With its two latest releases, Omnivore Recordings continues its great Bakersfield rescue mission. Texas-born and Arizona-raised, Buck Owens made his mark in that California city, answering the prevailing “countrypolitan” style with a return to a pure and unadorned honky-tonk sound. But that “natural” sound had roots that ran deep in Bakersfield. Yet Owens’ parallel career as the avuncular, perpetually joking co-host of television’s cornpone Hee Haw may have caused audiences to take his once-adventurous brand of music less seriously, a fact that reportedly wasn't lost on Buck. Owens eventually was recognized for his towering achievements (including nineteen No. 1 country singles between 1963 and 1969 alone) with berths in the Country Music and Rockabilly Halls of Fame, but he still doesn’t often receive the plaudits one might associate with an artist of his stature. Omnivore has done all in its power to change that, having released numerous Owens titles including the delightful Buck Owens Coloring Book; the Buck Sings Eagles EP; and the Live at the White House album. It’s rescuing the legend of Bakersfield country music with two new must-haves for any C&W connoisseur: Owens’ Honky Tonk Man: Buck Sings Country Classics (OVCD-52) and Don Rich Sings George Jones (OVCD-50). Though packaged with Omnivore’s customary care and attention to detail in both design and annotation, what makes these releases remarkable is that none of the music on either disc has been previously issued. Both discs add up to a true treasure trove.
Perhaps ironically, all of the songs on Honky Tonk Man have been derived from recordings made for Hee Haw. Despite the show’s humorous “Laugh-In Goes Country” premise, Owens saw that its musical performances were always top-notch. All musical tracks on the show were pre-recorded by his Buckaroos so that Owens could sing live over the band’s taped instrumentals for the broadcast. He recorded “reference vocals” over these tracks, however, and those vocals would be removed when it came time to transfer the recordings for the TV track. Yet the full voice-and-accompaniment recordings remained in Owens’ vault, making it possible for Omnivore to release them from the original multitracks. And though these vocals weren’t intended for air, they’re evidence that Owens still gave it his all.
When selecting the music for Hee Haw, Owens frequently turned to the songbooks of contemporaries and inspirations. And so Honky Tonk Man finds him tackling Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Jimmie Rodgers, Merle Haggard, Hank Snow and John D. Loudermilk. On these 1972 and 1973 sessions, vocalist/acoustic rhythm guitarist Owens was backed by The Buckaroos (Don Rich on electric guitar and fiddle, Buck’s son Buddy Alan Owens on acoustic guitar, Jerry Brightman on pedal steel, Ronnie Jackson on banjo, Jim Shaw on piano and organ, Doyle Curtsinger on bass and Jerry Wiggins on drums); Don Lee on electric guitar and Jana Jae on fiddle replaced the late Rich for a handful of songs from 1975.
After the jump: more on Buck, plus a look at the long-lost solo LP by Don Rich!
Owens appropriates the Johnny Horton hit “Honky Tonk Man” as a virtual credo, epitomizing what’s thought of as the Bakersfield Sound: prominent, twangy electric guitars like the Fender Telecaster, rootsy pedal steel, direct and piercing lead vocals. Tinkling, saloon-ready piano brings the titular honky-tonk home in the song. (It’s no coincidence that Dwight Yoakam, Owens’ biggest musical disciple, later scored a big hit with the same Horton song. “Honky Tonk Man” was in Owens’ and Yoakam’s DNA.) The Johnny Russell hit “Rednecks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer” makes for a low-key anthem. These brisk, taut songs are ripe with familiar themes and settings. The compilation visits the barroom of Haggard’s “Swinging Doors” and the prison of Jimmie Rodgers’ “In the Jailhouse Now,” but each song of love lost (“My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You,” “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone”) could emanate from that same watering hole or cell block. Others might have lived faster, loved harder and died younger than Owens, but Owens, indeed, left the “beautiful memory” wished for in the Faron Young hit covered here, “Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young.” Each song is presented in pristine, studio sound as mixed by Brian Kehew and mastered by Reuben Cohen and Gavin Lurssen, and Randy Poe adds to the enjoyment with his new essay.
A major architect of the Buckaroos’ sound on Honky Tonk Man was Don Rich, Owens’ right-hand man. With the Buckaroos, Rich drove the tough backing for “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line” as well as the down-home, rousing fiddle music of “Stay a Little Longer.” When he died in a motorcycle accident in 1974 aged just 32, it’s no exaggeration to say that a part of Owens died, too. More than forty years after it was recorded, Omnivore has just delivered the premiere of Rich’s only solo album, Don Rich Sings George Jones. Recorded in 1970 and inexplicably shelved (though Randy Poe’s fine liner notes do try to explicate!), the tight album takes in songs both written and popularized by “The Possum.”
During Owens’ heyday in the 1960s, The Buckaroos were signed by Capitol Records to a separate contract which saw the release of a string of successful instrumental LPs. These albums often featured a few vocal spotlights for Rich and other band members, allowing the accomplished harmony vocalists to shine in the lead. It was Owens who suggested that Rich tackle an album of George Jones’ songs for his solo recording debut. With Rich supported, naturally, by The Buckaroos, its ten tracks well showcase Rich’s pinched, drawling voice. The timbre of that voice isn’t what you might expect from the high tenor that soared over Owens’ leads, yet it’s successful all the same. So why was it shelved? Nobody seems to know; Buckaroo Jim Shaw tells Randy Poe in the liner notes that Rich simply might not have reminded anybody when the album fell through the cracks: “Don didn’t have a lot of ambition to be a solo artist. He just wanted to read his books about military airplanes and ride his motorcycle.”
Rich is equally comfortable with the high energy of Don Rollins’ “The Race Is On” and J.P. Richardson’s “White Lightning” as he is with Jones’ own three-hanky weeper “The Window Up Above.” Rich’s vocal quality is far removed from Jones’, yet he gets to the heart of “She Still Thinks I Care” with his expressive interpretation. These aren’t radical reinventions of the songs, and are squarely within traditional parameters. But as one of the key developers of the electric “Bakersfield Sound” and an exponent of unadorned, pure country, Rich was entitled to take a straightforward approach to these already-classic songs. He’s loose on the infectious “Love Bug” and the goofy “Your Heart Turned Left (And I Was on the Right).” But Rich is also tender on “Walk Through This World with Me.” If Sings George Jones isn’t revelatory, it’s no less significant as a timely reminder of Rich’s varied talents as one of the finest musicians of his era. A mini-EP, Buck Owens Sings George Jones, rounds out the disc with four more selections drawn from the Hee Haw archives including Owens’ own renditions of “The Race is On” and “Too Much Water.” Owens and co. are playful on “Root Beer.” Rich is heard on these, as well. As with Honky Tonk Man, the sound of the newly-mixed recordings is stellar.
Based on these inaugural releases, the Buck Owens vaults contain plenty of buried treasure. (And the “sampler” vinyl EP Buck Sings Eagles, too, offered the unusual but delightful joy of Laurel Canyon-gone-Bakersfield; might there be enough contemporary rock-era material by Owens and the Buckaroos to warrant a full CD release in this vein?) There’s always room at the bar for these honky-tonk men.
You can order both titles, available now, by clicking on the album covers above!