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.

Steve’s Repair Corner: Bringing a D-18 Back From the Brink

Back in September, I was just by chance driving down south State Street in Salt Lake City when I passed a pawnshop and remembered that a friend had told me about an old guitar they had for sale. Braking hard, I pulled over to the curb and went in. There on the counter, prominently displayed, was the sorriest vintage D-18 Martin I had ever seen. This poor 40-year-old axe looked like it had literally been through a war. It appeared that entrance and exit wounds through both sides may have been inflicted with gun or perhaps an arrow, and the lacquer was gone from most of the extensively cracked front and back. There were other problems too: The bridge was lifting and deep fret wear proved that this guitar had seen a lot of rough playing. But the neck was true and the wood was beautiful and straight-grained. If guitars could only tell their stories, I was certain this baby would have something to say.

Although the canny pawn man wasn’t budging much on the price, I couldn’t resist this forlorn chunk of spruce and mahogany and bought it despite thinking I was paying too much. I had an ulterior motive. For the past few years, I’ve been repairing guitars for a company I co-own, Aardvark Guitars, LLC, and this one presented a big array of challenges and opportunities. Plus I’ve always had a thing about taking something that others would send to the dump, any old thing really — a chair, a car, a house — and bringing it back to its original beauty and function.

Unfortunately, I didn’t feel I had all the knowledge, skills or tools I needed to successfully resuscitate this vintage disaster. While I rarely hesitate to plunge into the most difficult project and just figure it out along the way, I realized that I would only have one chance to do some parts of this restoration right. I decided to ask my friend Lonnie to look it over and give me some advice. Lonnie, a long- time IAMA volunteer and a pretty dang good luthier, looked at the D-18 and laughed, then provided his assessment: “ Whoa, somebody was sort of rough on this, weren’t they? We could tear it all apart and start over with new sides or maybe we could patch ’er up.”

“So you’re actually volunteering to help me with this?” I asked, just a bit incredulous.

“Why not? It could be fun, or at least interesting,” Lonnie answered. Apparently after a career repairing locomotives, it take a lot to phase him. Lonnie makes Winterwood Guitars, his own brand. The ones I’ve seen are really nice examples of woodworking craft based on classic Martin designs. I had definitely come to the right source. And so began an alliance to save an old trooper.

We started by peeling off the bridge off and gluing the cracks radiating from the holes. Then we cut out large diamond-shaped areas around the holes in the busted sides and made patches out of similar mahogany, formed them to match the contour, glued them and clamped them into place. Cleating and gluing the top and back cracks resulted in clean but visible repairs.

One tough decision I had to make was whether to just refinish the sides or to completely strip it and refinish the whole thing. In general I don’t like to refinish vintage instruments’—or any antique, for that matter. It often greatly reduces the value of the item in question. In this case, though, there was so much finish damage that it made sense to strip all and start over with some original-type nitrocellulose lacquer.

Lonnie sanded, scraped, filled, sanded, sealed, sanded, sprayed, sanded, sprayed again and again and then rubbed it all out to glassy smoothness. When I saw it after he had worked his magic, I was floored. It looked nearly perfect. We restripped the area where the new rosewood bridge would go and glued it down.

Finally after four months, my formerly forlorn D-18 was ready to set up and string. The first chord was magical. The depth of tone and the ringing sustain were just amazing. I have a theory that limits my GAS (guitar acquisition syndrome). A player should set a fixed number of guitars. Let’s just say 19, for instance. Then each should get a number of 1 to 19 with #1 being your favorite, #2 being your second-favorite, and so forth. Then when you go over 19, it’s time to sell the one that dropped to #20. That’s the story I’m telling my wonderfully tolerant wife, and I’m sticking to it! Need I say the D-18, is my new #1? I’m not saying which one dropped off the list—I’d better play all of them for a while and re-evaluate them later.

But the whole restoration experience was too much fun to stop there. This little 1933 Gibson Kalamazoo I’m sitting here looking at is even more messed up than the Martin. I wonder how it would sound and look if I restored it? Hmm . . . I’ve learned enough to give it a go myself and my pals Lonnie and Tom Middlen at Local Music can give me some advice when I need it. Could just start by make a patch for this busted side….

(Originally published, in slightly different form, in the IAMA Newsletter. Copyright 2010. All rights reserved.)