No less an eminent personage than American author William Faulkner once said that “a writer needs three things – experience, observation, and imagination – any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others.” Country music legend and Bakersfield Sound pioneer Buck Owens, however, utilized all three of those key elements in his songs, which may help explain their timeless stature. Fifty of those recordings are anthologized on Omnivore’s new Buck ‘Em! The Music of Buck Owens (1955-1967) (OVCD-75), a two-CD alternative history of the singer-songwriter-bandleader Owens. If there was ever a time that Owens the musician took a backseat to Owens the cornpone cut-up of television show Hee-Haw, Omnivore has done its best to make sure those days are long gone.
Though Owens’ music has been compiled numerous times in the past, Omnivore’s release produced by Patrick Milligan eschews the predictable approach in favor of a more idiosyncratic one. Buck ‘Em!, named after Owens’ new, posthumously-released autobiography, takes in the key singles and album tracks one might expect, but endeavors to present these songs in new ways. All told, eleven chart-topping hits by Owens are featured, a number of which are presented in their original mono single versions (“I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail,” “Love’s Gonna Live Here,” “I Don’t Care (Just As Long As You Love Me),” “Sam’s Place,” and “Before You Go”). A total of fifteen mono 45 versions of Owens staples are included, such as the holiday perennial “Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy.” Live tracks – from New York’s Carnegie Hall, Bakersfield, and even Japan – have earned a spot on the collection, too, including renditions of favorites like “Act Naturally,” “Buckaroo” and “Together Again.” Alternate versions of “My Heart Skips A Beat,” “Where Do The Good Times Go,” and “How Long Will My Baby Be Gone” make their U.S. CD debut, alongside a previously unissued version of “Under The Influence Of Love” and the first CD appearance of Omnivore’s sold-out Record Store Day single “Close Up The Honky Tonks.” The tracks are arranged chronologically by recording date.
After the jump: a closer look at Buck ‘Em!
Though Owens refined his style over the years, especially in tandem with the musicians whom would be dubbed The Buckaroos, the essential ingredients were present from his very first Pep recordings which open the first disc here: the expressive drawl with a tear in it, the unvarnished instrumentation, the easily-relatable lyrics married to an accessible melody. The lightweight “Down on the Corner of Love,” from 1955, isn’t an exceptional song, but it augured for an exceptional talent who would continue to grow and change the landscape of country and western music while doing so. Owens’ music became an answer to the slick, string-and-choir laden Nashville sound, establishing Bakersfield, California as a home base for stripped-down, pure country. These early pre-Capitol sides show off a stylistic diversity that informed Owens’ later approach.
“Hot Dog” is one of the most atypical tracks here, recorded under the pseudonym Corky Jones in an attempt to court the rockabilly market. (Owens once reflected 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. By the time of the third and final Pep single represented here, the twangy ballad “There Goes My Love,” the singer sounded more like “Buck Owens.” 1957’s “Sweet Thing,” the first Capitol side included here (and his second 45 for the Hollywood label), also courted the rockabilly crowd, adding backing vocals for a fuller production insisted upon by producer Ken Nelson.
1959’s three-hanky “Second Fiddle” (“Will there never come a day/When I won’t have to play the part/Of second fiddle in your heart?”) finally scored Owens the Top 25 Country single he had been hoping for, and “Under Your Spell Again,” from a few months later, fared even better when it hit the Top 5. Like many of the greatest C&W artists, Owens was unafraid to wear his heart on his sleeve with his emotional songs, but his sense of humor and irony even came through when his subject was a no-good, cheatin’ woman who done him wrong. 1960’s “Foolin’ Around” (“When you’re tired of foolin’ ’round with two or three/Come on home and fool around with me!”) and 1961’s “Under the Influence of Love” (“I was so in love I let her hurt me, though I knew better, under the influence of love…”), both co-written by Harlan Howard, are just two early examples of this side of Buck Owens. Buck met his match with the country firebrand Rose Maddox, who sings the 1963 duet “Sweethearts in Heaven” here. Songs of heartbreak, though, became a signature, often set to deceptively upbeat melodies.
