos, Duane Eddy stuff mostly. The only reason I was hired was that I could play the guitar lick to “Dirty Water” and they weren’t into that type of music at the time [laughs]. After that I played in a bunch of high school bands. I went to John Marshall High School in San Antonio and some of the alumni from there like Eddie Munoz, who went on to play in a band called the Skunks and later on the Plimsouls. He went there for a year and we were both in a Battle of the Bands/Talent Show where we both lost to a brilliant flute player who did Jethro Tull stuff, of all things!”
“I moved to Austin in 1973 and discovered a whole lotta music here through a friend of mine David Spellman, who owned a club called Spellman’s on West 5th Street. He booked some known songwriters and was always after me to play there. The Armadillo was going good back then and we’d go see all kinds of acts before at Hole In The Wall and Antone’s. I used to hang out at the Rome Inn playing, seeing all those great musicians. A lot of history was there. It was amazing to see a bunch of guys mature like Stevie Vaughan, as well as a group called The Howlers, who had a lead singer named Omar. I spent time with those guys because, to me, the guys like Jimmie Vaughan and the Thunderbirds and Stevie Vaughan sounded just like those old 45 Otis Rush Chess Records. Man, they were just brilliant! They even looked the part the way they’d dress. But with Omar, those guys sounded like the guys that made the records originally. So I spent a good bit of time with Omar and the Howlers. This would be about 1975 and they moved here from Mississippi. At that point, (1977) I moved back to the Rio Grande Valley playing in a house band down there shortly before the ‘Urban Cowboy’ craze. Seems we catered to the truck drivers there who after they delivered produce, would come in for beer and music. So we played all the country music you could think of back then, Ronnie Milsap kinda stuff, whatever was on the radio to keep people dancing and drinking. We opened up for some names like Merle Haggard, Ernest Tubb, and we were also the back up band for when guys like Mo Bandy or Johnny Rodriguez came into town. We’d listen, learn all the album cuts for them plus a number of regular standards. You just step up, play the parts like they were on the record. After a year and a half I moved back here and had a job setting up speakers for these big rock bands touring through.”
“One of these bands was the then-wildly popular Styx. At that time speakers would all sit on the ground. Well, Styx had an idea that they wanted to lift them up in the air to allow for more stadium seating.” So his employer, Bill Stephens and American Concert Sound, along with another company figured out a way to suspend the speakers into the air using cables and they were one of the first bands to do so. Rawls’ job was to help lift the speakers in the air, and set up. It opened up a whole new world of rigging to Rawls, which is engineering stuff where “you rigged the speakers in the air with cables. It had to be done very precisely, evenly, where it distributes the weight.”
Later, he worked for a guy named George Packer who taught him the roadie ropes. George went on to become a famous road manager for people like Ringo Starr, Michael Jackson, and Barbara Streisand. “He was teaching me all this stuff while I was working for the sound company, so I did that for about a year. Styx, at that point, had sold out Madison Garden for a week and they were hot stuff. That was around 1979. They were as flabbergasted as anyone was at their success. They were just a nice bunch of guys. I was good friends with the drummer, Chuck Panozzo, who later passed away. I was drinking heavily back then and I was blacking out a lot. It was not a good time for me. To all the folks reading this that I may have offended, please, I apologize, it wasn’t me, it was the liquor talking through me.”
Now Casper was hungry to play music again. The Howlers had all moved back home to Mississippi, except Omar. So the Howlers asked Casper to move there and play music, which he did. “Why not? I was touring, had a car paid off, had no debt, so why not? I loved those guys. R.S. Field, now a famous producer, was involved as well. So we went to Nashville to make a demo, but we couldn’t make any money at it. Maybe it wasn’t the right time or we had too much diversity in the band. We had Webb Wilder, Suzie Elkins (who later moved back to Austin, fronting a band called The Commandos), Gene Brandon on drums (he later moved back to Austin, drumming with Omar). Maybe we had too much going on and didn’t realize it. That was 1980-1982. I met my wife there too.”
In 1982 he moved back to San Antonio to help his dad with his mother who was ill. “I lived with them until she passed away.” Casper has a heart the size of Texas, to say the least. I find that act alone put him in sainthood, for many of us who have been down that road know what that’s all about. “So, I was playing in San Antonio a bit and one day I get a call from the LeRoi Brothers, who were looking for a guitarist as Don Leady had left the band. I had seen them on MTV and they had videos in between movies on HBO. So I thought these guys have got it together.” They called and he did an audition for them even though they had seen him previously when he toured through Austin with the Webb Wilder bunch called the Drapes. Meanwhile, they had already called Evan Johns, a fiery guitarist who took the gig, but that didn’t work out for either party, and Evan left after a year. “So they called me back up in 1985 and I joined the band, moved back here, and that was my re-introduction to Austin. From 1985 on it branched out into many other things. I also started playing with other people like the Kelly Willis band, 11 years with Austin sensation Toni Price, 5 or more with Doyle Bramhall. This brings us up to the current state of affairs. I’d been playing Continental before Steve Wertheimer owned it. I played there in ’85 with the LeRoi’s, in ’84 with Omar, and sat in with him for a show. In the mid-80’s Omar was quite big then, touring with Stevie Vaughan. Now here I am, running on 9 1/2 years there, every Sunday afternoon at 3:30. We have a lotta fun, we’ve had many guests come through. Steve’s been really faithful to us, he’s really a great guy to be around.”
The Sunday matinee of Planet Casper is crowded with a variety of people – loyal fans, tourists, the curious. Glenn Fukanaga and Dony Wynn are holding down the rhythm section while Bukka Allen on keys trades solos back and forth with Rawls. They are having fun and it shows. For once, Casper Rawls, side men to so many, is in front of his own band. Who all has Rawls been a side man to, you might wonder. Let’s have a look…the list is lengthy:
Start off with Doyle Bramhall, the bayou queen Marcia Ball, the Austin sensation Toni Price and the famous LeRoi Brothers, Omar And The Howlers, More Big Guitars From Texas, Travis County Pickin’, Rig Rock Deluxe: A Musical Salute To American Truck Drivers, Austin Country Nights, The Drapes (EP), Teisco Del Rey, Bruce Robison, Warren Hood,Sunny Sweeney, Two Hoots And A Holler, the Derailers, Ms. Lavelle White, Webb Wilder, The Geezinslaw Brothers, Heybale, Ana Egge, Elizabeth McQueen, Jesse Dayton, Johnny Lyon, Jeff Hughes, Hans Frank, Ted Roddy, The Joe South Tribute Album, Turban Renewal: A Tribute To Sam The Sham And The Pharaohs, Mandy Mercier, Roger Wallace, Brent Adair, Knut Bell, and Beaver Nelson. And that’s just some of the artists Casper has recorded with!
Brave World, The Casper Rawls CD
Casper funded the Brave World CD by playing a series of house concerts. He played several with Shelly King, and Susan Gibson, as well as another big one courtesy of Leann Atherton at one of her famous barn dances. “It took about a year and they had many people involved on Facebook, etc. helping out, donating, and we eventually did it. With a lot of help we raised enough money.” He recorded 13 demos and from those he added bass and drums. We got Glenn and Dony, who play with me a lot, and Earl Poole Ball. Then they decided they needed to get Floyd Domino on some tracks. “One time, I’m sitting around with Floyd and he says, ‘you know, I never know if I’m playing to0 much or too little or what to play, the right notes.’ I said, ‘Floyd, just play whatever you play.’ He did, and it sounds incredible. It was just magic having him there. While we were making this music we were reminiscing over the past, the Rome Inn, those places. Then Warren and Marshall Hood, those boys are so good you know. I worked with Champ in Toni’s band and others back in the 90’s. He played with Kelly Willis a lot, with Toni, so Champ was with us in spirit on the record. ‘Houston Town,’ the 2nd track, is a song Champ and I played many times. Tommy Detamore is a pedal player I met doing Sunny Sweeny’s album. He did his parts and was so gracious.”
