Omnivore has served up one of the year's most festive treats with the first-ever CD reissue of A Merry "Hee Haw" Christmas from Buck Owens and The Buckaroos. The 1970 Capitol release collected both of Buck and his band's Christmas albums - 1965's Christmas with Buck Owens and His Buckaroos and its 1968 follow-up, Christmas Shopping - as a double-album tie-in with Owens' starring role on television's Hee Haw. The country-themed variety show was midway through its 1969-1971 run on CBS-TV; it would then move to syndication for a remarkable run through 1993. (Owens remained its co-host with Roy Clark until 1986.) But the original A Merry "Hee Haw" Christmas deleted two songs from each of the two albums; happily, Omnivore has reinstated those four songs and added two additional bonus tracks on its single-CD presentation.
Make no mistake, Owens' two Christmas albums were a Bakersfield affair featuring just his expressive voice and the tight, lean backing of The Buckaroos. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Buck eschewed choirs, orchestrations, and even familiar carols. Instead, both LPs primarily featured original Christmas tunes written by Owens, Buckaroos guitarist-fiddler Don Rich, his friend and honorary Buckaroo Bob Morris, and other collaborators.
Christmas with Buck Owens and His Buckaroos, produced by Capitol Records' Ken Nelson, was a classic country record, emphasizing songs of heartbreak around the holidays. (The Capitol brass oddly opted to place it on the second LP of A Merry "Hee Haw" Christmas, and so it's here on CD as Tracks 13-24.) The album's rockin' opening track, though, remains Buck's biggest contribution to the realm of Christmas standards. "Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy (Daddy Looked a Lot Like Him)," an infectious spin on "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," became a No. 2 hit on the Billboard Christmas chart and has since been covered by Garth Brooks, Brad Paisley, Travis Tritt, and other country stars.
The downbeat "Blue Christmas Lights," co-written with Red Simpson, is traditional country-western at its purest, with prominent pedal steel. Buck's spoken queries introducing the verses lend it an almost tongue-in-cheek feel but he plays the lyrics ("I want some blue Christmas lights/Just as blue as me/The one I love has set me free/But I've still got her memory/Give me blue Christmas lights/For my Christmas tree...") straight. "Blue Christmas Tree" from Bob Morris and Eddie Miller is a close cousin ("You took the happiness God gave you and me/And all you left for Christmas is a blue Christmas tree") as is "It's Christmas Time For Everyone But Me," one of the two tracks cuts from the compilation's original release.
"Christmas Ain't Christmas" moves with a lonesome cowboy gait. It's in classic breakup mode, but with that wry Owens charm ("I talked a snowman/And to my surprise/When I spoke of you/He started to cry/Now, that's pretty sad to see a snowman turn blue/Christmas ain't Christmas, dear, without you"). "All I Want for Christmas Is You" is even more longing; the original B-side of "Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy," it was the second song cut from the 1970 iteration of this collection.
Singer-songwriter Red Simpson recurred as co-writer on a few other tracks including the humorous "Santa's Gonna Come in a Stage Coach" and the jaunty "Christmas Time's a-Comin'" with its wholesome images of a traditional Christmas (turkey, sweets, sleigh rides, carols, and snow among them). Buck and Red wrote a semi-sequel to Gene Autry's 1947 standard "Here Comes Santa Claus" with their own simply-titled "Here Comes Santa Claus Again." A "Jingle Bells" quote is threaded throughout Owens and Simpson's happy, upbeat "Because It's Christmas Time" in which Buck name-checks Bing and "White Christmas" as an essential ingredient for the holiday.
As the Buckaroos were accomplished recording artists even without their leader Buck, a couple of slots were reserved for their instrumental performances. Don Rich's smokin' hot (or should that be cold?) arrangement of "Jingle Bells" - clearly a favorite of the band - is the only traditional Christmas melody on the entire compilation. The other instrumental is Owens and Rich's "Christmas Morning." With its bells and clip-clop percussion, it conjures a jolly carriage ride through a snowy landscape.
Three years later, Buck and the Buckaroos returned with Christmas Shopping, again produced by Nelson and featuring Don Rich, Tom Brumley, Jerry Wiggins, and Doyle Holly in the band roster. This time, Buck downplayed the songs of heartbreak in favor of a dozen originals with a greater emphasis on the role of family at the holidays. The urgent drums, tight guitars, weeping pedal steel, barroom piano, and fiddle all remained constants.
The driving Bakersfield country rock-and-roll of Casey Anderson's "Christmas Shopping" was sung by Buck from the perspective of a harried father about his least favorite activity. Decades later, it's an amusing piece of mid-20th century nostalgia and the kind of characterization that could have been found on many sitcoms of the period. Joy is abundant on the toe-tapping "Good Old-Fashioned Country Christmas," while "Home on Christmas Day" and "A Very Merry Christmas" both capture the happy frenzy of the big day. The arrangement of the latter even nods to the original "Here Comes Santa Claus." Buck and Don Rich portrayed the bearded man in the red suit once again on "Tomorrow Is Christmas Day."
The warm ballad "Christmas Time Is Near" has a gently loping cadence not dissimilar to Willie Nelson's "Pretty Paper," and "Merry Christmas from Our House to Yours" is elegant in its simplicity. Hankies are recommended for the weepy "All I Want for Christmas Is My Daddy" (authored by Buck with Jimmy Snyder) and the heart-tugging "It's Not What You Give" (from Bob Morris' pen). Both ballads were excised from the original compilation perhaps because of their maudlin aspects, but in retrospect, they're both key: "It's not what you give that really matters/Or how much money you pay/It's that feeling of giving to others/That's what makes Christmas such a pretty day."
Christmas Shopping was rounded out with The Buckaroos' twangy instrumentals "The Jolly Christmas Polka" and "Christmas Schottische" (or, translated, "Christmas Slow Polka"), both adorned with festive sleigh bells. Two Toys for Tots promotional spots are included on this collection as bonus tracks. On the first, Buck supports his spoken-word message with an original ditty asking listeners to support the campaign. The shorter second side opens with the spoken-word segment before a truncated version of the song.
Buck only recorded one more Christmas album at Capitol. The 1971 Christmas from Buck Owens and Susan Raye featured ten duets from the pair, but no original songs; all ten compositions (while substantially re-arranged) were derived from his two prior seasonal LPs.
Omnivore's reissue of A Merry "Hee Haw" Christmas is simply presented in a six-panel digipak with elements of the original album and single artwork plus a brief producer's note. Remastering by Michael Graves is expectedly top-notch. This release could just as well be titled The Complete Capitol Solo Christmas Albums, but under any title, it's a very merry Christmas from Buck Owens and his Bakersfield crew filled with heart and twang.