The singer was on his way, and a large part of what he called “The Buck Owens Sound” was due to the presence of Don Rich. When Rich entered Owens’ life and career shortly before Christmas 1959, both gentlemen knew they’d found something that had previously been missing. Rich was a presence in the first, embryonic Buckaroos line-up of 1961-1964, and anchored the second, most famed iteration the group. The 1964-1967-vintage band – Rich, Doyle Holly on guitar and bass, Tom Brumley on steel guitar and Willie Cantu on drums – is heard on all of the second disc of Buck ‘Em!, plus a handful of tracks on the first CD, too. All four gentlemen played major part in making the instrumental sound of Owens’ recordings so recognizable and multi-dimensional, with Rich’s tough lead guitar so potently contrasting Brumley’s lyrical steel guitar. The bandmates were as versatile as they were talented; just check out the bluegrass of 1967’s “Heartbreak Mountain.”
One of Owens’ most famous songs was actually one he didn’t write. Johnny Russell and Voni Morrison’s “Act Naturally,” famously covered by The Beatles with Ringo Starr on lead, is presented here in a breezy 1963 live version recorded in Bakersfield from the various-artists album Country Music Hootenanny. Owens certainly did become a “big star” taking the song’s advice. He acted naturally, whether singing the songs that meant so much to him or enjoying the cornpone humor as host of Hee-Haw. Buck didn’t have the same deep “Voice of God” as a Johnny Cash or a George Jones, but always sounded like he would be right at home, at the next stool in one of the colorful establishments he sang about in “Close Up the Honky Tonks” (heard here in its new-to-CD mono mix), “Truck Drivin’ Man” or “Sam’s Place.”
Buck ‘Em! sequences back-to-back the two stone-cold Owens classics recorded on December 1, 1964: the weepy “Cryin’ Time” and the rousing but amusing “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail,” and both showcase the effortless, integral interplay between Owens and his Buckaroos. The band’s records were tight, accessible and commercial, without resorting to the thick production that defined the Nashville Sound. Owens always marched to his own drummer; when presented with the idea of a Christmas album to be released in 1965, he was determined to fill it with original tunes. One of them, “Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy” by Owens and Rich, became an all-time perennial. Buck also got around to the seemingly obligatory gospel album with 1966’s Country chart-topper Dust on Mother’s Bible. He wrote original songs for that, too, including this collection’s rather bouncy “Pray Every Day.” Another treat is “Where Does the Good Times Go” (odd syntax, no?) in an alternate version with strings getting its first U.S. release. As Owens rebelled against the Nashville Sound, the choice to enhance the song with a string arrangement was a rare one. But the strings, arranged by future Bread leader David Gates, are subtle and tasteful, and show yet another direction Owens could have successfully pursued.
The copious liner notes for Buck ‘Em! are ideal to read while listening. They have been excerpted from Owens’ autobiography, and the selections here are well-chosen and relevant. The artist states, “The last thing I wanted was for my records to sound like those pop-country things they were doing down there [in Nashville],” and the CDs provide ample illustrations of how Owens carried that mission out. Another choice observation from Owens: “I think guys like Elvis and Little Richard and Chuck Berry and Fats Domino had as much influence on my music as Bob Wills did.” You’ll hear aspects of rock-and-roll in the straight-ahead delivery and unbridled energy of Buck’s best performances. The notes are featured in a 28-page booklet that’s been superbly designed by Greg Allen and remastered by Gavin Lurssen and Reuben Cohen at Lurssen Mastering.
Buck ‘Em! is a reminder of the days when country meant country, not pop-country or its ilk. Omnivore’s anthology also makes it abundantly clear that when it comes to great music, Buck Owens certainly wasn’t “second fiddle.”