Up the stairs of an unassuming warehouse space in Downtown L.A., an older man collects my cash. He’s manning the door at “Buck’s Drive-Thru,” a gay country revue hosted by the artist Sam Buck and friends. Tonight is special. We’re celebrating “Borderline,” Buck’s debut country EP. The night has already begun with a dance lesson, while others enjoy the two-for-one drink specials atop stacks of hay. “We’re gonna play the song during the show, so we can all do the dance together,” Buck tells me.
As I scrounge around for my cash, the guy at the door tells me whatever I can find will suffice. I assume he’s one of Buck’s friends from Oil Can Harry’s, the gayest institution in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley and the oldest gay bar this side of the Mississippi. Buck and his friends have become regulars there in recent months, helping the bar celebrate its 50th anniversary. And while Buck is still new-ish to the Oil Can Harry’s scene, he’s pretty sure its gay line-dancing experience is more “exuberant” than the straight line-dancing experience at other country bars, such as the Cowboy Palace, which he predicts have “less flair.”
“I’ve met people who have been dancing at Oil Can’s for the last 30 or 40 years,” Buck tells me. “In terms of community, it’s the most diverse crowd of people I’ve ever felt myself a part of, it’s just so cute. They basically cycle through 30 dances a night — most of them set to country music, but we also line dance to the Pussycat Dolls and Ke$ha too.”
Despite my assumption, though, the doorman isn’t one of Buck’s dance partners. He is, in fact, Sam’s dad. Turns out he’s in from Massachusetts with Sam’s mom to catch the show (and collect that ticket money). “I haven’t gone home to Massachusetts in like six months, so my parents made it a point to come,” Buck tells me.
He’s put his parents to work tonight at the third rendition of “Buck’s Drive-Thru,” the first L.A. event celebrating his new release — six songs featuring him on guitar and lead vocals. “This is the first one with hay!” a fan exclaims shortly after I arrive. On Twitter, Buck described the venue as part of Downtown L.A.’s “arts district slash car stereo district,” and before the performance begins, I chat with some young guys who made their way over from the auto-body shop across the street. “I don’t love country, but I love music,” one of them tells me before passing me his blunt.
“It’s basically a fast-pace variety show,” Buck explains. “I put a band together and then invite different performers and local artists, some of whom are singers and some of whom aren’t, because I feel that’s in the spirit of country. So each singer does a song, and I introduce the next person. We have a little back-and-forth, and then, my own band plays. The revue is the first thing that’s made me feel really at home in L.A.”
Like any good variety show, Buck’s Drive-Thru is entertaining as fuck. And while the music is central to the whole thing, Buck is definitely the night’s star. The introductions and “back-and-forth” he mentions are full of funny comedic bits that string the whole evening together. During one such bit of patter, he imagines the band being tapped to sing in an Allstate commercial. Later, he thanks his parents for attending by quipping, “Their love made me gay,” which makes them both double over with laughter.
“What’s your fave amendment?” he asks Amy Baxter, the first guest singer of the evening, who responded by joking that she didn’t know any, playing with notions of American pride and the bumfuck ignorance that many associate with country music. Baxter goes on to set the room ablaze with her rendition of Shania Twain’s “(If You’re Not In It for Love) I’m Outta Here!,” a vestige of 1990s country pop that first made the genre accessible to people outside of the usual “country” crowd, and which was led by artists like Twain and the Dixie Chicks.
“She’s insanely hot right now,” Buck tells me, talking about Twain, who made a recent self-parodying appearance on Broad City as well as popped up in a group photo with Nicki Minaj, Timothée Chalamet and Quavo at Coachella. “She’s catering to her girls, her gays and Instagram influencers. And then people were so surprised she said she would’ve voted for Trump, which was interesting because it’s like, not actually that shocking.”
While Buck didn’t exactly grow up a huge country fan, the music has been instrumental in helping him make new friends — whether that’s with his revue performers, his fellow line dancers at Oil Can Harry’s or his seatmates at Miranda Lambert’s last concert. (Buck told The Fader, who called him “the gay king of bro-country,” that Lambert is the “Britney [Spears] of country.”) “My boyfriend and our friends took me to see Miranda Lambert for my 30th birthday,” Buck says. “I was sitting next to this young mom and we became friends as we just screamed every single song from beginning to end.”
His boyfriend is another Sam — Sam Zimman. They’ve been dating for the past decade and also play together in the band. “Sam and I met when he was 19 and I was 20,” Buck explains. “But we didn’t play music together until three or four years ago. We had been living in [the seaside gay hot spot] Provincetown and then moved to Laurel Park in Northampton, Massachusetts, which is this hippy enclave where we lived in a little cabin on a former Methodist campground. We were there for six months. That’s when I started recording a lot of these songs. I hadn’t been in a band for a few years and proposed that he form a band with me, which he wanted. So it was just us singing together in this little cabin, which brought us even closer in a way I didn’t expect.”
So while Buck produces the songs and plays live guitar during their set, Zimman controls the sequencer and sings. Like Buck’s parents, he also fills in as support staff when necessary. “It’s thrifty and fun, you know?” Buck tells me. He does, though, admit, “It can get intense. He’s not my employee; he’s my boyfriend. And I can only ask him to do these things for me and the music because of how personal our relationship is.”
On stage, Zimman and Buck share an undeniable chemistry. Buck’s cherubic smile is slightly demented, and Zimman’s dance moves are aptly bendy and gay. They’re in conversation throughout their 10-song set, including “Faces,” the drinking anthem Buck released as a single a couple of years back. It tells the tale of all the basic dudes he’s fucked at this one particular bar. “Face it, in this town there’s only basics,” he croons, “Hands to the wall, I’ve fucked them all.”
On “Redo,” a song about a guy who comes back wanting him 15 years later, he declares that he’s “done with discrete men who never get divorced,” separating himself from other gay country singers who come out only once they’ve been successful.
Buck credits country music for helping him learn how to write songs that people really listen to: “My older music was so obtuse and poetic that it was almost incomprehensible. Country has given me a good set of rules to follow and more chances to tell stories through clear metaphors and vivid storytelling instead of the vague poetry stuff I used to prefer.”
Buck characterizes the collection of songs on “Borderline” as “a little bit sad,” but to me at least, their sound is mostly cheeky and upbeat, offering a chance to dance through one’s own melancholy in a typically country way. “You don’t always need an explosive vocalist to really kill a performance,” Buck tells me earlier in the week, referencing the 1975 Robert Altman film Nashville and the space country affords amateur performances. And by the end of his Drive Thru, I’m taking those words to heart, screaming the lyrics of Madonna’s “Don’t Tell Me” as if it’s my job while Buck and his friends perform a line dance they learned at Oil Can Harry’s.
“This dance is called ‘Everybody Have a Good Time,’ and it’s usually done to a song of the same name,” Buck says.
And here at Buck’s Drive-Thru, it’s really the only thing he demands.