Looking a bit like an Amish Hoss Cartwright, B. W. “Buckwheat” Stevenson turned heads even in the spectacle of seventies Austin. A native of Dallas, his beautiful tenor and surprising falsetto shone through on simple folk melodies, some reaching a national audience before his premature death in 1988. Stevenson’s early work is his best, full of tender hope and outsider loneliness.
B.W. was born Louis Charles Stevenson, but even that formidable handle wasn’t quite big enough for a man of this stature. So it was “B.W.”, or “Buck” to his close friends. He attended high school in Oak Cliff and began to discover his love for music hanging out with like-minded outlaws such as Ray Wylie Hubbard, Steve Fromholz and Michael Martin Murphey. Blessed with a booming operatic voice, he attended college for a year on a music scholarship, did some time in the Air Force, and started stretching his wings in the bars and clubs around Dallas.
Stevenson arrived on the Austin music scene in 1970, at the very beginnings of the progressive country movement, but there was little work to be found. Austin City Limits was no more than a glimmer in the eye of the folks at klru, and only a few clubs were showcasing the new cosmic cowboys roaming around the Texas Hill Country. Frustrated, Buck left the Lone Star state to find fame in Los Angeles.
This was a theme that haunted Stevenson’s short life. A big dog never let loose for the hunt. A major talent showing up a bit too early, again and again, often ill advised and mismanaged.
He arrived in Hollywood with a broken heart…his long time girlfriend refused to make the trip…and started writing some of the lovesick ballads that would become his trademark. It was one of these that caught the attention of RCA Records, and he signed up with his first label in 1971 and recorded and released his first record, B. W. Stevenson, in 1972. The album included many songs that resulted from a collaboration with old friend Murphey, as well as some of B.W.’s best work, particularly the longsome songs like “On My Own” and “Longsome Song”. RCA never promoted B.W.’s original work from this album, but the folks in Austin paid close attention, and welcomed him back as an integral member of the redneck rock scene. Stevenson returned to town and became a regular on stages with Kenneth Threadgill, Jerry Jeff Walker, Hubbard and others.
Stevenson suffered through more bungled attempts at commercialization, nine albums in total, and RCA never gave up trying to market him as a pop artist. The shameless Three Dog Night had a corporate hit with his “Shambala”, actually bumping his own version off the charts. Buck then released “My Maria” to some success on the pop charts, but became the Billboard’s #1 “Country Song of the Year” when covered by Brooks and Dunn in 1996.
“If you want something done right, do it yourself.” With his last album, Rainbow Down the Road, Stevenson accomplished what he had always wanted, an independently conceived and executed journey into the heart of a very fine artist. Willis Alan Ramsey helped with production, and the record featured many old friends, including Willie Nelson, Walker, Fromholz, Christine Albert, and Stephen Bruton.
Buck left us in 1988 at the age of thirty-eight. Way too early…a legend never fully appreciated…a gift only partially unwrapped.
Three things you should know about B.W. Stevenson: (1) in October 1974, he recorded the first episode of Austin City Limits, but the resulting tape was too poor to broadcast, and Willie Nelson’s performance taped the following night ended up being aired instead, (2) RCA came up with the nickname “Buckwheat” and (3) Buck and Stevie Ray Vaughan both rest in Laurel Land Memorial Park in Dallas.