Released on August 17, Country Singer’s Prayer is presented after over 40 years in studio limbo
Country music sensation Buck Owens died in 2006, in his sleep, only hours after finishing a show at his Crystal Palace in Bakersfield, California, where he’d spent decades supplying the “Bakersfield sound” to the country music faithful. Patrick Milligan, musical archivist and heavy-duty Buck-head, unearthed a whole previously-unreleased Owens album, Country Singer’s Prayer, from the archives – a session recorded in 1975 with his backing band, the Buckaroos, but shelved by Capitol Records. It was just released on August 17th, courtesy Omnivore Recordings.
Milligan supervised the archival release, in collaboration with Owens’ longtime pianist, Jim Shaw; he was also kind enough to elucidate on many things Buck for the Rock and Roll Globe.
Where, when, and how did you first hear Buck Owens? Which songs, albums, and performances meant the most to you, and why?
First heard Buck Owens as a young child when I was with my grandfather who was an avid country music fan. He also bought me my first Beatles record – the single of “Yesterday”/”Act Naturally” because of Ringo singing a Buck Owens song. In my mid 20s, I began to rediscover the country music I’d heard growing up, and really got into Buck then. I’m particularly fond of Buck’s ‘60s recordings — both his early honky-tonk shuffles a la Ray Price, and his later signature “freight train” sound. My favorite album is the Together Again/My Heart Skips A Beat album [from 1964] which features some of my favorite Buck songs, and the classic edition of The Buckaroos.
What’s the backstory on this lost album?
Basically, Buck’s career was waning after the death of [his prime sideman] Don Rich, and his deal with Capitol was due to expire. After the poor performance of his last two singles (which are on the album), Capitol (presumably) decided to shelf the album and release a 6th volume of his hits instead including the last two singles.
How did you discover the tapes?
I knew from having done a lot of discography work on Buck, and being involved in the three [archival record label] Bear Family Buck Owens sets, that there was a group of recordings at the end of his Capitol run that were not released in the day, and that many of them were re-recorded when he moved to Warner Bros. the following year. I long suspected there was a final unissued album containing these songs, and one day while I was in the Buck Owens tape vault pulling tapes for another project, I found the LP masters for this record.
Owens was still dealing with the death of his longtime sideman Don Rich, here, if I understand correctly. Who do you think the most crucial players are here, and why?
You are correct about Don. He actually plays on a couple of tracks, as there was one older track used for the album, and one of the b-sides to the last singles, featured him as well. In this case, Jim Shaw, was really his right-hand man — especially after Don died. Jim was involved in writing many of the songs on the album, and was Buck’s most loyal sideman at this point. Jim worked with Buck both as his keyboard player in the Buckaroos and running his office and the Crystal Palace [Buck Owens’s headquarters in Bakersfield] — both still to this day even without Buck.
Who produced Country Singer’s Prayer? How did Owens find and work with producers?
Since 1970, Buck recorded his Capitol albums at his own studio in Bakersfield instead of at Capitol in Hollywood. This gave him the flexibility to work beyond the limits of a standard three-hour session, and be able to constantly tinker with and fine-tune the records. Credits for this period just say “Produced at Buck Owens Studio in Bakersfield,” but the sessions were basically produced by Buck & the Buckaroos. By this time as Buck was less interested and I think a lot of it fell to Jim Shaw.
Do you have any tracks on here that you favor in particular?
“Country Singer’s Prayer,” I think it’s a nice heartfelt ballad. “John Law,” the leadoff track, has great energy and Don Rich. “He Ain’t Been Out Bowling With The Boys,” and “A Different Kind Of Sad,” those are great hardcore country records.
Have you heard from any of the musicians who play on the album? If so, what are their responses to the music and the release, all these years later?
As I mentioned, Jim Shaw still works for the Buck Owens organization, and he was very involved in the project, was thrilled to have it come out. He completely forgot about the album being unissued and had long thought the songs got used for Warner Bros., forgetting those were all actually re-recorded in Nashville. Doyle Curtsinger, the bass player, and Terry Christofferson, the guitar/pedal steel player, are still Buckaroos and play at the Crystal Palace with Jim, but I haven’t talked to them about this album. Jerry Wiggins, the drummer, just passed away about a month ago as we were working on the album.
How does this album fit along the continuum of Owens’ music?
Buck’s ‘70s recordings don’t have quite the appeal for most people as his iconic ‘60s hits, but I think this album is better than most people would expect. Buck did have a bit of a return to form in the later part of his Capitol era that most people overlook. They think more of the silly hits of the era, and Buck’s Hee-Haw persona.
How did Owens react to the cancellation of the album?
I don’t really know. Buck was becoming largely ambivalent about his career after losing Don Rich and having his popularity diluted from years on Hee Haw. After this, he signed with Warner Bros. and gave over all of his production, etc. and recorded with Norro Wilson in Nashville –something Buck pretty fiercely stood against in his prime.
What are the most misunderstood aspects of Owen’s work? How do you respond to those issues?
As I mentioned above, by this point in his career, Buck was most know by people for Hee Haw, and I think it made him seem a bit like a joke to people, and they forgot about the major contributions he made in the ‘60s and prior to his Hee Haw time. Fortunately, thanks to Dwight Yoakam and others, Buck became cool again. I would say that people who wrote off the later part of his Capitol era should hear some of the deeper album tracks that show he still had it, rather than some of his later novelty hits.
Any more archival Owens we can look forward to?
There is more stuff in the vaults, and I hope to do more projects with Omnivore. We do have a Complete Singles, Vol. 3 in the works probably next year some time, and an album featuring the Buckaroos’ steel guitar player, Tom Brumley, coming in December.