When you realise that a working musician has had two main bosses during his career, and they were Steve Earle and Bob Dylan, you have to suspect he might have been a bit good at what he did!
William “Bucky” Baxter is the musician in question, and he remains one of the great multi-instrumentalists in Americana music; a genre known for the quality of its musicianship. Born in Melbourne, Florida in 1955, Baxter grew up playing the oboe, clarinet and guitar. On hearing Jimi Hendrix in the late sixties he claimed that this was the revelation that made him realise he wanted to be in a band and he played his first gig, in 1968, as a member of local band the Thirteenth Night.
In 1970 he turned his attention to learning to play Lap Steel Guitar before building on that experience to master the pedal steel, one of the most demanding instruments any musician can tackle and it was with this instrument that he finally came into his own, going on to become one of the finest of pedal steel guitar players. He was taught by the great Buddy Carlton, who had been Ernest Tubb’s steel player, and under such expert tutelage, he soon mastered the instrument. Good steel players being in high demand and short supply at this time he soon found himself working with bands like Evan Johns’ Cold Steel Benders, The Blue Ridge Quartet and with Grand Ol’ Opry acts like Jean Sheppard and Johnny Paycheck.
He first met Steve Earle in 1984, co-writing the song ‘Girlfriend’ with him. The two clicked and Baxter became a founding member of Steve Earle’s band, The Dukes, and would remain an integral part of this group, and Earle’s right-hand man, for the next seven years, appearing on all Earle’s early recordings from the debut ‘Guitar Town’ in 1986 through to 1991’s live release ‘Shut Up And Die Like An Aviator’. During this period he would contribute not only his pedal steel playing but would also provide additional guitar (acoustic and electric), dobro, mandolin and even occasional fiddle to both Earle’s recordings and live performances. Listen to tracks like ‘Someday’ or ‘My Old Friend The Blues’ to hear how important Baxter’s steel playing was to Steve Earle’s stories of blue-collar country life, adding soul to the sharp edges of Earle’s often acerbic lyrics.
It was during an August 1989 gig, with Steve Earle and The Dukes opening for Bob Dylan in Springfield, Illinois, that Baxter would first meet Dylan who, impressed with Baxter’s steel playing, asked him to give him lessons on the pedal steel guitar. Baxter gave Dylan a few lessons and, by the end of the tour in 1990, Dylan asked for Baxter’s phone number. Bucky told friends that he felt sure he’d get the call to work with Dylan soon – and absolutely nothing happened! His tenure with The Dukes ended at the end of 1991, as Earle’s drug dependency took its toll. Earle lost his recording contract with MCA and wouldn’t record again until 1994. For a sideman such as Bucky Baxter, this was a difficult time; The Dukes had been his home since hooking up with Earle and he now needed to find a new gig. Out of the blue, he received the call that would set him on his next big journey. Two years after giving Bob Dylan his phone number Dylan finally called him up and asked him to join his backing band for what was to become known as The Never-Ending Tour – “Two years later he called me up on like a Monday saying, “Be here Tuesday, we’re leaving Thursday for Australia.” That’s basically how it happened”.
From 1992 until 1999 he would tour and record with Dylan, playing pedal steel guitar, mandolin, accordion and dobro at the shows and contributing his fine steel playing to Dylan’s Grammy Award-winning ‘Time Out of Mind’ album. The haunting use of his pedal steel guitar on ‘Not Dark Yet’ is one of the pinnacles of his recorded work and a major element of the song’s atmospheric appeal.
For Baxter, the Never Ending Tour started in Perth, Australia on the 18th March 1992 and would run until the 2nd May 1999; his final gig with Dylan, in Munich, Germany. He would perform in over 700 concerts, playing to hundreds of thousands of people. When the tour finished, Baxter would release the only solo album of his long career, a collection of instrumentals under the title ‘Most Likely, No Problem’ and backed up by a variety of notable musicians including Garry Tallent, Ian Wallace George Marinelli and Bill Livsey. He would form his own band, The Jamming Troubadours, and build a studio of his own, the Three Trees Studio in White’s Creek, Tennessee, but neither project gave him the pleasure he seemed to get from working as a back-up artist to other musicians and he would soon go on to work with Ryan Adams on his albums ‘The Suicide Handbook’, ‘Gold’ and ‘Demolition’.
During his time as one of the premier steel players of his generation, Bucky Baxter would play with a range of artists across different genres, including the likes of R.E.M, The Beastie Boys and Joe Henry, but it’s his work on Steve Earle’s early albums and his seven years with the Never-Ending Tour that will stand out for many years to come. A terrific musician on a whole range of instruments but an absolute genius of the pedal steel guitar and a player who will be remembered for a very long time.
Sadly, this virtuoso musician is no longer around; dying at his home in Sanibel Island, Florida, in May 2020, at the age of sixty-five. It seems way too soon for such outstanding talent to be taken from us.