Get to know Casper Rawls with us. We sat down with Casper in the back room of my second home, The Continental Club. It was such an honor for me to share words with this legend. This has been a long time coming…I have known of him for a few years… If you know guitar players in Austin, you know this guy. If you don’t, you must be new to the scene and I am glad you are here, reading this. Currently, Mr. Rawls owns the Sundaze afternoon residency at The Continental Club, with Planet Casper. Get over there and dig this show. Our team this time was Belinda, Rockslide and I (transcribed by CC Bonney). Thank you for reading…
AustinDaze: Can you tell us how you got involved with music and how you decided to make your life as a musician?
Casper: A lot of story right there. I’ve been playing music since 3rd grade. My dad bought me an acoustic guitar for my Birthday. We went to the toy store when I was in 3rd grade, and we didn’t have a lot of money, my dad was career Air Force. He told me I could have any toy I wanted in the place. And I picked the guitar. So I’ve been playing since then. My folks got me an electric guitar and an Alamo amp when I was 11. My first performance was around then for a Christmas/New Year’s party for our school at John T. Floore’s Country Store. That’s near San Antonio, a famous honkytonk. I ran into a guy from that first band at the grocery store about 10 years ago and he had a picture of us all playing there dated December 1966. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to play music and I always have off and on. I’ve had a lot of other jobs, and things, but I’ve always come back to music. I moved to Austin right out of high school in the summer of 1973. A friend of mine I went to high school with, David Spellman, had a club over on West 5th I think. I can’t remember it was a lot of years ago; it was on the other side of Lamar right by the railroad tracks. Back in those days I was drinking quite a bit. High school and college years up until I quit around 1980 are kind of fuzzy because I was drinking a lot. I beg forgiveness from all the people who knew me back in those days, its a miracle I survived all that. Anyway, David Spellman first got me into playing music in Austin. I met up with a country band from a post on the bulletin board at Ray Hennig’s Heart Of Texas Music shop. I used to hang out there a lot. That band was called The River City Rounders and was led by a guy named William Johnson. He has passed now, but was always a big supporter of my playing, just a great guy. So I got into playing a lot of honkytonks with them like the Skyline Club, a place called Shorthorn Lounge, and Dessau Hall, they’re all gone now. They were old dance halls and bars. The Shorthorn was kind of a rough place, it should’ve had chicken wire around the bandstand, but it didn’t. And Dessau Hall was really a family place and the Skyline, well of course you know the history of the Skyline Club up on north Lamar, a very famous honkytonk. This was in the mid-seventies and I also played with another group called The Country Sound, a bigger country outfit. We played The Broken Spoke, Lumberyard and Silver Dollar Saloon. My friend Duane Hamilton was the drummer in that group and we recently played again together after all these years. Around 1977 I was hired to play in the house band of a club called The Shortline Station in McAllen, Texas. It was a big fancy dance hall and the band was led by a great honky-tonk piano player named Norman Swanson. We used to play Thursday through Saturday at The Shortline and me and some of the other guys played another club called The King’s X on the other nights of the week. We also played parties and dances in the daytime for all the winter tourists called snowbirds. At The Shortline we opened for all the touring acts like Mel Tillis, Ernest Tubb and Merle Haggard. Artists like Johnny Rodriguez, Mel Street and Moe Bandy would send their albums down and we would learn the music, be their band and back them up. I was down there about a year and a half and played some places that really did have chicken wire around the bandstand. Denny “Cletus” Blakely from the Hollisters was in that band too. Moved back to Austin, and got real lucky and a lot of people hired me to play guitar and I just continue to learn. To this day, every gig is a learning experience.
AustinDaze: Since you’re a master of both styles, which do you prefer, acoustic or electric?
Casper: Oh, it’s all music to me, I’m not a master of anything. I’m a master of learning. I’m a master student, I would say. I’m learning every day. I love to play acoustic; I love to play electric, whatever. I didn’t actually play a lot of acoustic guitar until I got the call from Toni Price. I never played much acoustic except occasionally on a session. And she needed someone to fill in on acoustic guitar. I didn’t even own an acoustic guitar since my little cowboy guitar that my Father bought me. So I went to South Austin Music, and they let me have one that I could make payments on because I was so broke. So I paid a little bit a month and finally paid it off. And when I paid it off, Billy Welker, my good friend at South Austin Music told me that guitar used to belong to Natalie Zoe. So I bought Natalie’s acoustic, I still have it, and have used it on a bunch of records. That’s how it works in Austin, it’s all connected.
AustinDaze: Another friend told me that you were a roadie for Supertramp?
