It’s a long, sometimes treacherous, often exhilarating road from Federal Way, just south of Seattle, to the tiny, century-old spa village of Soap Lake, Washington. Winding first through picture-book peaks and spectacular, open passes, then over fog-filled crevasses and past hilly, pine-dotted towns, the highway eventually opens out to a hundred miles of gently rolling, grass-covered hills and farmland, in what the Northwest calls a desert.
Near the end of the road, at a cottage overlooking the lake’s healing waters, the autumn grass of the surrounding hills, and their randomly jutting cliffs of black basalt, Bonnie Guitar sits contentedly in a porch swing and surveys her future. From here, it looks endless.
Stashed off to her right is history, to which she rarely gives a thought. It’s a garage full of the byproducts of a unique, trailblazing, 60-odd-year career as a session guitarist, songwriter, record producer, label owner and country star. Nudie outfits, old trade magazines, industry awards, stage props, antique gear, family memorabilia — ephemera accrued to fit the space available — inhabit a collection of cardboard boxes accumulated from every era, stacked as neatly as their jumble of shapes and sizes permit.
And then there’s the car.
A candy apple red 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner hardtop convertible, it features the first production model retractable top and a wheelbase two inches longer than that of a 1956 station wagon. Bonnie ordered it in 1956 and had it personalized (as she does everything from her front gate to her weathervane). Red guitars are stitched to its white leather seats; musical notes were fashioned into its hubcaps by hotrod hotshot Dee Wescott.
Bonnie so loves that car, she wrote a song about it, “Candy Apple Red”, and she still believes it could be a hit. But she has retired from the business of music. She left her last steady gig at Soap Lake’s Notaras Lodge on New Year’s Eve 1996; since then, she’s played only scattered dates — at a friend’s lodge in Idaho, or at a gathering of cowboy poets eager to tap into her extensive repertoire of old western songs.
Occasionally, the phone rings and momentarily reminds her where she’s been. “I just had a call a couple months ago from Lari White, Toby Keith’s producer,” Bonnie says, still swinging. “She called and said, ‘I’ve been wanting to tell you that…’ — how she admired me for being the first woman producer. We had a chat for an hour.”
Most people who know of Bonnie Guitar remember her haunting hit “Dark Moon”, a top-10 single in 1957. Few are aware she was probably the first woman to be an on-staff session guitarist. By all accounts, she was definitely the first woman to take charge of a studio. She learned both crafts in the mid-’50s at Fabor Robison’s Abbott/Fabor Records, where Johnny Horton and Jim Reeves had earlier launched their careers. In 1959, she scored two #1 hits as a producer with the Fleetwoods: “Come Softly To Me” and “Mr. Blue”, brilliantly subtle-sounding recordings that maxed out the technology of the era. She then spent more a decade producing mostly new talent for Dot Records, all the while pursuing her own recording career.
Even today, her like is rare. Women’s Audio Mission estimates that only 5 percent of producers and recording engineers now working are women.
With an unprecedented zest for recording technology, Bonnie not only seized the controls, she earned a reputation for driving them for all they were worth, getting all she could out of them in service to a sound. Friendly, funny, terminally cute in that ’50s way, and hot as a Hollywood starlet in her gold lamé pants, she was above all smart, and not a little commanding. If you had a hit in you, she would drive it out. If not, she would make the very best of what you had.
She was born Bonnie Buckingham on March 25, 1923 in Auburn, Washington, about a half-hour south of Seattle. Her father was a farmer, and a middling fiddler, with a taste for Irish tenors and a vast collection of old songs he’d learned mostly from traveling salesmen in Illinois pubs. Her two older brothers shared a guitar she yearned to play, but she contented herself with tuning it quicker than either of them. She was 13 when they handed it down to her, along with instructions for three chords. She worked tirelessly to learn her instrument.
“I took old records like Nick Lucas,” she says. (Known as “The Crooning Troubadour,” Lucas is also believed to have recorded the first solo jazz guitar instrumental, in 1922.) “I’d try to copy off those instrumentals. I also listened to a lot of folk, like Woody Guthrie, or Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club Of France. One of the things I used to like to do was to take a song and put as many chords to it as I could, and running bass lines. I studied all those things. I took lessons as often as I could.”
All the while, she was also singing. “I grew up around it, so learning songs was simple,” she says. “I could hear songs a couple times and know them.”
At age 16, she began performing in — and winning — talent shows from Seattle to Tacoma, and by 19 she was touring regional theaters with musical revues. Her deep brown, 20/20 eyes sparkle a smile as she tells the story. “I was…just out of school…and we toured and starved to death! It was in the Depression, but it was so much fun to play those little theaters!”
While Bonnie Buckingham was touring the countryside on training wheels, Paul Tutmarc was making a splash in Seattle. Known locally as “The Silver-Toned Tenor,” Tutmarc sang with the most prominent bands in the region and in two Hollywood movies. He was also a guitar teacher, music store owner and inventor who, with partner Arthur “Art” J. Stimson, developed a precursor to the first commercially marketed electric guitar. Later, on his own, he invented an innovative pickup, then founded the Audiovox Manufacturing Company to manufacture much-coveted lap steel guitars. Ever restlessly tinkering, he eventually invented the first solid-body electric bass guitar.