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Jim's Keyboard Sidewalk: The Rock 'n Role Model Interview
Interviewee: Jim Shaw of Buck Owens and the Buckaroos.
Interviewer: Singer/songwriter/psychologist, Dr. Bruce L. Thiessen, aka Dr. B.L.T.
Pythagoras not only held music in high esteem, but actually treasured it as the purest and highest form of thought. Furthermore, he savored music for its therapeutic value. Aristotle was known as the Peripatetic because he typically walked as he lectured. For Aristotle, there was something invigorating and mentally stimulating about walking. Together, these two philosophers offer a great philosophical justification for taking a peripatetic journey down what I refer to as "Jim's Keyboard Sidewalk." While Jim Shaw is an extremely humble, modest man, I'm a witness to the fact that he does much more than stand there and go through the same repetitive motions. His music transports the listener to a very energetic and pleasurable place, as he takes the listener on a stroll up and down the notes on his keyboard. You cannot help but feel the therapeutic effects. I have witnessed Jim Shaw walk, rock and make his keyboard talk, in vibrant, dulcet tones that gracefully and boldly complete the sound of one country music's greatest and most famous back-up bands.
I work within walking distance of Buck Owen's Crystal Palace, where Jim Shaw attends to the business of Buck Owens, and, alternatively offers his musical talent as a member of Buck Owens and the Buckaroos. But I when I first discovered that Jim actually took time out of his busy schedule to meet with unknowns like myself, I wasn't about to settle for a peripatetic peregrination. I took my car, and was fortunate not to pick up a speeding ticket on the way. Enough talk about Jim Shaw, I will now talk to him. Feel free to listen in to the conversation and as you do, you'll understand why so many stroll down Jim's Keyboard Sidewalk.
Before we begin, Jim, allow me to introduce the idea behind this interview. This is part of a continuing rock 'n role model (the term is a fusion of the terms "rock 'n roll" and "role model") series in which role models (folks who have made or who stand to make a noteworthy impact on society, and who are using their music in positive ways), or, role models, if you will, in the rock and country music world, are identified and interviewed for the benefit of those who would benefit from the knowledge of such role models. Barry McGuire, whom you may remember by his 60s folk rock classic, Eve of Destruction, was the first to be interviewed for this series. Mark Yeary, keyboard player and one-time member of Merle Haggard and the Strangers, whose musical career parallels yours in certain respects, was also interviewed for this series. You have been asked to be interviewed, because you have been a part of a significant phenomenon in country music. Though you were not part of Buck Owens and the Buckaroos when the Bakersfield Sound movement first caught fire, you have certainly played a major role in keeping the fire burning. That the flame will ever die, but we cannot lose sight of its brilliance.
Therefore, I would like to fan the flames a bit. I've got two fans in my hands, or two ways of fanning that enduring flame. The first fan, or, the first way I plan to fan the flames, is to pay tribute to you, and some of the others in the inner circle of the Bakersfield Sound or Nashville West movement by interviewing you. The second is via a tribute CD that will feature original songs inspired by the movement, and characters central to that movement. Well, I better stop talking now. After all, this interview is all about you, so let's get started.
1. Where were you born and raised?
Born in Esterville, Iowa, Sept. 29, 1946. Moved to Seaside, Calif. at the age of 6, Fresno a year later.
2. Are there any childhood (and/or adulthood) events that have shaped your direction, and prompted you to seek a career as professional performer and recording artist?
Not really. I never actually sought out this career.
3. Describe your musical influences?
A great variety... surf rock and the Beatles, later Blood, Sweat and Tears and The Band, various country artists in my late teens (including Buck Owens' fresh new sound).
4. How did you get to be
such a great keyboard player?
5. When did you join Buck Owens and the Buckaroos? What were the circumstances surrounding you being added to the band?
In October of 1969 a local musician friend of mine named Doyle Curtsinger (formerly of Ronnie Pearson and the RonDons) joined Buck Owens' Buckaroos. This was a real big deal to all of the rest of us Fresno country musicians... Buck was a huge star to us all! Doyle hadn't moved to Bakersfield yet and was commuting back and forth (about a hundred miles each way) to do his recording in Buck's new state-of-the-art recording studio. Meanwhile, my group was doing quite well at this time and I had been considering recording an album to sell at the Nashville West. I ran into Doyle one day at a local music store and he suggested that Buck's wonderful new state-of-the-art 16 track recording studio was the place to do it! He had only been in the Buckaroos for a couple of months at this time, and he didn't want to overstep his bounds and get in trouble, but he said if I wanted to ride along with him to Bakersfield the next time they recorded (which was quite often) I could check out the studio and get prices from the engineer (Lee Furr)... as long as I was very "low-profile" and didn't call any attention to myself. I said "Great!"