Casper: Well, I wasn’t a roadie; I was on the crew, setting up the rigging. When I first started all that, I ran into a buddy of mine over there by campus where I was living. He asked what I was doing, and I said, “Well you know, trying to go to college.” I was going to UT, but I was getting my real education in the clubs around Austin like The Rome Inn and Antone’s on 6th. Anyway, they needed help and he asked if I wanted a part time job. I said, “Yeah, I don’t have a lot of hours, so I’d love to do it.” They had a big concert there off 290 with Peter Frampton and Carlos Santana, I don’t know what year it was, it was a big gathering up there, big rock concert. They said they needed some help setting up the speakers and helping on the stage. So I went to do that, helping out setting up the speakers. I got to have lunch with Carlos Santana. I was sitting back there eating lunch with Carlos Santana. Wow. Peter Frampton was on the show, and we talked about his guitar. He had a unique thing that hooked into the guitar so that he would play while he talked, and it would make a sound like he was talking through the guitar. He showed me how all that worked. Now I’m just a kid from UT, and was like whoa, this is cool. Fast forward a couple of years later when I moved back from McAllen I stopped by their shop to say hello. The company had just gotten the contract for the Styx tour, and one of the guys couldn’t go. So I went out on tour with them for the summer. That worked out okay; I went out on a full tour with them after that, like 115 cities basically rigging up speakers. Until then, speakers were just piled up on the side of the stage. Styx was one of the first groups that decided they wanted to lift the speakers up in the air, so people could see better and people could hear better in the higher sections of the arenas. And of course sell more tickets. So they figured out how to do that, the company I was working for, American Concert Sound, a guy named Bill Stephens. And he was the guy who initially hired me to work part time and help with the big rock show a few years earlier. He had a lot of faith in me. Basically, I went out on the road with Styx for about a year. Between Styx tours, I got hired to go on other tours with Heart, Kansas, Charlie Daniels, a bunch of folks. Amazing people. I was on the crew. So my job would be to set up this stuff up before they got there, and either fly on to the next date or stay there and tear it down. Most of the time we traveled on a bus the band leased that used to belong to Elvis Presley. We had a driver named Nowdy that used to be one of his bodyguards. Of course all this time I am still playing and practicing the guitar when I can. And all those bands were really supportive. I was still living in Austin, just constantly on the road. Around 1980 I moved to Mississippi to join a band with my friend Webb Wilder and Suzy Elkins. We had a band called The Drapes.
AustinDaze: Sweet. When was that?
Casper: It was 1980 through 1982. My mother got really ill, so I moved back home down to San Antonio after that group disbanded. She got stable for a while, and Supertramp called me to go on tour in the summer of 1983, and it lasted about a summer, so it was okay for me to go. So to answer your original question, yeah I did work for Supertramp. They were the greatest people you would ever want to work for. We used to fly all over Canada, they were really huge in Canada. And they would make us crew guys sit in first class. And they would go and sit in coach. They would give us their first class tickets. They were such great people; I have nothing but respect for them. Actually, one of the last shows they played was at the Irwin Center. After the tour was over, they broke up. That particular band of Supertramp didn’t want to do it anymore, so that was their last tour.
AustinDaze: So how did the Leroi Brothers come together?
Casper: Oh that would be another great interview, a whole book really The LeRoi Brothers. They were already going great guns before they contacted me. In the band I was in with Webb and Suzy, we came to play Austin at a place called the Back Room over there on Riverside. It was an itty bitty place. It was way different then, more of a singer songwriter’s bar for lack of a better term. And we played there and a couple other places, that band was called The Drapes, with Webb, Suzy and Gene Brandon who went on to drum for Omar. And somehow the Leroi Brothers saw me play in that group. Don’t know what happened, but Don Leady left the band. The asked me to play a show with them around 1984 at a place called The Ritz on 6th Street. They cleared the place out of everything and put sand in there. They wanted to make the club like a beach. The band sounded great, but it was a horrible gig. Absolutely horrible. So I played that show with them and they had already been talking to Evan Johns about coming down to play guitar to replace Don. And Evan came down and played in the band. So I figured well, they’ve got it together; they got their path picked out. Then about a year later, I got a call from their manager, Gary Rice, saying we need you to be in the band. I don’t know how the band felt about it, but Gary said, “You’re going to be in the band.” I said “OK, we’ll give it a shot, if they like it and I like it, we’ll make it work.” My first gig with The Leroi Brothers was July 1985 at Liberty Lunch as a 4 piece. Joe Doerr had moved on. And I stayed with that group 25 years.
AustinDaze: Do you still playing with them, or do you and Steve play?
Casper: Me and Steve play. I left the group in 2010 I think, I don’t remember the exact date, summer I think, I got so busy with other things, Doyle Bramhall, Earl Poole Ball, James Burton and then I’ve got Planet Casper. It just wasn’t fair to the band for me to always not be there. So I made the decision to leave the group.
AustinDaze: Can you tell us the story of how you met Champ?
Casper: Champ I met with The Leroi Brothers early on. He would come and watch us play around town, when we were in town. We used to tour quite a bit when I first got in The Leroi Brothers. We were gone for months and months at a time. And Champ would come and bring his fiddle and sit in with us and play. He would always smile. Just being Champ. He would maybe sing one, just a real simple song with us, or just play on some of the Cajun-flavored numbers with us. And we would see each other around town. Not until I joined up with Kelly Willis did we become better acquainted. Champ and I played a couple of years with the Kelly Willis band. We went all over the place. We even went to Mexico, played a gig in Monterrey, Mexico. We played the weekly Toni Price show, played on all of her recordings and with whoever else would hire us. Champ and I played a bunch of shows together. I would say we played on a weekly basis, one or two times, maybe even more, a week for 10 or 11 years. We were always playing somewhere together, like when I would fill in at his regular Wednesday gig at Threadgill’s, or he’d call with parties, or a Union gig. I was real fortunate that he called me to fill in when somebody up there at Threadgill’s was gone. Like Marvin Dykhuis would be out on tour or Rich Brotherton wasn’t available. I was lucky to fill in up there. So we got to do a lot of playing. When young Warren Hood was … young. He still is young to me, but he was much younger then.
AustinDaze: Well, you’ve taken over Sunday afternoons with Planet Casper. Tell us what one can expect from a show, i.e. what are you trying to do with Planet Casper?
Casper: Planet Casper is a community gathering of my friends that want to come and play music with me. People I’ve worked with over the years and people I’ve always wanted to work with over the years. And of course the beautiful souls, who listen, dance and be a part. It’s my Austin family. It’s about getting together and playing pretty simple songs, nothing real hard, make it easy and just play and have fun. It’s a gathering, that’s how it started for me. We took over for Toni Price when she left for California. They wanted a real acoustic kinda thing because she had been doing the acoustic thing for so long. Steve Wertheimer called and said, “Can you come in and do something similar?” I said yeah, I’ll just call my friends that have been playing with Toni off and on through the years and played on her records and see if they want to do it, and other folks I wanted to play with forever. And so it just evolved from that. It became sorta like Toni’s deal. People kept coming every week, the same people. It evolved into a natural family. People that come all the time for 7 plus years now. God Bless them. That’s pretty remarkable. We moved from Tuesday to Thursday, then Thursday to Sunday afternoon. I am very grateful for Steve hanging in there with us and giving us the opportunity to keep going. Steve created the Sunday afternoon matinee for this show. He has the Saturday afternoons, of course Redd invented that. That was brilliant. Because there wasn’t music down here on Saturday afternoon. I don’t know if Guero’s was going, there wasn’t much until Redd started that.
AustinDaze: Guero’s used to do a Sunday thing on the front porch in the early 90’s. But in terms of a day gig, Redd’s Saturday is iconic.
Casper: For me it is, Saturday matinee on South Congress. Redd invented that. I’m grateful to him and Steve for doing that. I filled in on a couple of those Saturdays as well, and Steve said, well, let’s try it on Sundays. And so it seems to have worked.
AustinDaze: Do you know when he started that? It’s been a long time now.
Casper: I’m sure Dianne would know. It’s been quite a while, yeah. It’s an amazing thing. It just evolved for Redd and me with folks like you Russ, and everybody that comes and supports our shows. In my wildest dreams I would never think I could do something like this.
AustinDaze: Who are some of the people you’ve had play with you? I know you’ve had Scrappy, Marvin, Rich, Warren…
Casper: Sure, Scrappy, Marvin, Warren, Rich, Gurf Morlix, Shelly King, David Grissom, Robyn Ludwick, Rick Broussard, Ponty Bone, Carolyn Wonderland, Sarah Brown, most of The Derailers, Mandy Mercier, Webb Wilder. So many more, just a wonderful cast of friends. My friend James Burton has played with us a couple of times when he was in town. Albert Lee stopped in once, but didn’t feel like playing because he had been in the studio all day with Junior Brown.
AustinDaze: Any surprise people, eclectic people that have showed up, ones who stand out?
Casper: Recently, I’ve become acquainted with Susan Gibson. She’s fantastic. She came and just floored us. Especially me, because I wasn’t acquainted with her music except for her big hit record. My friend Aliya is a key ingredient in this, Aliya Rosegreen, she’s definitely the Keeper of The Planet. She made me a CD of Susan’s music and I was just astonished with the depth of it. Some of the guitar tunings, I was going like, “She really knows how to play guitar.” Carolyn Wonderland, she just knocked us out too…Robyn Ludwick, you know used to take care of the door here and now she makes amazing recordings. Tyrone Vaughan just tore it up, Gene Kurtz before he passed was so great. I really love playing Cajun music with Charles Thibodeaux and I have a real musical connection with Shelly King. It just goes on and on. People I run into, I’ll ask them if they want to do it, and they’ll say, “Well, why not?” It works out really well, like today we have David Halley. I’ve always admired David’s guitar playing and his song writing. So you never know, I thought he might be polite and say he’d think about it. But he was like “Yeah, I want to do it!” Here we are years later, he’s been here several times. It’s just a great hang. And visitors have come from out of town, and this has happened multiple times, and they said, “You know, we’ve been in Austin for a week and this is the show we have liked the most.” And I was really knocked out by that. People from different parts of the world, “We’ve read about Austin, we’ve been in Austin for a few days and this is what we envision when we think about Austin music.” Oh yeah, and we’ve had Omar. I’ve known Omar since my early days here; I met him when he first moved to town.
AustinDaze: So how is the Kickstarter thing?
Casper: Kickstarter is kinda on hold right now. We’re going to start it up again this fall. My producer, R.S. Field is going to be free in December. We’re going to shoot for recording in December. But there is a way to do it online through Sessions on Mary. casperstarter.sessionsonmary.com I think. So it’s still going. Or you can go to my website planetcasper.com. I appreciate everyone who has donated, it’s amazing to me. John Loughran and Carol Cody have been instrumental in getting that together. Absolute angels. People have been so encouraging and so helpful. It gives me even more strength to get it going and finish it up. We got on hold because I got busy, the producer got busy, and I knew we couldn’t do anything until he was free. I don’t know if you know, but R.S. Field is a producer in Nashville, he produced Webb Wilder, Allison Moorer, Sonny Landreth, John Mayall, and Billy Joe Shaver. He’s the guy who nicknamed me Casper back in the mid-70’s when we were all hanging out at the Rome Inn. See that sign over there, Rome Inn? C-Boy used to run it. Bobby R.S. Field was the drummer for the original group Omar was in called The Howlers. That was a self-contained group. And Omar was the singer. So when that group broke up, Omar took the name and became the singer and everything else, it became Omar and The Howlers. But at that time, there were 5 other guys and they would all change instruments. One guy would play the horn, one would play piano, another would play guitar. Then they would switch. It was an amazing group I watched a lot at the Rome Inn. I spent a bunch of time at the Rome Inn, because I lived over by the Club on 29th Street. I first met Marty Stuart there when he was playing mandolin with Vassar Clements. And C-Boy was so cool, just a really great human.
AustinDaze: So that’s when you got your name?
Casper: R.S. Field, he named me Casper a long time ago. And it stuck in Austin. In my hometown, they don’t know me as Casper. I was just in Shreveport visiting some of my relatives and they don’t know me as Casper.
AustinDaze: Where did it come from, the name Casper?
Casper: You’ll have to ask R.S. Field. That’s your next interview. When R.S. comes here in December.
AustinDaze: So you’ve been here a while and seen Austin change so much. How do you see the changes affecting the musicians?
Casper: Hard question. I see it good and bad. Austin is always going to have a great component of cool music. It’s just getting harder to find because they are mowing a lot of the places down. It’s going to take some evolution for the music to find solid ground in all this growth. But it will. Of course over there in East Austin, they picked right up on it. So I have no worries about the Austin music scene. I miss the real cheerleaders though like C-Boy, Clifford Antone, Robin Shivers and Danny Roy Young.
AustinDaze: Do you think the grass roots thing might take over, things like Sessions on Mary, where people just say, “You know what? I want to have music, so I will just make it happen with no real commercial plan. We’re just going to have people that want to play music and you’re going to be here, and it’ll be awesome.”
Casper: I certainly hope so. I’m counting on it. That’s one of the beauties of Austin. People figure out how to do it. They don’t wait around for stuff to happen; they just go and do it. I’m remarkably upbeat about it.
AustinDaze: You’re optimistic.
