A new compilation from Omnivore Recordings highlights the Bakersfield honky tonk great’s rockiest period
Buck Owens was an influential pioneer of the West Coast honky-tonk sound. However, if this compilation was all we had, we’d be wondering what the fuss was about.
Based out of Bakersfield, CA, Buck Owens and the Buckaroos had an authentic country feel with rock & roll dynamics. While several Nashville producers (particularly those at RCA) drowned their artists in shrill violins and hokey background vocals, the West Coast crew emphasized hard backbeats and fairly loud Telecasters. Several of the Capitol country artists sounded like this: Merle Haggard, Wanda Jackson, Red Simpson. And Buck Owens was at the forefront of that movement.
Scott Bomar’s excellent liner notes tacitly admit that this phase of Buck’s career doesn’t get much love. There may be a reason for that. The 1960s were a golden era for Buck, with an almost unbroken string of Top Ten country hits between 1962-72. This compilation catches him at the tail end of that era. On the surface, it may have seemed like Buck was riding high, thanks to his weekly appearances on Hee Haw as a cohost. In reality, a golden era was slowly coming to a close. By Buck’s own admission, the death of Buckaroo guitarist (and Owens’ right hand man) Don Rich in ‘74 may have been a major reason why. One can speculate on whether the well ran dry, or whether his busy television schedule made Buck ease up on his recording activity. One thing is clear: the fire was slowly petering out, even though this compilation has many fine moments.
VIDEO: Buck Owens – Bridge Over Troubled Waters
The anthology starts with a decent version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” then slides into four songs from Buck’s Ruby album (his outstanding bluegrass tribute). Right about here things get gimmicky, with silly semi-novelties like “Too Old To Cut The Mustard” (a duet with his son Buddy Alan), “Made In Japan,” “Big Game Hunter” (the “game” referred to is weekend football on TV), “On The Cover Of The Music City News” (Dr. Hook’s “The Cover Of Rolling Stone,” reworded for the country set). Several songs have an old-timey vaudevillian feel, and for some reason there were plenty of cynical looks at the music business itself (“Songwriter’s Lament,” “Stony Mountain, West Virginia,” the aforementioned “Music City News”). Owens duets with Susan Raye on a few (mostly) love songs, and if you thrive on weird juxtapositions, know that that compilation includes both “Weekend Daddy” (about a divorce) and “Full Time Daddy” (which means full-time lover). Buck was obviously grasping for straws during this era, trying things out just to see what stuck and what slid. Buck still had charting hits, but he wasn’t the trailblazer he used to be.
VIDEO: Buck Owens – The Battle of New Orleanshttps://youtu.be/tRYz4FJqLJk
Despite the patchiness, there are still plenty of magic moments scattered about. Oddly enough, four of them close the album. By now it was 1975, and Buck was wrapping up his tenure with Capitol Records. By this time, he was a rich man who had invested wisely, and had no problem getting another recording contract (with Warner Bros., who was just starting to become a force in country music around this time). Even so, Buck threw himself into his final Capitol 45s like a man with a reputation on the line. The atomic energy level on his remake of Johnny Horton’s “The Battle Of New Orleans” is akin to younger country-rock bands like Commander Cody’s Lost Planet Airmen or Jason & the Scorchers. Buck almost cracks himself up a few times during the chanting chorus, while the band comes as close to rock & roll as any band with a country fiddle can get. The flip side of this song was entitled “Run Him To The Round House Nellie (You Might Corner Him There)”; the next single was “Country Singer’s Prayer” b/w “Meanwhile Back At The Ranch.” None were hits, and from the titles you can guess that this wasn’t heavy social commentary. And until he re-signed with the label in the late eighties (when neo-country singer Dwight Yoakam brought him back), that was how he bid farewell to Capitol Records.
The 1970s weren’t a dismal time for Buck on record, but this anthology of his recordings from that era is really for true fans only.
VIDEO: Buck Owens – The Battle of New Orleans