So, on one morning in January of 1970, I rode with Doyle to Bakersfield, and hung around out front while he went into the recording studio to go to work. As I gathered together rate cards and brochures and asked questions I had no idea of the little drama brewing out in the studio.
Buck often used piano players on his sessions to fatten up the rhythm section, even though he had never officially had one in the Buckaroos. Since he had just built his new studio in Bakersfield, he was in need of a piano player who could be available. Someone had told him that David Frizzell, then living nearby, could play enough rhythm piano to do the job, so Buck had hired him for that day's session.
Unfortunately, the song Buck chose to record that day, "Down In New Orleans", was quite a complicated little song, with tricky chord changes for someone who "dabbled" at the piano. Buck and the band were ready to record the tune, but David was struggling and kept making mistakes. As Buck was becoming very frustrated, Doyle mentioned that "there's a guy out in the lobby who's a piano player from Fresno).
The next thing I knew, the door from the studio flew open and right in front of me was the world famous Buck Owens saying "can you play that song?" I didn't have a clue as to what he was talking about. I said "sure". He led me into the studio, where I saw Don Rich, Doyle, Jerry Wiggins, and a miserable looking David Frizzell. I was probably in a state of shock. Buck said that they would run thru the song for me to hear. I made panicked mental notes of the chords, and almost fainted when they came to a key change in the middle and moved up to the key of G#. Buck said "Are you ready?" I said "Sure".
Somehow, I got thru it without any obvious bloopers. Buck asked me if I could stay for the rest of the session. I didn't tell him that my ride home was his bass player. I just said "Sure". He paid David and sent him off.
In the following months I commuted back and forth two or three times a week, doing sessions for Buck, Susan Raye, Buddy Alan, and more. This was a major conflict with my college classes, and even as I struggled with the decision of which to do, things got even more complicated.
One morning, in June of 1970, I got a call from Buck at my apartment asking me to drive to Bakersfield to visit with him. When I arrived, I was taken into the recording studio control room, where Buck and Don Rich were waiting. Buck ran down the duties and benefits of being a Buckaroo and offered me the job. That did it, college would have to wait! I figured I'd spend a few years in the Buckaroos... the coolest job I could imagine, and then finish up school and be an industrial engineer.
That was 35 years ago. Still here!
6. What were you doing prior
to joining Buck Owens and the Buckaroos?
When I got out of the six month active duty portion of the Marines, I needed to find a more lucrative job playing music to pay the rent and put me thru college at Fresno State. I remembered that Ed Adkinson, the other guitar player in the Moonstones (formerly the bass player with Terry in the Deltas) told me that if I wanted to make a better musical living while I was in college (i.e. play 6 nights a week) I should consider playing country music. I had no preconceived opinions about country... actually I didn't know a lot about it! I looked around and found a steady Friday - Sat. night job in Lemoore, a small town about 50 miles from Fresno where I played piano and a patient bunch of older musicians let me figure out this "new" music as I went along. In hindsight, it's obvious to me that they were really desperate for a piano player! I bought a Floyd Cramer LP called "Last Date" and figured out by ear what he was doing. The guys I worked with showed me where to play rhythm, where to fill, etc.
Next I also got a job back
in Fresno on Sunday nights at the Rocking Horse Inn (formerly the Cozy
Inn) on Railroad Ave. It was an important club in the early days of Buck
and Merle but I didn't know that at the time. I was playing with the off-night
group... Wayne Allen, and when the regular group left to play some dates
with Freddie Hart, Wayne got the Monday thru Sat. night gig. I quit the
Lemoore group and was doing my 6 night a week thing ($20 a night, but those
days my rent was $95 a month).
Within a few months I had caught the attention of a well known Fresno group called the "Tommy Forse Band". (Tommy and his brother Ted had formerly played together as the "Forse Brothers", and their guitar player was a teen-aged Roy Nichols.) I played in this group until I was 22, six and often seven nights a week, five hours a night. That's where I "paid my dues" and really learned what was expected and desired from a country piano player. Incidentally, Terry Christoffersen also played with us in this group for part of this time, and we were roommates in an apartment. I always loved his playing, and plugged him shamelessly to Buck years later.
In the Fall of 1969, I was offered an opportunity to start my own group and become the house band at the Nashville West, at that time Fresno's hot new club. I left Tommy Forse and put together what I considered a great band. Don Lee was my guitar player... he later joined us in the Buckaroos in the mid '70s. Dave Gray was my vocalist and he played trumpet as well... I later got him a job in the Bakersfield Brass.