Casper: Oh yeah, I’ve always been optimistic about Austin music. When I got here, I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t know anything. Amazing how far I’ve gotten in my life and career. Meeting all these wonderfully talented people through the years and getting to play with a lot of them. Then seeing them build their careers and go on to bigger things. I see that for the next generation as well. Is Austin changing? You bet, it always has been. Can musicians still afford to live here? I hope so, but that would be a whole other interview.
AustinDaze: If you could play with anyone you haven’t played with yet, who would it be and why?
Casper: Well, there are a lot of folks who have passed on that I’d love to have played with. Unfortunately, that’s not going to work until I’m lucky enough to get into heaven. That’s a good question. I’ve already been blessed to play with James Burton a lot. Talk about inspirational. I guess I’ve always wanted to play with Eric Clapton because he was a big influence growing up. Where I grew up, we were out in the country; we were in the middle of nowhere. There was a great dance hall by my house, and I’d ride my bike down there to John T. Floore’s Country Store and see and hear great country music. I’d just sit out there on the street and listen to it and actually meet some of the players. Just amazing. But somewhere along the way I got a record by Cream. And I loved that guitar playing. It made me really want to learn about blues music. Because it was approachable. I was listening to 45’s that my cousin gave me by Ricky Nelson with James Burton, Merle Travis, and Chet Atkins. That is really hard. You gotta really dig into that and know what you are doing. So I got into listening to Eric in addition to still trying to work out James Burton and Don Rich guitar parts. Eric Clapton opened the door for me to a lot of other blues guys that I later got to meet up here in Austin through Clifford Antone. I read an interview in Guitar Player Magazine about Eric, and he was talking about Freddie King, and I was lucky enough to meet and get to know Freddie King. And then he talked about Hubert Sumlin, I got to know him through Clifford over at Antone’s on 6th Street. So it’s just a big circle of wonderful music. Wild that a British guy led me to American blues players. So yeah, there’s a bunch of people I could name that I would love to play with.
AustinDaze: You’ve been doing the Buck Owens’ Tribute for a long time. How did that come about, that he played with you guys one time?
Casper: Well, I went out to interview Buck Owens with my friend Dan Forte for Guitar Player Magazine. It came out in the first part of 1989 I think. I am grateful that he let me tag along. I had written Buck before then, a couple of letters. Once after Don Rich died. And he wrote me back a real nice letter saying thank you for thinking of us; I appreciate you thinking about Don passing away. Then later on I wrote him one, I saw him in a magazine and he wasn’t doing anything, he was retired, and said, “What are you doing Buck? Are you going to play again?” He wrote a real nice letter back saying, “Yeah, I’m thinking about recording again.” So I went out to interview him with Dan Forte. And we talked and did the interview. Then The LeRoi’s made an EP with Charlie Sexton producing, we were going to tour Europe, so we made like a 6 song EP for our label in Paris. We cut this song called Rhythm and Booze. One of Buck’s rockabilly songs. Thanks to his keyboard player Jim Shaw, Buck heard it. And he called me up and said, “Man, I just love this track you guys cut, Rhythm and Booze, I just love it, I’m wearing it out.” And I said, “Cool, I’ve been out to see you Buck, and I’ve written you letters.” And he said, “Oh, you’re that guy!” He put two and two together, that I was the guy who had written him and been out to interview him. He put a face with the name. And that I played guitar on that cut. So we became fast friends ever since then. He was always accessible, it was great, you could just pick up the phone and if he wasn’t there or busy, they would find him. I always had questions about those recordings, the Capitol recordings, or about Don. He asked me to send him things I was playing on or projects I was working on. So I’d send him things. Sometimes I’d get a nice note back, “I like the guitar on that, love the singing, love the arrangement.” Sometimes nothing at all. It’s just a great thing to know you had a friend out there of that stature. We became good friends. We started the Birthday show and invited him. He showed up in 1995 and had a blast.
Austin Daze: Are there other young guitarists/musicians out there you’ve had a chance to play with that we should watch out for?
Casper: Yeah, All of them. There are so many gifted young players I would not want to slight anyone by only pointing to a few. Safe to say Austin Music is in some very capable and very talented younger hands.
Austin Daze: Can you give us some wisdom or advice from what you have learned about making music I can pass on to other musicians?
Casper: First of all, I am the last guy anyone should take advice from. It is by the grace of God and the love of my wife Nancy that I am still earthbound. Buck told me to always be on time and wear a clean shirt. After fifty years with a guitar in my hands, that’s worked for me.
AustinDaze: Thank you very much.
Casper: Thank you Russ.