CELEBRATING OUR OWN: Drivin’ N Cryin’ Guitarist Buren Fowler

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The late rocker, who also worked extensively with R.E.M., will get a tribute concert this weekend in Athens, GA.

 TEXT BY FRED MILLS & ANTHE RHODES / INTERVIEWS BY ANTHE RHODES

 I don’t know if it will help saying this to you… some men in this world are born to do our unpleasant jobs for us… your father is one of them.

 This quote from To Kill a Mockingbird was brought to mind when Buren Fowler passed away last month. Not because he performed unpleasant tasks, though, at times, some were less glamorous, but for being a respected and admired musician who saw moments of fame, the depth of his work was largely unsung.

 When the news arrived about the sudden and tragic March 8 death of the Georgia rocker Buren Fowler, the southern music community was clearly shocked and saddened. James Van Buren Fowler had served as a guitar tech and live rhythm guitarist for R.E.M. in the mid ‘80s and went on to be a core member of Drivin’ N Cryin’, and he was a respected and loved member of that community. He was only 54.

 The day after Fowler’s death, DNC frontman Kevn Kinney tweeted his sadness over losing his former bandmate, while Drivin’ N Cryin’ posted the following message at Facebook:

 It is with a heavy heart that we announce the passing of our brother-in-arms Buren Fowler. Words alone cannot express the sense of loss that we all feel. He will be deeply missed. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his dear wife Paula and his family. We love you Buren. Godspeed.

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 Subsequently, Kinney (pictured above with Fowler) started putting together a concert to pay tribute to his former bandmate. Titled The Buren Fowler Rock N Roll Celebration, it will take place this Saturday night, April 5, at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, and in addition to Kinney and DNC there will be opening act The Rattlers plus a number of high-profile guests expected to turn up. Speaking to long-running Athens music journal Flagpole, Kinney noted:

“For musicians, it’s a tradition in the community to celebrate our own. My goal on this one is, when you walk in the door, it’s not going to be Brahms or white roses. It’s gonna be full-on AC/DC. Hopefully, by the time you leave, you will have your closure, and everyone who comes will learn something about Buren… When you are next to someone from 1988–1993—which were pretty intense years—we were working just about every day. We did music videos together, did fancy dinners together for the record company, lived on a tour bus together… [Buren] was a real great ambassador for the band.

 “We want [the concert] to be free, because Buren was a very giving person. If he had 10 bucks and you needed 10, he’d give you 10. He would want everyone to come in and have a good time and tell their friends stories at the bar. I don’t want it to be sad. That’s not what this is for. Somebody else is better at doing that than I am. He wanted to have fun and play loud, and that’s what it’s going to be. [Buren] loved rock and roll. He loved Metallica; he loved Deep Purple. We’re gonna get drunk and have fun.”

With that in mind, attendees are encouraged to make a donation at the club. If that’s not an option, at very least write a note and explain what the musician and his music meant to you. Everything will be given to Buren’s widow Paula at the end of the evening. Worth noting: he didn’t leave a life insurance policy.

 On a personal note: I first met Buren in the mid ‘80s while following R.E.M. around on tour for a magazine profile of the band. He initially seemed aloof—a crew member being aloof to an intruding journalist? Go figure!—but I later realized that he was simply focused intently on doing his job. Indeed, at after-parties he was friendly and funny, at one point gently ribbing me for scavenging for guitar picks on the stage and acting like the fanboy that I certainly was. A few years later we met again at a DNC concert and he remembered me as “the R.E.M. writer,” and not in a negative sense.

 My good friend and fellow music journalist Anthe Rhodes also had great memories of Buren, and as we corresponded about his passing and then learned about the tribute/memorial concert being planned, she offered to get some personal testimonials from people who knew him. They appear below, and I sincerely hope Buren knew how deeply he is missed. Rhodes adds this comment: “It’s significant how he caught some fame, but then put it off to raise his kids in Kentucky, and was really left to the local scene once he returned to Georgia. At that time he began working extensively with the Wounded Warrior Project, which extended to some of the vet’s family members. He saw through to all of their pain. This was all done quietly, and he did a good job.”

