(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
For an artist whose vital music span ran only from 1959 to 1972 (with two major song returns in 1979 and 1988), Buck Owens will leave a large legacy in country music history.
Owens, who died March 25 in Bakersfield, Calif., at age 76, was a gutsy trailblazer in music whose achievements were ultimately overshadowed by his role in the TV show Hee-Haw, where he was perceived as an overall-wearing hick. And that’s something which he decidedly was not. He was a self-made, self-educated multi-millionaire who was also a brilliant songwriter, musician and bandleader.
His musical influences are many, but some key points in his life and career stand out to me:
The Midwest Dust Bowl of the 1930s, which forced his family to flee Oklahoma for Arizona and led Owens eventually to Bakersfield, gave him an overwhelming drive to escape the grind of poverty.
Playing in bars, such as Bakersfield’s Blackboard, taught him how to musically bond with any audience and showed him which songs would work or not work, and the crowds taught him that the new Telecaster electric guitar with its bright, trebly sound would catch and hold the audience in a raucous nightclub.
His greatest commercial and artistic success came through the musical partnership with his alter ego, the brilliant guitarist and songwriter and singer Don Rich.
His early work at radio stations made him realize that car radios delivered his biggest audience — prompting him and his Capitol Records producer, Ken Nelson, to mix his records on small car speakers. With most of the bass bottom dropped out and the bright sound at the front of the mix, the result was incredibly clear.
He listened to and loved groups like the Beatles, resulting in the Beatles’ covering his recording of “Act Naturally,” which was his own first No. 1 single in 1963. In other words, Buck Owens was not a country music dinosaur or fossil.
He was at the opposite pole from what Nashville was doing at the time. In Nashville, the likes of Eddy Arnold and Jim Reeves were yielding warm, maple syrup songs. Owens was injecting an ice pick of reality into driving, high-octane, rock-influenced music that he called “freight train” songs. Owens was more aligned with the rockabilly sound that had come out of Memphis than with anything coming from Nashville. He admired Chuck Berry and Little Richard’s music more than anything from Nashville.
His own music moved into the stratosphere when he graduated from the Texas shuffle-based honky-tonk songs he had been doing to moving to his own mature work. And it ascended to a new level when he added Don Rich to his band (which temporary bass player Merle Haggard named the “Buckaroos”). Rich was a master on the Telecaster, co-wrote with Buck and added the trademark harmony singing that made the Buck Owens sound. Starting with 1962’s “You’re for Me,” Owens hit his stride with adventurous, hard-charging, Telecaster-driven music that far outstripped what Nashville was doing. You have to remember that in 1962, I don’t think Leo Fender’s Telecaster guitars, which came out of Fullerton, Calif., had been adopted by many country pickers. Waylon Jennings later adopted the Telecaster and his rock-based sound was not too far from Buck’s wide-open, balls-to-the-wall approach. In a word, Buck rocked.
If I were going to recommend Buck Owens music for you, I guess I would have to start with the Rhino 3-CD boxed set The Buck Owens Collection (1959-1990). The 62 cuts are a fitting retrospective of his career, going back to his early (1956) rockabilly recording of “Hot Dog” (which he cut under the alias “Corky Jones” so it wouldn’t besmirch his country credibility). It also includes Buck’s 1979 duet of “Play Together Again Again” with Emmylou Harris and his last No. 1 hit, the 1988 duet with Dwight Yoakam on “Streets of Bakersfield.”
Along with that box set, I also especially like The Carnegie Hall Concert for its live energy and Buck Owens Sings Harlan Howard for that singular pairing of musical visions.
Don Rich was a better guitar player, Harlan Howard was a better songwriter and George Jones a better singer, but there was enough of each of them wrapped up in Buck Owens to create one truly unique talent.