From Diary of a Player by Brad Paisley. Copyright 2011 by Brad Paisley. Reprinted by permission of Howard Books, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc. Visit simonandschuster.com for more information about the book.
One year on December 27 or so, Nashville was in the middle of an incredible ice storm. A psycho girlfriend had just broken up with me, and so I desperately wanted to spend New Year’s Eve somewhere else, anywhere else. Preferably somewhere warm. I called up Jerry Hufford at the Crystal Palace and said, “What’s Buck doing for New Year’s?”
“Just playing here,” he said.
“Ask him if he wants me to be his Don Rich for the evening.”
Next thing I knew, I was on a plane for Bakersfield to sit in. I got to live out the fantasy of being the right-hand man in the best band ever assembled in country music, and I got to get that girl off my mind. Just like Papaw had predicted, that guitar of mine was getting me over things and into things.
Over the years, Buck and I got to record some stuff together and we also had lots of time to just hang out. I played New Year’s Eve with him four different times. Here was a musical giant that the Beatles themselves covered, and he was willing to spend time with me. I treasured every second. Even though Buck was already a living legend by the time I got to know him, he still loved to talk guitar and music in general any time you wanted.
Some people forget that Buck Owens was a guitar player first. Buck was actually a respected L.A. guitarist back in the fifties, and he played on sessions for everyone from Faron Young to Wanda Jackson. Then Buck ran across a sixteen-year-old Don Rich playing fiddle in a bar in Tacoma, Washington. Buck quickly realized that Don was better than he was as a guitar player, so Buck decided that his role was to be the band’s front man, strum rhythm guitar, and play the occasional lead part.
Buck had the vision and the humility to basically turn the guitar spotlight over to this other amazing musician with his own signature sound.
Don Rich was part of a very rare breed. A pioneer of the Fender Telecaster, along with James Burton, also a guitar legend who famously played with Ricky Nelson, Elvis Presley, and later John Denver — just to name just a few.
Back when he was a kid, James Burton grabbed a Telecaster and decided to do some really unique string-bending with it that was unlike anything anyone had ever done before. He broke one pattern and started another. So much of that cool guitar sound that you might associate with rockabilly and country music really started with James Burton.
Don Rich piled on top of James Burton’s revolutionary sound brilliantly and added his own thing too. Don understood the sort of twangy sound that suited Buck’s voice and his style of song perfectly. What Don played with Buck was so powerful and innovative that along with James, Don blazed a trail for all of the twangy Telecaster players who have followed — of which I’m proud to be one.
Take a listen to the Carnegie Hall Concert album by Buck Owens and His Buckaroos from 1966 — my favorite album of all time. Don is so fiery and so creative on this album and on everything he did that it still sounds fresh almost a half century later. Don was able to play anything from real country fiddle to great jazz guitar, and this gave him a real sense of adventurousness as a player. He took the guitar to some amazing and very entertaining places.
But Don died too soon in 1974 in a motorcycle accident on his way from a recording session in Bakersfield to a family vacation. Buck told me many times that beyond being this amazing musician, Don was also the nicest man you could imagine. Buck spoke to me often about the impact of that loss — not only of his greatest musical partner in crime but also his best friend. I think he was never quite the same after Don’s death. I’m sure there was a feeling of closure on the era of music that they had so brilliantly created together. One of the true great duos in the history of music. I’ll be thankful until the day I die that I got to know Buck Owens so well in his lifetime, but I wish that I could have met Don Rich too. You can tell watching the old videos what kind of presence Don had — beyond being a monster guitar player, he was a sweet man with an easy smile.
One of my guitar teachers, Roger Hoard in Wheeling, West Virginia — who was the lead guitar player on the Jamboree — did get to meet Don once. Roger told me about going to see Buck Owens and the Buckaroos when they came to West Virginia and played the Capitol Theatre. Roger was just a kid then, but he was already playing guitar. So Don Rich saw this boy waiting in the wings watching him and invited Roger to spend the day with him. He generously offered to listen to him play and gave him a few tips.
Time and time again, I’ve noticed that the greats of country music don’t just have great skills but also great hearts.
When I joined the Opry at the Ryman back in 2001, I asked if I could wear Buck’s yellow Carnegie Hall jacket. Buck sent Jerry Hufford with it on a plane to personally deliver it to me. There were many times when Buck would call me just to talk, and I could scarcely believe it. We’d talk about guitars, amps — and for me talking about amps with Buck Owens was about as much fun as I could ever have. I introduced him to my producer Frank Rogers, and Buck would call him too just to talk. We could not believe our good fortune. To the very end, Buck had an incredible passion for being a musician and for entertaining people.
I will never forget the business advice he gave me over the years. He was so conscious of saving money and being frugal that I know he worried about me managing my income. He’d seen so many of his contemporaries snort their fortunes up their noses or go broke on bad business deals. He had no tolerance for frivolous spending or decadence when it came to running a business. When we moved from being crammed on one bus to having several, we used to hide them from view whenever we played Bakersfield. We would park mine by the Crystal Palace and the others on the far side of a hotel out of view. He’d walk in and say, “I see you still have one bus. Thatta boy!” And he was always absolutely against chartering private jets.
On March 25, 2006, Buck played a Friday show at the Crystal Palace with the Buckaroos, had his favorite meal of chicken fried steak, and drove home. He then passed away in his sleep. I think that’s absolutely the way he would have wanted it.
And in his honor, I cashed a free ticket voucher I’d gotten from Southwest Airlines and flew for free to sing at his funeral.