(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Buck Owens remains a country treasure. At the vanguard of the energetic, rock-influenced twangy, guitar-based Bakersfield sound, he set the stage for Merle Haggard and for later Southern California country-rock artists. He subsequently became a sort of caricature as a “pickin’-and-grinnin’-” Hee Haw host, but his music endures.
Now, Rhino has released a two-CD set of Owens’ very interesting and quirky set of songs he cut for Warner Records after leaving his Capitol fold in 1975. Buck Owens: The Warner Bros. Recordings contains 41 songs recorded between 1976 and 1988. It is available only at rhinohandmade.com, in a limited edition of 5,000 copies, at $39.98. He had been on Capitol since 1959 and enjoyed 20 No. 1 singles.
Owens suffered a significant and major loss in 1974 when his lead guitar player, best friend and confidant and bandleader Don Rich was killed when his motorcycle crashed. Owens truly never fully recovered from that tragedy and went into severe depression. He never had another No. 1 single after that, until Dwight Yoakam coaxed him into doing a duet on “Streets of Bakersfield” in 1988.
He signed with Warner Bros. in 1975 and, for the first time in his career, agreed to go to Nashville and record the Nashville way — which meant country-pop at that time. In a later interview, he explained his career change thusly: “All I had to do was tell Warners ’No, no, hold on here, I ain’t gonna do no country-pop business. I wanna be country!’ But you see, hell, I couldn’t get arrested in ’79. Could not get arrested. I couldn’t get a record on the radio.” In fact, the most success he would have on radio, until “Streets of Bakersfield,” was a return to classic Buck style on the 1979 duet with Emmylou Harris, “Play Together Again Again.” That rose only to No. 11.
His first WB album, Buck ’Em, got only to No. 39 on the country chart and the singles tanked. The album included covers of the Beatles’ “Lady Madonna” and the Eagles’ “Hollywood Waltz.” He would later cover the BeeGees’ “Massachusetts” and Delbert McClinton’s “Victim of Life’s Circumstance.”
In 1982, he attempted yet another WB album, which he didn’t finish. That material is available on this CD set for the first time. It’s a fascinating look at the throes of a tortured artist striving to remain relevant. Looking back later, he mused, “The only time I got in trouble was when I tried to compromise and make a country-pop record, and jeez, can you imagine Buck Owens singin’ a country-pop record … it was my fault. I didn’t want it bad enough to go out and do the job. Because from the day of Don’s death, I went through the paces … things were over at that time for me. It never did pick up.”
Although Owens did enjoy the success of “Streets of Bakersfield” and went on to record another album for Capitol (Hot Dog!) he was pretty much content with running his Crystal Palace club and restaurant in Bakersfield and tending to his string of successful country radio stations and his publishing company. He died in his sleep in 2006 after playing one last set for tourists at the Crystal Palace.
A good companion piece to this set is the new CD from Daryle Singletary. Straight From the Heart is totally stone trad-country, harking back to early George Jones and Lefty Frizzell. One of the songs proclaims “I Still Sing this Way,” and he sure does, I’m happy to say. He’s joined by John Anderson on a splendid rendition of the latter’s “Black Sheep,” by Ricky Skaggs on the great Harlan Howard-Buck Owens song “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail” and by Rhonda Vincent for a return to the George Jones-Tammy Wynette song “We’re Gonna Hold On.” It’s wonderful to hear the Larry Cordle-Leslie Satcher song “Jesus and Bartenders” again. And for a textbook example of pure honky- tonk singing, listen to Singletary’s marvelous version of the Jones-Wynette composition “These Days I Barely Get By.” They don’t come any more miserable and forlorn but gorgeous than that.