“Buck and I over the years, became really good friends. You know, he came to Austin one time to do the Buck Owens Birthday Party we put on. He chartered a jet and came up and played with us. I had sent him a letter when Don Rich died and he wrote me back saying, ‘Thank You.’ Then I saw him in a satellite TV radio interview. He was talking about buying nightclubs, and so I wrote him again and asked him, ‘Buck, why aren’t you playing out anymore?’ He wrote me back saying he was thinking about doing music again. My friend Dan Forte wrote for Guitar Player Magazine at the time, got this assignment to go interview Buck, so I tagged along. He didn’t know much about Buck, I knew a little more, so I kinda helped him get questions together.”
The LeRois’s recorded one of his songs called “Rhythm And Booze,” the rockabilly hit he had under another name, Corky Jones, it was a 45 RPM. Buck heard their version, called me up saying how much he loved it. “At that point, Casper told Buck he’d sent him a few letters in the past, visited him with a writer, before Buck added it all up, “You’re THAT guy!” After that they were fast friends. “I’d send him tracks and he’d either say good things about it or he wouldn’t say anything, meaning he didn’t like it. He would never denigrate or cut anything down, he was always positive. He started having birthday parties of his own after he came to ours and I flew out to play some. I’d play with Marty Stuart, Dwight Yoakum, Albert Lee, we’d all jam, have fun with Buck. I didn’t see him so much in later years, he kind of got depressed over his last divorce, his health was waning, he couldn’t fly, the doctors wouldn’t let him. We spoke shortly before he passed and he had been putting together a solo record where he played everything – pedal steel, violin, dobro, etc., and I knew he had some tracks tucked away somewhere. I called Jim Shaw, to see if there were any instrumental tracks Buck had.”
Jim found a few things, but not much in lines of what Casper was hoping for. There was one track that seemed to go hand in hand with another track Casper wrote called “The Day That Don Rich Died” (Don Rich was Buck’s longtime guitar player). Jim asked the foundation for permission and the green light was given for them to use tracks that became “A Little Bitty Piece Of My DNA,” which features a Buck Owens vocal that Rawls completed. “The Day That Don Rich Died” is one of Rawls’ best songwriting efforts; it’s mournful and it dovetails nicely into the Buck Owens tune, which ends the CD in a rather upbeat mood.
The entire CD shouts, “Stuart Sullivan mixed this!” You can hear it immediately in the signature drum sounds Stuart gets. As far as material, Rawls was firm in his approach. “I told Bobby, the producer, look, I don’t want to do another guitar record. I’ve done tons of them, ‘Travis County Pickin,’ ‘More Big Guitars From Texas,’ just tons of them. I wanted this to be about songwriting and singing, as best I can sing. I’m not a great singer, but I’ll give it my best.” Oh Casper! You have no idea how good your voice sounds.
The first two tracks, George Harrison’s Wilbury-esque “Any Road” and the Walter Hyatt/Rick Gordon “Houston Town” are homages to musical brother Champ Hood. Both songs are about the time spent with Champ driving around aimlessly on back roads to gigs, spent talking about everything from A to Z. “Champ didn’t like to drive ’cause he liked to drink. He didn’t want to drive home, so we’d be driving around in the middle of nowhere, in the hill country or somewhere, and Champ would go, ‘Hey, turn right by that tree right there!’ and I’d go, ‘What? What are you talking about?’ ,’Just turn right by that tree.’ Sure enough, we’d wander off and it’d be beautiful and I’d ask, ‘Champ, where we going?’ He’d say, ‘Oh, don’t worry ’bout it.’ We’d wander and see a lake, deer, whatever, and somehow we’d make it to the gig on time and I’d say, ‘Champ, how’d you know?’ He’d say, ‘Oh, I just know.’ So for me it was any road you took was gonna get you to the gig. After Champ passed, about a year later, I got this George Harrison record and the lyrics to “Any Road” to include ‘if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there ‘ just made me think of Champ [laughs]. We’d be out in the middle of nowhere and he doesn’t even have a spare tire on these country roads. Champ was one of those first people that had a cell phone, though it rarely ever worked. I mean, if we break down, what are we gonna do [more laughter]? Walk to a farmhouse and get murdered?”
