NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Two Country Giants Get Musical Tributes

Bob Wills and Buck Owens Ignored Trends and Carved Their Own Paths

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

The main difference these days between country and rock — apart from the fact that country is more popular and much of country actually is rock — is the fact that country really has no oldies. The country catalog is made up of a lot of forgettable junk, a number of fascinating oddities and a relatively small body of timeless songs, songs that sound as appealing and as relevant today as when they were first recorded.

Just why a good country song has a long shelf life is due of course to the skill of a gifted songwriter with a story to tell and an artist who can transform that story into a living organism.

Two of those artist-songwriters receive welcome new retrospectives this summer, and both are overdue.

Buck Owens was a great live performer and a skilled singles artist, although not necessarily a great album artist. And few country artists have excelled at albums, in this radio-driven genre of hit singles. On Aug. 1, Rhino Records will release 21 #1 Hits: The Ultimate Collection.

Owens, who died just months ago on March 25 at age 76, remains, I think, underappreciated as a major shaper of modern country music. Partly that’s because he worked out of Bakersfield, Calif., and stayed away from Nashville. And it was partly due to snob appeal. Many looked down on him for his starring role on the TV series Hee Haw. But his run of No. 1 hits in the 1960s, especially, brought the electric guitar to the forefront, and his twangy, danceable songs influenced many a young picker and singer. This was high-intensity working-class dance hall music, honed and polished by Owens and his Buckaroos in hundreds of performances in the hardcore honky-tonks of the Bakersfield area. And the Bakersfield Sound flew directly in the face of the smooth, mellow Nashville Sound of the time.

Unrestricted by Nashville’s feudal system, Owens usually recorded at Capitol in Los Angeles with his road band, which was mostly prohibited by Nashville’s ruling producers, and the sound was close to his vibrant live performances. Although Capitol’s Ken Nelson was producing the sessions, Owens pretty much controlled what he did in the studio, and Nelson ended up mainly approving the final results.

The Ultimate Collection begins with Owens’ last No. 1, the duet he recorded with Dwight Yoakam on “Streets of Bakersfield” in 1988 when Yoakam coaxed him out of retirement. Then it moves to his first chart-topper, 1963’s “Act Naturally” and then proceeds through the rest of his 21 No. 1’s. What a great honky-tonk jukebox this CD is. “Together Again” is practically worth the price of admission by itself.

The other artist is the great Bob Wills, the Western swing pioneer. I think it’s no mere coincidence that both Owens and Wills were born in Texas and absorbed that state’s many music currents. Wills was a true musical outlaw, in that he transcended genres and would dare to do anything in the name of good music. He could be considered a jazz artist as much as a country artist, and he’s one of the rare few who have been inducted into both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The others include Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Bill Monroe, Floyd Cramer, Chet Atkins, Brenda Lee and Elvis Presley.

From the 1930s through the 1950s, Wills was a hugely popular entertainer with his expressive, exuberant and fluent blend of traditional fiddle music, big band music, blues, ragtime, New Orleans jazz, Mexican music and whatever other scraps of rhythm he heard and gathered during his travels. He introduced the use of drums to country music and he scorned the Grand Ole Opry because it wouldn’t allow drums onstage. There are differing stories about his supposed one-time appearance on the Opry. One is that Opry officials allowed Wills drummer onstage, but hidden from the audience by curtains. Supposedly, when the Playboys started playing, Wills removed the curtains around the drummer. In another account, Willie Nelson was quoted as saying, “When Bob Wills went on the Grand Ole Opry he was already a huge star in Texas but not so much in Nashville … Bob went onstage with his cigar in his mouth. They told him not to smoke on the stage, and he walked off again. So far as I know, that was his one and only appearance on the Opry.”

Wills receives a major tribute with the new Columbia/Legacy four-CD boxed set Legends of Country Music: Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, due on Aug. 29. It’s posited as a 100-year tribute to Wills since his birthdate was 101 years ago — March 6, 1905. This is a comprehensive look at Wills’ career, starting with his first recordings in 1932 with the Fort Worth Doughboys. And it runs through a fabulous career.

With his great lead singer Tommy Duncan, Wills and the Playboys led a dazzling career for years, playing the ballrooms and dances, with classic songs such as “Bubbles in My Beer,” “New San Antonio Rose” and “Faded Love.” The 105 tracks here on four CDs range through Wills’ far-reaching career. There’s much here to feast on. Listen, for example, to Wills’ driving version of “Ida Red,” and you know where precisely where Chuck Berry got the idea for “Maybelline.”

The package ends with the poignant 1973 recording sessions organized for the ill Bob Wills, who had been laid low by a series of strokes. The final cut is “Goin’ Away Party,” with Wills doing his best to chime in. He never recovered and died in 1975.