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Remembering the Magnificent BW "Buckwheat" Stevenson
Tall bicycle riders and short napkin sitters?
B.W. "Buckwheat" Stevenson and my brother Steven Fromholz had been close friends for some years before I ever met Buckwheat. They’d made a lot of miles together as young entertainers traveling the highways and byways of these United States looking to make a buck, pick with all their friends and have a good time. At that time they were both labeled as "progressive country music" entertainers which both of them despised and refused to acknowledge. All the "progressive country music" guys referred to themselves as "pickers" or "players" and ignored the labels the press attached to them.
I finally met him at Steven’s house one afternoon when I went to pick up some paperwork. Steven and his wife lived in the rolling Hill Country, just outside of Austin, Texas, in a little native stone house with a big fenced in front yard and room for a garden in the back. The neatest part was looking out their back door and finding there wasn’t a house, a human, or a vehicle in sight. It was open land as far as the eye could see.
Steven and his wife had been dog sitting Buckwheat’s huge, Great Dane, Marmaduke and he met me as I got out of my car to open the front gate. Marmaduke was on the inside of the fence and I was on the outside giving a great deal of thought to his attitude before I opened the gate. I finally opened it, drove in and then had to reverse the process and close the gate. Steven’s Rhodesian Ridgeback, Jabo, was all over me, as we were old friends, and soon Marmaduke came close enough for a bit of petting and then the two dogs disappeared around the corner of the house.
I went in the house, visited a bit, picked up my paperwork and was preparing to leave when we heard a vehicle drive up in front of the house and stop. Steven, obviously recognizing the driver, went outside and opened the gate. The guy pulled in, killed the motor, opened the door and out stepped B.W. Stevenson. I judged Buckwheat to be about 5’ 7" tall and stout. He had on a great looking western shirt, Levi’s, cowboy boots and a straw cowboy hat. He also had the biggest, blackest beard I’d ever seen in my life and a smile that could light up south Texas.
Most of his weight was above his waist which made his shoulders look out of proportion to the rest of him. We said our howdys and by that time Marmaduke had spotted him and was absolutely delighted. When the dog stood up on his hind legs and put his front paws on Buckwheat’s shoulders they were literally eye-to-eye! We went back in the house – I’d decided to stay a bit longer – and Buckwheat began telling Steven about the tour he’d just finished (hence Marmaduke being farmed out).
At that time, Buckwheat had a huge hit with "My Maria" and the tour he’d just completed was to promote his new album. His professionally trained voice was nothing short of magnificent. In time, "My Maria" would be his signature song and no one on earth could sing it like he could and rarely even made the attempt. We all wound up having dinner together at Steven’s house and I had the opportunity to find out a little more about the man with the big, black beard. He was soft-spoken, obviously very intelligent and just an all around nice guy. When he said something about who’d been feeding his horses that opened up a whole new subject; say the word "horse" in my presence and we’ve automatically formed a bond.
Seems he not only owned horses but loved to ride as much as I did. When he found out I was, at that time, horseless, he suggested I come to his place and we’d ride his horses. I gave him my phone number, gathered up my belongings and left. I recall thinking, on the road home, that although there was no doubt I’d see Buckwheat on a gig somewhere; I truly didn’t expect the invitation to ride horseback to materialize.
When I got home I paid bills, shuffled papers and by the time I got to sleep it was 2:00 o’clock in the morning. My telephone began ringing at 6:30 a.m. and I finally answered it around 7:00 as I was, by then, wide awake and couldn’t go back to sleep. I had firmly established in my foggy mind that this definitely wasn’t going to be anyone in the music business because most musicians are not early risers. B.W. Stevenson was! He was calling to see if I wanted to ride horses around eight that very morning.
I agreed, got directions to his place, hung up and attempted to get my eyes open by drinking a pot of coffee – half of it at my house and the remainder on the road to his. Buckwheat was a bachelor, lived alone in a little house on a small acreage and wisely, had more coffee waiting when I got there. We made some toast to go with it, finished the coffee and walked out to his little barn where two saddled horses were waiting.
That was the first of many times we rode together and it wasn’t long until we were fast friends. He attributed any problems I had with a horse, saddle, or tack to my 5’ 10" height. His favorite statement was "you’re too long legged to be riding anything but a bicycle anyway." When he had equestrian problems I’d get back at him by saying he was too short to ride horses and ought to go dangle his feet off a napkin. Those horse back riding adventures are still alive and well in my heart this very day.
It was probably six months later before I found out the quiet, gentle man with the big black beard was, when provoked, a force to be reckoned with. I was dating a guy named Don who was 6’ 9", a biker that rode with the Banditos and a rugged looking individual. We’d decided to go watch Steven play at a club in downtown Austin and were nearly to the door of the place when we passed a dimly lit alley and heard voices. Don stopped, took a few steps down the alley and I followed right behind him.