“Houston Town” has special significance as Champ Hood was a member of Walter Hyatt’s band when tragedy struck. An Air-Tran jet crashed in the Florida Everglades, taking the life of admired song-smith Hyatt. It was a song Hyatt wrote with Houston guitarist, Rick Gordon, that Champ and Casper played together. “Rick was one of the last people to see Walter, he put him on the plane in Florida after they drove from Nashville.”
The third song is the spectacular “Don’t They Know (Who We Think We Are)” co-written by Rawls and Suzi Elkins, formerly of the Commandos who played with Casper in The Drapes. The snare is out front, as with all Sullivan mixes, and the famous Rawls guitar sound is heating up. The vocals are strong too. Casper has definitely listened to J.J. Cale’s vocal nuances.
“Blessings,” the 4th track, has a story behind it. “Fred Fletcher and Lisa Fletcher were married at the time, they ran Arlyn Studio and Lisa had a niece that worked in Mississippi. She had a great voice, so we brought her over here to do some demos. We did the demo out in Pedernales with her, Jon Blondell on bass, Danny Levin played some strings, Earl Poole Ball on keys, Dony Wynn had just moved back to Austin from being on the road with Brooks and Dunn and me and Stephen Bruton on guitars, and she cut a great version of “Ode To Billie Jo.” Anyways, she brought this other song, it came from the Willie camp and Leslie Satcher and Don Poythress wrote it, they’re Nashville songwriters. I remember thinking as we recorded it that this was a hit record for somebody. I got a call from Fred one day, he says ‘Hey, let’s go play Farm-Aid.’ with Elizabeth Rainey. So I flew up to Chicago and we’re there and I’m thinking, they’ll put us on in the morning, right? So I figure I’ll go back to the hotel or watch Neil Young, whatever. Instead, we just hung out, went on Willie’s bus, you know, my God, changed my DNA just walking on the bus [laughs]. I hung out with Lukas Nelson playing guitar some and it gets on into the evening and I’m thinking it ain’t gonna happen after all. All the sudden someone goes, ‘Come on, come on, you’re on!’ So, I grab my guitar, find Elizabeth, and we wind up going on between Neil Young and Willie Nelson. Just her and I. We sang this song ‘Blessings’, you could have heard a pin drop. And I always remembered that song, so I said to myself I gotta record it.”
“Angeline” is the 5th number, originally recorded with the LeRoi Brothers. It had Sir Doug Sahm singing harmony on it, was more of a Bobby Fuller/Buddy Holly sound. On this one I pared it back, not as raucous.” The 6th offering “Take A Look Around” was co-written with Monte Warden of the Wagoneers, back in the 1990’s . “He called me up to do some writing after his band disbanded. We wrote two and this is one of them.”
“I’m Not Ashamed” is one of the record’s heaviest cuts. Written by Rawls about his wife and their relationship. Producer Bobby Fields had the idea to lay strings on it after the initial mix. The strings were provided by Disney man Chris Carmichael as a favor to Bobby, and Stu Sullivan got the mixes just right. This is an album highlight. This song needs airplay. I rave.
The next number is the Marty Stuart-ish “I’m Living It” penned by Rawls, which shows his country flavors and how the Bender system sounds in that field followed by “The First Time,” a LeRoi number that originally had Buck Owens on acoustic guitar. “I sent him out the 2-inch tape and I asked him to play on the record. He was like, ‘Ahh, send it to me, I’ll see.’ He passed on the vocals, but did lay the guitar track down.”