Meanwhile, on March 18 the Georgia General Assembly passed a resolution honoring Buren’s memory, his life and his work. HR1922 calls him one of Georgia’s “most distinguished citizens” and goes on to outline much of the aspects of his career, additionally mentioning his wife and kids. You can read the entire thing here at the State Assembly website.

 Rest in peace, sir.

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 Randy Blazak (Portland State University Professor and former Drivin’ ‘n’ Cryin’ road tech): I have two memories that really stay in my head. One is that after I moved to Portland in 1995, and left the DNC camp, Buren called me to thank me for my support through the years, including in getting him into the band. I thought this said a lot as he had left DNC two years earlier under a bit of a cloud and really had no reason to go back to those days. I thought it really reflected the depth of his kindness.

      The other was after a DNC show in Athens at the 40 Watt. Buren had been invited to jam with Widespread Panic in their practice space. He asked me to drive him. And I had a great time watching them wail. But I think Buren felt bad that I just had to sit there (which I was more than happy to do). So he gave me a harmonica and asked me to join in. He didn’t want me to feel left out. I’m not really a musician but I joined the jam session like I was a pro and we riffed on some blues classics He was just a really thoughtful guy.

 Jon Kincaid (Radio Host at WREK-FM) Buren was a guy that you could see why musicians liked having around as either a fellow musician or a tech. He was friendly, funny and reliable, three characteristics that often disappear from musicians after they become road hardened. I remember one time he was traveling the country helping set up exhibits for Louisville Slugger (the baseball bat company) and he told me about being somewhere and having Ted Williams, whom many consider the greatest hitter of all time, give him batting tips.

      Always imagined the sight of this old school ball player giving fundamentals to this rock n roller and how odd that must have looked. I’m sure others have their own Buren stories but all will feature a common thread, that this was a good man who left us too soon when he still had a lot to offer. I saw Drivin’ ‘n’ Cryin’ probably 150 times when Buren was in the band, from his first appearance at the Metroplex, (12-8-87) to his guest appearances in later years. Through it all he shone like his golden mane.

 Scott Munn (Tour manager at Blackberry Smoke and Shanzig Films): Buren Fowler melted my face with his blistering guitar solos many times as a young music fan growing up in Atlanta. The first time I met him, he came back to the stage long after load out to give all the local crew folks a “thank you” and Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ winter skull caps after a big show at Legion Field in Athens. That left quite an impression. In the twenty years since, he always had an encouraging word and was always ready to rock. Buren is talking baseball and playing ‘hick licks’ (as he called them) in Heaven now, without a doubt. He was a good man.

(below: Fowler in the studio during the DNC “Mystery Road” sessions)

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 T. Patton Biddle (Musician and former 40 Watt Club tech): Buren and I became close friends when I was working at the 40 Watt back in the late 80’s. We lost touch when he moved to Louisville but ran into each other one night when I was taking my daughter to the Musician’s Exchange in Athens for a bass lesson. We kept in touch after that and when he and Paula moved to Athens they became regulars at our gazebo parties where we live.

      When I decided to put together a PA recently I asked Buren to be my partner and we had just begun that endeavor when his time came. One episode you might find interesting and telling of his character occurred on our way back from the first show we worked in Monroe last month. He and Paula attended our most recent party last October and he mentioned working with the Wounded Warriors Project and how they needed help with purchasing supplies.

      My wife, Jean, wrote a check for $200 on the spot and Buren had difficulty expressing his appreciation. On the ride back from Monroe he told me that he had used most of the money to buy a guitar for a young girl, I think he said she was 12, who’d been through a rough time. He related how the joy she felt at receiving her own guitar at Christmas put a smile on her face that he’d never seen before.

      That was Buren as I remember him: the phrase “he’d give you the shirt off his back” is often used but rhetorically I believe. In Buren’s case it was genuine; he truly would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it. He was utterly without guile; with Buren, what you saw was what you got. I have never had a truer friend and the world is a lesser place with him not in it.

 Vanessa Briscoe Hay (Vocalist of Pylon): I first met Buren Fowler back in 1989 when Pylon had reunited for the second time. His former wife did Pylon’s bookkeeping and they had 2 boys around the same age as my daughter Hana who was a toddler at the time. Buren looked like a muscle-bound blonde Viking, but he was really a pussycat with a soft spot for kids, animals and the downtrodden. Buren also loved to share funny stories about the rock and roll life.