In early 1970, I was having a great time. My band played six nights a week, after-hours 'til 5:00am on the weekends, and did a weekly live Saturday TV Show called "Live From the Nashville West). Daytimes I attended Fresno State College. I was working towards a degree in industrial engineering... taking 10 or so units per semester.
7. How has life changed for you, since joining the band?
Although the job was originally lots of traveling and concerts, within a few years I was given the opportunity to get into the publishing, writing, and production aspects of Buck's companies, so it really turned into a career more than a job. I feel I was given the privilege of getting in on the ground floor with many of these areas... even though I was a neophyte and got all my training "on the job.”
8. What other life experiences have had an influence on you as a musician?
As a musician, I mostly play what Buck and the song requires, so it doesn't feel to me that my life experiences have a lot to do with my music.
9. What are some of your favorite memories associated with being with Buck and the Buckaroos?
Wow. Meeting people like John Wayne, Ed Sullivan, Ringo Starr, and hundreds more. Traveling the world and meeting interesting people.
10. What are some of the more disappointing moments associated with being in the band?
It was often a tough, grueling job.... getting up at 4 or 5 in the morning to catch a series of planes to get to the next city and concert... a few hours of sleep, and repeat. And of course the loss of Don Rich four years after I joined the Buckaroos was devastating to someone my age. He was my friend and a hero too.
11. I understand that the tragic death of Don Rich really dampened Buck's spirits, not to mention his career. Who was Don Rich in relation to Buck Owens and why do you think Don's death took such a toll on Buck Owens?
Don was Buck's best friend and like a brother too. They started from scratch together with nothing and built it all up as a team... Buck has often said that Don was as big a part of his success as he (Buck) was.
12. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of joining Buck Owens when he was further into his career, and not at the beginning, when the Bakersfield Sound was really catching fire, and Buck was on the rise?
No advantages... I would have loved to have been there a few years earlier. I just was born a few years too late.
13. Over the past few years, Buck's health has often interfered with his ability to perform with the band. How has this affected the band, and how does it affect the future of the band?
Actually, the band is still together and healthy as a group mainly because of the Crystal Palace. If we hadn't built that nine years ago, we might have faded out by now. Who knows? Buck's health is always the unknown factor, but I'm pretty sure as long as he can climb the steps to the stage, he'll want to entertain. (And I'd like to think he enjoys having the guys backing him that can read his mind.)
14. From the very first time I witnessed you playing with the band, I noted how your keyboard playing seemed to bring life and vitality to the band. I know that musically, you add a great deal to the band, and make it sound much more complete. What about personality-wise? I know that each personality in the band must bring something unique to the band as a whole. What does your personality bring to the band?
Stupid jokes and bad puns.
15. How would you describe your relationship with Buck Owens?
In some areas I guess the "right hand man" thing works, but there are plenty of other people around him on a daily basis. His nephew Mel (our General Manager) is the first one that comes to mind, and there are more.
16. I understand that in addition to playing in the band, you serve in a business capacity with the band. How do you juggle the two distinct roles?
The business capacity is my varied and interesting job, and the band is now under the category of "hobby".
17. How does it feel to be part of our cultural heritage and part of a musical legacy?
I can't say that I feel like part of the legacy. I got to see a lot of fascinating and important things from a close perspective... but I feel more like an observer than a participant.
18. What would you like the future to bring to you?
More of the same. I love my family and life and I'm looking forward to more wonderful experiences.
Well, there you have it. I consider it a distinct privilege to work right down the street from where Jim Shaw works with Buck Owens and the other Buckaroos. Furthermore, I consider it an honor to have interviewed this humble honky-tonk hero and to introduce you to a sidewalk I love to stroll. You should try out this musical sidewalk for yourself. If you feel so inclined, come on over and see/hear Jim in action. Join all the rest of the worldwide travelers who have come from far and wide to see the Crystal Palace, to visit the Buck Owens museum and to catch a show with Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, and/or one of his guests at The Crystal Palace. Nobody is confused as to who the big star of the band is. But don't let Jim's gentleman-like modesty and unassuming character fool you, when he gets on stage he'll walk you down a keyboard sidewalk that will rock your socks off.
For more information on Jim Shaw, Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, and the Crystal Palace, visit:
*** To hear the song, Jim's Keyboard Sidewalk, my musical tribute to this brilliant Buckaroo, use the link below:
*** To hear additional songs from The Buck Stops Here, my forthcoming Buck Owens and the Buckaroos tribute CD, use this link: