Earl “Buck” Dexter, Part I: The Early Years*

Earl “Buck” Dexter (1926-1997?) lived a life clouded in mystery—much of it self-made.

This much we know: he was born into a family of itinerant farmers in rural Missouri. His mother (who favored education) and his father (who did not) agreed that their young son showed a remarkable gift for music and enthusiastically encouraged his talent, going so far as to trade one of the family’s valuable milk goats to a neighbor in exchange for a Beltone guitar and a bushel of Madison peaches (according to the bill of sale discovered in the pocket of Buck’s original Beltone guitar case).

He left home at an early age, working at various times as a horse trainer (which according to one account, inspired the “Buck” nickname when he was thrown from the saddle by a wild-eyed roan several times in one day), traveling encyclopedia salesman (which he once cited as the source of his well-known wanderlust), and, during World War II, Merchant Marine.

What Earl “Buck” Dexter was after was inspiration, and he found it in some pretty remote and unlikely places; at various times, he traveled by mule, camel, steamer tramp, biplane, dugout canoe, and bicycle, in search of the new sounds and new experiences. He often claimed that songs “found” him and, based on the scant recorded evidence that has survived, his inspirations would have sounded pretty exotic to the listeners of the mid-20th century: in addition to the expected sounds of blues, country, old-time gospel, and early rock ‘n’ roll, one also hears the exotic strains of calypso, third stream, samba and other unusual musical forms.

In the years immediately after World War II, Dexter fell in love with the sweeping vistas and corrugated cliffs of the American Southwest, living at one point in a one-room cabin on the banks of the Colorado River near Fruita, Colorado. There, he spent hours practicing on his trusty 1930s Gibson Southerner Jumbo and well-worn Gibson F-4 mandolin, both instruments he acquired while in the service, though their exact provenance (not to mention their ultimate fate) has been lost to time.

It was during this period that Dexter began to assimilate his influences into something that resembled an organic and original style—a thumbprint, if you will. He was still devoting whole days to copying the strains of his favorite 78-RPM discs on a battery-operated phonograph, but he was also attempting to integrate found influences into his style—the rusty-hinge rasp of a raven, the whitewater roar of the silvery Colorado that rushed past his crude, one-room abode, the howl and whisper of the winter winds sliding down off nearby Grand Mesa.

Listening now to Dexter’s first recording, the double-sided “Pikes Peak Blues/Jumpin’ at Shadows” released on the tiny “Aardvark” label operated by music impresario Wilfred Snow in nearby Moab, Utah, one struggles to discern a hint of the bold originality that would characterize his later work. Dexter’s voice is already gritty as a windstorm in the desert, but he struggles to control his pitch and to convey the emotion embodied in the despairing lyrics. Yet even through the hiss and pop of the primitive recording, his guitar work is already snappy and lyrical, going on unexpected detours where a lesser player would resort to an easy cliché. Rare as the recording is, it was highly influential, with several well-known players citing Dexter’s combination of raw energy and seemingly infallible — if unlikely — note choices.

According to the studio logs, as well as an oral history conducted with Snow that is on reserve in the Special Collection section at the Northern Utah University Library, Dexter’s equipment on this session consisted of a first-year (1949) Gibson ES-5 through a small 15-watt Magnatone Troubadour amplifier. Just what has happened to this iconic setup is unknown, though if it were to be discovered and authenticated as truly being the gear used on Earl “Buck” Dexter’s first trend-setting record, it would be inestimably valuable. In fact, according to one well-known vintage guitar source, this instrument would fetch a price equal to (to be continued)

* This article originally appeared, in a somewhat different form, in the May/June 1989 issue of Backroads magazine. It is used here by permission of the author.