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STEVENSON, LOUIS CHARLES [BUCKWHEAT, B.W.]
B. W. Stevenson, the man with “a voice as big as Texas.” Bill Arhos / Austin City Limits Collection, Wittliff Collections, Texas State University.
STEVENSON, LOUIS CHARLES [BUCKWHEAT, B.W.] (1949–1988). B.W. Stevenson, singer and songwriter, was born Louis Charles Stevenson on October 5, 1949, in Dallas, Texas. He attended Adamson High School in Oak Cliff, where his peers included Michael Martin Murphey, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and Steve Fromholz. Under the name Chuck Stevenson he sang with a few local bands until he graduated in 1967 and went to North Texas State University (now University of North Texas) in Denton on a voice scholarship. Operatic singing did not appeal to him, and he left the music program after a year. He subsequently attended Cooke County Junior College (now North Central Texas College) and served a stint in the United States Air Force.
Stevenson returned to Dallas, playing local clubs when he could and working odd jobs. He went to Austin in 1970 to look for work but found none. He then went to Los Angeles to try to sell his songs, but the L.A. labels also passed him by. Sometime in this period his longtime girlfriend left him unexpectedly, and, heartbroken, he wrote some of his best ballads. A representative from RCA who was in Los Angeles heard his songs and signed him in 1971.
Stevenson's first album on RCA was recorded in Chicago and released in 1972. The record included one of his songs that is very popular with his fans today, "On My Own," but RCA did not promote any songs on the album that were written by Stevenson. This was the first misstep in a long series of blunders in producing and marketing his music and voice. Stevenson's talent lay in his ballads and mournful tunes of lost and unrequited love, of which "On My Own" is a beautiful example, but RCA released as a single not one of them but Stevenson's recording of a song about songwriting written by Michael Martin Murphey. The single went nowhere, but "On My Own," along with a more sincere Murphey tune, "Five O'clock in the Texas Morning," got the attention of the Austin music scene, and Stevenson was welcomed back as a brother in the progressive country movement. RCA had given him the moniker "Buckwheat," and the name stuck. "Buck," as his friends called him, became a regular at the Armadillo World Headquarters and other clubs around Austin, often singing with Kenneth Threadgill, Jerry Jeff Walker, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and other stalwarts of the Austin "redneck rock" era.
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RCA had no interest in the Austin music scene and took Stevenson to L.A. for his next recording, Lead Free (1972). This album had an L.A. sideman sound rather than a band sound, thematically jumped from Pennsylvania to Mexico to Memphis and to Jackson, Mississippi, and also produced no hits. For the third album RCA's producer found a song in the ABC–Dunhill reject pile called "Shambala," written by Danny Moore. It was perfect for Stevenson's voice, and he was climbing the charts with it as a single when ABC–Dunhill realized its potential and quickly released a version of it by Three Dog Night, even though RCA had negotiated a "lock" on the song. As Three Dog Night was very popular at the time, its cover of the tune quickly eclipsed Stevenson's and knocked him off the charts. This unscrupulous move generated some sympathetic press for Stevenson, but not much else until RCA released "My Maria," written by Stevenson and Danny Moore as a vehicle to show off Stevenson's powerful and distinctive voice. "My Maria" went to Number 9 on the pop charts for weeks in 1973 and was the most commercially successful of Stevenson's recordings, although he felt it was far from his best work. Nevertheless, it had a compelling sound, so much so that it became the Number 1 Billboard "Country Song of the Year" when Brooks and Dunn covered it in 1996.
The misguided attempts to package Stevenson as something other than what he wanted to be, a Texas musician, continued with the next album on RCA, Calabasas (1974), and with subsequent albums from Warner Brothers and MCA. Calabasas was critically acclaimed, but its over-produced sound was difficult to reproduce onstage, and although Stevenson toured extensively to promote it, his heart was not in it. He grew discouraged and, already fond of food and drink, began to drink excessively. Warner Brothers and MCA also attempted to categorize him as a pop musician on the next five albums that he recorded, with fewer and fewer of his songs on the records. By the time his ninth major-label album was released in 1980 and Stevenson was free of his contracts, the progressive country scene had faded. Although he returned to Texas for a while, there were no further recording opportunities available to him. He spent much of the 1980s in Los Angeles but occasionally played in clubs in Dallas and Austin, trying to find a label that would allow him to be himself.
Stevenson returned to Texas once again in 1987 and went into the studio on his own. He recorded some new songs and some old ones, including "On My Own." This was the first time his songs were recorded the way he wanted them produced, and the first time all but one of the songs on an album were his. Willis Alan Ramsey produced some of them with Austin musicians, and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section played on others. Many of Buck's old friends joined him on some tracks, including Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, Steve Fromholz, Christine Albert, Johnny Gimble, Mickey Raphael, Bobby Rambo, John Inmon, and Stephen Bruton. Stevenson was finally happy with and proud of one of his albums, his tenth. Though the record, called Rainbow Down the Road, was beautiful, the initial attempts to get major labels interested in it were unsuccessful.
Before the album was completed, however, Stevenson fell ill, in February 1988. At first he thought he had the flu, but the diagnosis was endocarditis, an inflammation of his heart that was eating away one of its valves. In April he went to the VA hospital in Nashville for a valve-replacement operation. The replacement was successful, but Stevenson never woke up from the anesthetic and passed away forty-eight hours later, on April 28, 1988. He left his wife, Jan, and their three children. B. J. Thomas sang at his funeral at Laurel Land Memorial Park in Dallas, where Stevie Ray Vaughan also rests.
Just before the operation, Stevenson's manager and friend, Harry Friedman, had promised that he would personally see to it that the new record would be released and on the shelves in record stores. After much effort, with the last overdubs and mixing done after Stevenson's death, Rainbow Down the Road was released as a CD on Amazing Records in 1990 (not 1970 as some catalogs indicate). Out of print today, it is a sought-after collector's item, a hint of what might have been. The much-beloved Buck Stevenson, the man with "a voice as big as Texas," never got to hear it.
Dallas Morning News, April 29, 1998; May 4, 1988; December 9, 1990. Jan Reid, The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock (New York: Da Capo Press, 1977).
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.Handbook of Texas Online, Gary S. Hickinbotham, "STEVENSON, LOUIS CHARLES [BUCKWHEAT, B.W.]," accessed October 16, 2018, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fstce.
Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on October 10, 2015. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.