When the full chronicle of Nashville's musical history is written, there's bound to be a debate over the exact moment when Music City became a "rock 'n' roll" town. For Buzz Cason, it was March 16, 1956, when he took the stage for the first time as lead singer of the high school band that would soon be known as The Casuals and called out, " 'Blue Suede Shoes' in C!"
In a career that has spanned six decades, Cason is one of those classic characters who may not be a household name, but whose fingerprints are scattered across the pages of Nashville's music history. With his latest album, Troubadour Heart, Cason is proving that a 74-year-old homegrown rock 'n' roll hero can still hold his own.
Cason's adventures as a musician began on the east side of the river. Growing up in the Inglewood neighborhood during the '50s, Cason learned piano and pop standards, sang in church and listened to the Opry on occasion. But it was a Christmas gift that put him on the road to rock 'n' roll.
"My cousin had been in the Air Force, and he gave me a pair of headphones from a bomber plane and a crystal radio," Cason says. "My dad hooked it up, and I discovered WLAC. That changed my life when I started hearing James Brown, Muddy Waters, Joe Turner and the Clovers."
Like many teenagers of that era, Cason fell under the spell of WLAC's late-night broadcasts of rhythm & blues. At 16 he was fronting The Casuals, Nashville's first homegrown rock 'n' roll band, who worked their way up from high school dances and local TV appearances to touring with top stars like Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Eddie Cochran and Brenda Lee.
Cason moved into songwriting and producing in the 1960s, co-writing classic R&B and pop hits like "Soldier of Love" for Arthur Alexander and "Everlasting Love" for Robert Knight. In 1970, he opened Creative Workshop, the first recording studio in Berry Hill. Over the next four decades, Cason continued writing songs as well as producing and performing on thousands of recording sessions, often working with non-country acts like Jimmy Buffett, The Doobie Brothers and Leon Russell. In 2004, after years of working mostly behind the scenes, Cason published his memoirs, Living the Rock 'n' Roll Dream: The Adventures of Buzz Cason. Ironically, that look back at his collaborative musical career led directly to his current run as a solo artist.
"When my book came out, I did a book tour," Cason says. "I would read from the book, but I felt like I needed to play some songs too, ones that are related to the book. I got the bug to record again, and I just started playing wherever I could."
Over the past seven years, Cason has released six albums. His latest, Troubadour Heart, released by Plowboy Records, is a jukebox that reflects his multifaceted career. From the folkie atmosphere of the title track to straight-ahead rockers like "Something I Can Dance To" and the laid-back hillbilly swing of "Goin' Back to Alabama," Cason spreads out an assortment of pop-rock gems that sparkle with his tastes and talent.
"I've got so much in my brain from different fields of music," Cason says. "I love everybody from Plácido Domingo to Bill Monroe — it's hard to settle into one area. I'm not really a singer-songwriter with just one style, but more of a record guy. I want to make every song sound like a different single."
At an age when most people would be well into their retirement, Cason is eagerly looking forward to his next record, tossing about ideas for the direction he might take and who he will work with. Although the days of constant hit-chasing may be behind him, the joy of the music remains.
"When Bobby Russell and I had our partnership in the '60s," Cason says, "we thought it was the end of the world if we weren't in the charts every week, whether it was something we wrote, something we published or whatever. We lived and died by the charts.
"Nowadays, it's not a monetary thing, that's for sure," he continues. "But there's just nothing like playing live and birthing songs. I'll be driving along, and pop, there comes my name up on satellite radio and they're playing one of my songs. It just knocks me out. One of my ex-wives said, 'Retire from what?' Because it's never been work. I still love that thrill."
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