NASHVILLE SKYLINE: New Buck Owens and Don Rich Albums

Music From the Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of Country Music

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

It’s very fitting that two new solo albums are being released from the Glimmer Twins of country music. Buck Owens and Don Rich were the Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of country, the original Telecaster cowboys from Bakersfield.

Nobody rocked country back then like Buck and Don.

And theirs was a great man-man friendship, back when the insipid term “bromance” didn’t exist. Like Mick and Keith and John and Paul, they finished each other’s sentences and songs and had the same sort of hotwiring on the same brain wavelength.

Just as Bill Monroe ’s revolutionary bluegrass music in the late 1940s was described as “folk music in overdrive,” Buck and Don’s Bakersfield Sound could be seen as country music at warp speed.

They had little use for Nashville. Truth be told, they didn’t need Music City. They had their own country music cathedral in the TV program The Buck Owens Ranch Show, they had many clubs and casinos to play in the West and they had Capitol Records in the fabulous round building at Hollywood and Vine with the great record producer Ken Nelson ready to record them. (The Capitol building, built to resemble a giant stack of 45 RPM records, is still there.)

The new releases are Don Rich Sings George Jones and Honky Tonk Man: Buck Owens Sings Country Classics. Both are set for release Tuesday (Jan. 22).

Owens’ history and biography is well-known, but Rich, who died young (at 33) has been tragically overlooked. As a songwriter, singer, bandleader and lead guitarist, he was hugely influential.

Rich, whose last name was actually Ulrich, was born in Olympia, Wash., in 1941 and was a child prodigy on violin. As a teenager, he formed a rock ’n’ roll band. Owens saw him play in Tacoma and hired him to play fiddle. At the time, Owens played a Fender Telecaster and worked dates with pick-up bands.

Rich learned Owens’ high-octane guitar style and shifted to lead guitar — allowing Owens to concentrate on singing. Rich first played lead guitar on “Act Naturally” in 1963. It became their first No. 1 song.

The Buckaroos became a tight unit, with the premier lineup being Owens playing acoustic guitar, Rich playing a Fender Telecaster and singing harmony. For a while, Merle Haggard was in the group in the early days. The band’s premier lineup included Rich on lead, Doyle Holly on bass, Tom Brumley on steel guitar and Willie Cantu drumming. Owens referred to the Buckaroos’ high-energy guitar-heavy sound as his “freight train” sound, but the world soon knew it as the Bakersfield Sound.

After Owens joined the TV show Hee Haw, the Buckaroos became the show’s house band, with Rich as music director.

The Buckaroos’ artistic peak was captured on their 1966 live album recorded at New York’s Carnegie Hall. It is probably the best live country recording ever. It fairly crackles with high energy.

Rich was killed in July 1974 when his motorcycle struck a center divider on Highway 1 in Morro Bay, Calif. He had just left Owens’ recording studio in Bakersfield.

After Rich was killed, the life force and spirit seemed to leave Owens.

“He was like a brother, a son and a best friend,” Owens said years later. “Something I never said before, maybe I couldn’t, but I think my music life ended when he died. Oh, yeah, I carried on and I existed, but the real joy and love, the real lightning and thunder is gone forever.”