      One of my favorites was one that he told of how he would see shows for free at the Fox when he was a teenager. He would show up at load in with a cable coiled around his shoulder and help load in. Pretty soon the staff was so used to seeing him around that they assumed he worked there! I am sure he never dreamed just a few years later he would be up on the stage with first REM and then Driving and Crying playing some pretty monster guitar.

      He moved back to Georgia a few years ago with his beautiful wife Paula and we became friends again through mutual friend Pat Biddle. He had recently suffered some major setbacks with his health, but continued to share his good humor and talent with his friends and The Wounded Warrior project. He helped Pat put together the sound system for a wake in honor of my dear friend Margaret Adams back in December. He sat up front the entire time in case we needed his help.

      A few weeks ago, I was shocked to hear that Buren had passed away in his sleep. I am glad that he is not suffering anymore, but dang-I’m really going to miss seeing him around. It seems unreal that he’s gone. On April 5th. Driving and Crying will honor him with a performance at the 40 Watt. His friends and family will have an opportunity to say goodbye in the way he would have loved best: rocking out.

 Rick Fowler (Musician and bandmate): Buren was a gentle soul offstage yet an aggressive warrior with a guitar strapped on. When we would play, it was like a roaring locomotive with Buren driving the whole thing. In contrast, he would get me to sneak over at Christmas and throw potatoes on the roof of his house so the kids would think Santa was landing. His softer songs had an incredible gospel-like spiritual depth and his rock stuff would blow the walls down. He meant what he played and it was never an act; it was coming from his heart.

 Tony Paris (Music journalist and former music editor of Creative Loafing): Buren Fowler’s place in R.E.M.’s history was not too unlike that of Ian Stewart in the Rolling Stones’ story. He was there, he played the instrument — and the band was much better for it. There was no flash, no pretense, just solid musicianship that took the band to another level when he accompanied them. In Drivin’ ‘n’ Cryin’, Buren was much more prominent, much more a member of the band. He solidified DNC’s sound onstage, pushed them ferociously when they rocked, and added the subtle nuances that were so much a necessity of the band’s quieter material.

 Armistead Wellford (Former bass player of Athens, GA band, Love Tractor): I first laid eyes on him on stage at the Fox playing with REM. I knew he had to be good to get the gig His playing was subtle and accompanied the band perfectly. He also had cool hair. I forget where we first met but he was a gentleman. He was doing some guitar tech at John Kernes when 10000 maniacs were recording there. I was impressed with his knowledge of guitars. And I do remember outside the Bluebird (old El Dorado, Morton theater) meeting his new born Van and being thrilled for him. He said Van was for Van Buren.

      A year or so later was when I heard he joined DnC , then seeing him tearing it up on stage with them, he could definitely get around on the guitar. I just saw Buren in November and he was still cool looking with cool hair. In fact, since I had seen him I was thinking of dropping in on him in Athens and plugging in. I loved his speaking voice and accent too. If I knew that I wasn’t going to see him again I would have hugged him all night long. I can’t stop thinking about him. It’s cool that Buren had been working with vets with guitar therapy, my hat’s off to him.

 Joey Huffman (Musician and former keyboardist for Georgia Satellites): I replaced him in Drivin’ ‘n’ Cryin’ so he should have hated me but he had nothing but love for me. When I had my brain tumor I had to wait 3 months for the surgery. I had no one to talk to and few visitors. Buren called me twice a week to cheer me up. He was the only one that cared. Even though he was in great pain himself he asked me about mine. We talked about everything from music to baseball. He really cared and was a really good friend. If that isn’t love I don’t know what is. I still have messages from him on my phone and listen to them when I really miss him. The world is a little colder and a little darker without him in it. I will miss him till I’m gone.

 Charlie Starr (Vocalist and lead guitar player for Blackberry Smoke): When I was a young fellow, I heard Buren’s playing with Drivin’ N Cryin’ on a daily basis. Their music was in heavy rotation on our local rock station. Later, I wound up playing those songs in bars from 10pm to 2am on the weekends. Later still, I met Buren at one of our shows and we became friends. Thank you for the music, Buren.

 LoriLee Maxim (Photographer and artist): He was a lover of life and music; kind to everyone. We are glad to have known him.

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