When our eyes adjusted to the dim light we saw Buckwheat backed up against a brick wall by two menacing looking thugs. He was in a rather crouched position and had taken off his hand tooled cowboy belt, wrapped it around his hand and the silver buckle (which had a great big hook on it) dangled freely. It was obviously going to be his weapon when the time came to defend himself. The two thugs saw us and were obviously impressed with Don’s size and demeanor as they sort of relaxed their threatening stance but made no move to leave.
"You boys got a problem?" Don casually inquired. "No man, no man, we just stopped this guy to ask him a question," one of them hastily replied. "Well, why don’t you ask me?" Don asked, and with that the two bruisers took off running the other way down the alley. Buckwheat put his belt back on and the three of us went into the club.
"You know those two in the alley?" Don inquired of Buckwheat. "Hell, no – they were just trying to rob me," was the reply, "and I’m glad y’all came along before I had to scuffle with ‘em!" He was as blasé about the event as if he’d said "what a nice day!" The only indication that the whole event had affected him at all was the look in his eyes that hadn’t quite subsided. I knew from then on I never, ever, wanted Buckwheat mad at me about anything. "You know the funny thing about the whole deal?" my short friend asked, "they knew who I was because they called me by name. It’s a pretty dumb s.o.b. that’ll attempt to rob a musician – hell, any idiot knows musicians never have any money!"
Eventually, Buckwheat married a lovely lady and shortly thereafter, he and his wife moved to another state. I didn’t hear from him directly but heard via the music business grapevine when each of their two sons was born. A few years had passed when Steven called me early one morning and asked if I’d read the paper yet – which I hadn’t. On the front page was an article that said Buckwheat was in the hospital with some sort of infection that had gone to his heart and was in critical condition. We made some phone calls and verified the information was true. Steven was playing a local club that night so he left the club’s number with his contact at Buckwheat’s organization and asked that he be called if Buckwheat’s condition changed or there was anything at all we could do.
That night, Steven had finished his first set and we sat at the bar having a drink. He was called to the telephone two or three times (which wasn’t unusual) but didn’t offer any information and I found no reason to ask. When it was time for the second set he finished his drink, stepped up on the stage, strapped on his guitar and began telling some of his crazy stories that always kept audiences in stitches. He alternately sang and joked with the crowd and was nearing the end of the set when he uncharacteristically sang a slow, sweet love song. You finish an appearance leaving your audience clapping, yelling and stomping the floor for more – you don’t bring them down.
The crowd was pretty mellow by the time he finished the song. He then said he was sure they all knew his buddy, B.W. Stevenson, had been pretty sick and he’d like to do one of Buckwheat’s songs in his honor. He told them as he’d never performed the tune before they had his permission to boo him off the stage and laughed..
When the first, unmistakable chord came out of the speakers a strange hush fell over the crowd. By the time the last note faded there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Steven briefly thanked his audience, quickly left the stage, went straight back to the dressing room and closed the door. Nobody moved nor left their table and I’ve never seen – or perhaps felt -- an emptier stage.
The house lights didn’t come up as usual but instead, the light man immediately hit the empty stage with a small spot shining directly on the microphone and the empty stool behind it. The house microphone clicked on and the club manager’s voice said, "Ladies and gentlemen, the club will be closed tomorrow night to honor the memory of our friend, B.W. Stevenson who passed away this evening." The microphone clicked off. The announcement had been unnecessary.
Steven’s final song of the evening had been a gentle head’s up to an informed, tuned-in, perceptive audience. After all, they lived in Austin, Texas, which was rapidly becoming the music capitol of the South. To a person they knew songwriters sing tunes they’ve written – it’s how they make a living. They were even more aware Steven had had his own signature song for 20 years which he didn’t perform in deference to Buckwheat’s. The crowd sat in silence, until the house lights finally came up and then quietly rose and filed out the door.
I sat at the bar for a long time and just stared at the closed, dressing room door. Although he’d not said a word to anyone; Steven had known Buckwheat was gone before he began his second set, decided how he would handle it, and did. I watched as one of the waiters took a big, straight shot of tequila, and lightly tapped on the dressing room door. The door opened a crack, the waiter put the tequila in Steven’s outstretched hand and the door closed again.
With the sweet, final notes of "My Maria" still ringing in my ears and my heart heavy with loss, I ordered a stiff drink and settled in for a long wait.
My little brother could come out whenever he was ready.
Author’s Note: Second in a series of Hubs to be included in the author’s unpublished book "Lovin of the Game."