“Route 88″ is another LeRoi tune and it smokes. It has Honky Tonk fever all over it. Rawls’ vocals sound great and his guitar playing is Telecaster crisp, with liberal employment of the B-Bender system. The 11th song,”Thirteen Days” is one of my favorites, written by one of my favorite writers, Oklahoma’s J.J. Cale. Casper does a grand version of this, best I’ve heard. He came across this number years ago playing in The Drapes. Another good story ensues. “I met J.J. Cale back in high school. I went to a concert, there was this guy called Shawn Phillips and they played his records all over San Antonio, so I wanted to go see what he was all about. I went to the place, an auditorium, and I see this guy carrying a guitar and a box into this place and I walk up and asked him if he needed a hand. ‘Nah, I got it.’ So we walked in together, the security thinks I’m with him, so I go to my seat and the concert starts, and I look up on stage and it’s the same guy. It’s J.J. Cale! He had a little drum machine and the weirdest guitar I’ve ever seen, an acoustic guitar with the back taken off of it and all kinds of boxes and electronics stuck in the back of it. I’ve never heard a guitar like that since. It was amazing the way he played it and the way it sounded. So, after he finished I said, ‘Heck,I don’t even wanna see the other guy.’ so I got backstage and talked to J.J. a bit before he left. Through the years I’d see him in weird places across the country. Kind of a crusty kind of guy, but he gave me the best advice I think anybody’s ever gave me. He said, ‘Don’t take any of this shit too seriously.’” Cale has that signature voice much like Casper Rawls’ voice has.
The 12th cut “The Day That Don Rich Died,” is a Casper original. It’s a well-written tune that includes a few connecting stories.
“Back in the 70’s in a few years we lost 3 great guitarists, Clarence White, Duane Allman,and Don Rich. So I wanted to pay tribute to them since they all influenced me. To this day I’m still learning from Clarence, Don, Duane. Another one who influenced me is James Burton. I wanted to BE James Burton. My dad always listened to country radio, so when he’d walk off we’d switch the radio over to rock and roll. I hear this guitar player on both stations and I’m thinking ‘who is this guy?’ and it was James Burton.” (I’m stunned that early Casper could even piece together that the guitarist playing country and rock was the same guy. That’s paying attention to sound.) “Very distinctive Tele twang, very tasteful. So James and I got to know one another over the years and play together a bunch, recorded together a bunch, so James is always in here – pointing to his heart – whenever I play. All of it came from him. So James was early on, as was Eric Clapton, who through his records I got to know Otis Rush, and Freddie King, whom I also got to know. Also, Hubert Sumlin and, thanks to Clifford Antone and the Armadillo, I got to see them, meet them, even get guitar lessons from them. I’d ask him about the “Hide Away” chord. Another great story…friend of mine and I bought tickets to go see Eric Clapton, so we are walking up to the place and we look up and here comes Freddie King in his Cadillac convertible, a big old Fender amp in the back seat, one of those 6-speaker jobs, and he waves at me and yells, ‘Hey,what are ya doing up here?’ and we said, ‘We came to see you play, Freddie.’ and he said, ‘well, come on in.’ So we go in behind Freddie and we walk in back stage at the Ft Worth venue and we got to meet Clapton and the whole band since Freddie took the time to introduce us. Back then, security was nothing, it was 1976. By show’s end, Freddie had already left, but Eric’s roadies were there, along with Eric’s guitars, including his black Stratocaster and the ‘Layla ‘Stratocaster.’ They let us play them because we were friends of Freddie’s. We took pictures of us playing those guitars [laughs].
The last track is “A Little Bitty Piece Of My DNA,” which features a campy play on Buck Owens riffs and lyrics. It’s a fitting closer and sadly, one of the last things Owens was able to record. Casper sings harmony and lets the Bender fly one last time.
The CD has many highlights but there are a few toweringly strong tracks. “I’m Not Ashamed” should be gathering airplay on KGSR, Sun radio, and KUT. Everything about this track is perfect. I’d push this in NARAS competition in a heartbeat. Vocals, lyrics, vibe, and the B-Bender guitar playing is off the wall. This is one of Casper’s best songs, but not to overshadow his LeRoi Brothers work. The song “Route 88″ is also radio friendly in that upbeat LeRoi way. “The Day That Don Rich Died” is a hidden gem as well. You listen to every track and appreciate what Rawls does with his B-Bender systems in place. He rips into a solo and it’s as if the neck wants to fly off the guitar.
How in the hell does a string bend that way?
You can come out and see for yourself every Sunday at 3:30 at the Continental Club in Austin, Texas.