Buck Owens changed the face of country music, and all he had to do was “Act Naturally.” With his back-to-basics, honky-tonk approach, Alvis Edgar Owens defined the Bakersfield Sound, an antidote to the slick, guitar-and-choir-laden style coming out of Nashville in the 1960s. Omnivore Recordings, the label home of a number of stellar Owens-related projects, is about to issue a definitive 2-CD collection from his prime era – The Complete Capitol Singles 1957-1966 – as well as a compilation dedicated to Buck’s right-hand guitar man: Don Rich and The Buckaroos’ Guitar Pickin’ Man.
The Complete Capitol Singles 1957-1966 presents 56 sides on two discs – every A- and B-side recorded by Owens with his Buckaroos and producer Ken Nelson for the venerable Hollywood label. Though Owens refined his style over the years, especially in tandem with his band, the essential ingredients were present from his very first recordings: the expressive drawl with a tear in it, the unvarnished instrumentation, and the easily-relatable lyrics married to an accessible melody. (Owens was as talented a songwriter as he was a singer and musician.) 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?”) scored him 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 were never far away. 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 duets on tracks such as 1961’s “Mental Cruelty” and 1963’s “Sweethearts in Heaven” here. Songs of heartbreak became an Owens signature, often set to deceptively upbeat melodies. Owens clung steadfastly to his pure sound even when doing rockabilly (“Sweet Thing”) or even pop (a cover of Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman’s Drifters hit, “Save the Last Dance for Me”).
“The Buck Owens Sound” owed much to the presence of Don Rich, as well. 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 1964-1967 iteration also featuring Doyle Holly on guitar and bass, Tom Brumley on steel guitar and Willie Cantu on drums. 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 potently contrasting Brumley’s lyrical steel guitar.
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, opens the second disc of Omnivore’s new set. 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, later, 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 about which he so often sang. The Complete Singles also features perennials like “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail” (No. 1 Country, 1964) and the holiday favorite “Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy”
Guitar Pickin’ Man turns the spotlight on Rich and the Buckaroos, (mostly) sans their famous leader. This single-disc anthology boasts 18 tracks culled from ten albums. In the early days, Buck gave the band showcase spots on his own albums, but before long, Capitol realized the value of granting The Buckaroos their very own releases. The majority of songs on Omnivore’s new, rip-roaring collection of thunderous twang are drawn from The Buckaroos’ own LPs. Both instrumentals and vocal tracks are included. The rocking title track (with a strong and confident vocal by Rich) is the set’s one previously unreleased track, from Hee Haw in 1973 – one year before Rich’s tragic death in a motorcycle accident at the all-too-young age of 32. There are numerous highlights here to emphasize Rich’s instrumental prowess, such as “Bossa Nova Buckaroo Style.” With its soft percussion and classically-inspired guitar, it sounds a bit like Mason Williams’ “Classical Gas” crossed with the bossa nova and a dash of good old country soul. Don’s “Out of My Mind,” co-written with Red Simpson, has him giving Buck a run for his money in the heartbreak department.
Buck Owens’ The Complete Capitol Singles includes a 20-page booklet with a sessionography for the singles as well as an introduction by Buck disciple Dwight Yoakam, and a brief note from the late artist himself. Guitar Pickin’ Man has as 12-page booklet with an introduction from Don Rich’s sons Vance and Vic Ulrich, as well as complete personnel credits and discography for each song. Michael Graves has remastered both titles for wonderful sound quality. Both of these splendidly-presented, essential country titles pack rarities well worth discovering alongside fan favorites. These ideal stocking stuffers are available this Friday, December 9 for Buck, and December 16 for Don, from Omnivore Recordings!