Though Buck Owens made his name in Bakersfield, California, his adopted hometown from the age of 21, he was a familiar face to audiences across America as co-host of Hee Haw, the country music variety show that launched in 1969 and lasted until 1992. (Owens remained with the show until 1986.) Despite the silliness of the television show, Owens was serious about his music, which was a direct answer to the “countrypolitan” sound storming Nashville in the 1960s. Owens and his Buckaroos, along with Bakersfield colleagues like Ferlin Husky and Merle Haggard and the Strangers, brought country back to its honky-tonk roots, pure and simple. But his path to stardom, like that of so many others in those pre-American Idol days, was a circuitous one. Owens made his major-label debut at Capitol in 1957, releasing his first LP for the Tower in 1961. But he had been a presence in Bakersfield since 1951, playing sessions for Faron Young and Wanda Jackson circa 1954, and shopping his songs around.
During the years 1953-1956, Owens made his first solo recording, recorded a clutch of singles for the small Pico Rivera, California-based Pep label and continued to record demos, many of which were collected (of course) after his fame. All of these recordings, and more, have been brought together by RockBeat Records, with the cooperation of the Owens family, as Bound for Bakersfield: The Complete Pre-Capitol Collection 1953-1956 (ROC-CD-3028, 2011).
A number of the tracks on Bakersfield have been packaged and re-packaged before, but this 24-song collection produced by Jim Shaw and James Austin expands on perhaps the most comprehensive of them, 2001’s 21-track Young Buck on the Audium label. The new compilation opens with two selections from his first known session in 1953 in Hollywood, which produced two singles (“Down on the Corner of Love” b/w “It Don’t Show on Me” and “The House Down the Block” b/w “Right After the Dance”) on Pep. It comes to a close with a 1956 Bakersfield session with Owens on the verge of his breakthrough.
These compact songs, a number of which clock in at under two minutes’ length, draw on elements of honky-tonk and western swing for a traditional country-and-western sound. There’s prominent fiddle and pedal steel, as well as tinkling piano and of course, Owens’ Telecaster guitar, the unique sound of which drew attention to the young star-to-be in Bakersfield. The tracks largely don’t stray from that sound, and the sameness would threaten to bog down the compilation if not for the charm of Owens’ compositions. Owens is responsible for writing all but one track here, “Blue Love” by Melba Rocha. He co-wrote “Hot Dog” with Denny Dedmon.
“Hot Dog” and its flip, “Rhythm and Booze,” are the most atypical tracks here, both recorded under the pseudonym Corky Jones in an attempt to court the rockabilly market. (Owens is quoted in Rich Kienzle’s liner notes speaking of the pure country partisans in Bakersfield: “If you even got caught smilin’ over at the rockabilly folks, the Elvis folks or any of that, if anybody ever saw you do that, you was out!”) “Hot Dog” boasts a prominent drum beat and a breathless vocal. “Rhythm” is a downright weird song, all tension and jitters, with the singer moaning and wailing through the fade! It’s interesting, for sure, but Owens doesn’t have the danger in his voice that marks much of the best of the rockabilly genre, and his tentativeness with the genre shows.
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The earliest track on the set, 1953’s “Blue Love” is heard in two renditions. Its demo, heard in frankly primitive sound, has all the atmosphere of an old-fashioned honky-tonk, with twangy guitars and “not too much” of the piano as per Buck’s instructions in pre-song chatter – and it employs, most unusually, a trumpet! The two versions of “Blue Love” are sequenced apart on the disc, but most of the other songs are each heard twice in a row, with the alternates preceding the masters. This, alas, doesn’t make for the most cohesive listening experience. The alternates are more than welcome, though, as most possess a slightly different feel, delivery, tempo, key, or even instrumentation. Although Owens’ rise to prominence was a return to country roots in the wake of the string-drenched Nashville sound, his famous sixties performances were still more slickly-produced and more electric than these actual, truly unvarnished pre-Capitol sides.
Owens’ originals traverse the familiar country themes of misery, domestic squabbles and family, sometimes all in the same song (see “The House Down the Block”: “They don’t know how often I wish that I was dead/To our name, I’ve brought a shame/But still I long to be/In that house down the block with my family.”) In “Why Don’t My Mommy Stay with My Daddy and Me?” (sample lyric: “Why does my daddy cry/When I ask ‘Where can you be’?”) the typically distressing song is played at a relaxed, sing-along tempo perfect for drowning one’s sorrows, as per the country-and-western norm!
Owens is gently saucy in “Right After the Dance” (“Stick around, baby and give me the chance/To make love to you right after the dance”) even if he concludes, ”…and we’ll head for the preacher right after the dance!” “Please Don’t Take Her From Me” is a fine, pleading ballad, and “There Goes My Love” successfully emulates the tight harmony sound of the Louvin Brothers. Similar in style is the more uptempo “Sweethearts in Heaven,” which saw cover versions from Wynn Stewart and Reno and Smiley. Owens’ shouted vocal on “I’m Gonna Blow” is accompanied by Jack Trent’s insistent piano. The down-home “You’re Fer Me” was re-recorded for Capitol, lending its name to the title of Owens’ second Capitol LP. The Telecaster gets a workout on the instrumental “Honeysuckle,” with fine performances from the band, likely consisting of Owens, Trent, Junior Stoneberger on pedal steel and Lewis A. Talley on bass.
Owens biographer Rich Kienzle provides five pages or so of liner notes. Kienzle’s prose is informative and offers tidbits about the core songs, but little in the way of detail about the alternate takes and what distinguishes this compilation from its predecessors. Basic discographical information of personnel and original issue number has thankfully been included. It’s a decent package, though lacking attention to detail in the perfunctory graphic design: a missing digit off an album catalogue number here, an “overubbed” single there.
Owens completists likely have much of this material, whether on Audium’s currently out-of-print Young Buck or Bear Family’s 5-CD Act Naturally box, which comprehensively covers the period of 1953-1964. If you’ve somehow missed out on these recordings, however, RockBeat’s reissue is available to fill in the gap. These simple honky-tonk treasures might not be the man’s best or most significant recordings. They do nonetheless represent the roots of an innovator who knew the importance of getting back to basics. In other words, all he had to do was act naturally.