Dust Bin Ol’ Buck
posted by July 19 at 15:50 PMon
All this talk about pedal steel guitars has me thinking about country music—though I guess I’m always thinking about country music—which has me thinking about Buck Owens, whom I’ve been obsessively listening to for months now. The more I listen to him, the more I love him, and the more I realize how awesome and important he was to country music. And, he has a ripping steel guitarist, Tom Brumley. Observe Brumley’s magic in this video of Owens and his Buckaroos playing their hit “Together Again.” Also note how funny and awkward this performance is, especially with Owens and right-hand man Don Rich sharing a mic (and a strange discussion of pies between the show’s cohosts).
I’ve seen Buck Owens live three times (he played “Orange Blossom Special” on the fiddle in complete darkness and rocked a Dobro), slow-danced with him once onstage (to “In the Palm of Your Hand”), and more recently I’ve been buying Buck Owens and His Buckaroos’ Capitol LPs. So far I’ve got Together Again/My Heart Skips a Beat (1964), I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail (1965), The Instrumental Hits of Buck Owens and His Buckaroos (1965), Carnegie Hall Concert (1966), and Open Up Your Heart (1966).
The more albums I buy, the more I realize that, unlike many country artists at the time, Owens made a lot of albums that contain mostly excellent songs, with little filler. Buck Owens is high quality.
Owens put out over 30 albums in almost as many years; a good place to start is the early to mid-’60s. It’s also a good place to end: In 1969, Owens hurt his popularity and credibility when he began hosting Hee Haw, and in 1971, bassist Doyle Holly left the band. But, the biggest blow to Owens came in 1974, when Don Rich, Buckaroo guitarist, fiddler, vocalist, and Owens’s best friend, died in a motorcycle accident—Owens has said that ended his interest in making music, sinking him into a deep depression.
But back to his prime. Around the late ’50s, commercial country music began to take a nosedive away from its hillbilly roots and into a sea of crappy pop music, when countrypolitan, or the Nashville sound, started taking over. Songs were overproduced and glossy, with strings, background singers, and crooning vocals (though, it should be noted, early pop country is certainly not all bad). Owens came along and said, to hell with that and to hell with Nashville, and instead put out straight-up honky-tonk albums from Bakersfield, California.
It was in the early ’60s that Owens and his Buckaroos perfected and unleashed his Bakersfield sound, which he and Rich dubbed “freight-train style.” I can best describe it as an amped-up Ray Price shuffle, complete with prominent drums and walking bass lines, a wandering fiddle, and, on the weepers, the saddest steel guitar you’ll ever hear. The music was full, driving, explosive, but stripped-down, clean, and crisp, bursting with sound and energy. His more upbeat numbers were bouncy and fun, and his sad, slow songs were a complete throwback to—or a continuation of—that original aching honky tonk. A key ingredient was Rich’s harmonizing vocals; his higher-pitched voice dominated any verse or chorus he belted out, and Rich’s and Owens’s voices blended seamlessly, making it sometimes difficult to distinguish the two.
So let’s discuss 1964’s Together Again/My Heart Skips a Beat (Capitol).
It’s a typical, but excellent, Owens album, with only a couple misses. The real highlights are the weepers: “Close up the Honky Tonks,” “I Don’t Hear You,” “Together Again,” “A-11,” and “Getting Used to Losing You.” Vocally, Rich and Owens pour their hearts out, and Tom Brumley destroys all with his sobbing steel guitar. But that’s not to pooh-pooh the album’s more upbeat songs, which are for the most part superb, particularly: “My Heart Skips a Beat,” the rollicking “Truck Drivin’ Man,” and “Hello Trouble.”
Right now, superslow “I Don’t Hear You” is my favorite on the album. Owens lets loose some excellent inflection on the drawn-out “window” at the end of the line “I hear/the rain on my window-oh-oh,” and Rich lends his strong pipes to the chorus, overpowering Owens’s lower-pitched voice. I love a song with either a bit of talking or a monologue, and “Getting Used to Losing You” gives me a little spoken word: In the chorus, Owens sheeplishly says, “For I lie when I say…” then sings “I’m getting used to losing you.”
Here’s a video of “My Heart Skips a Beat” from the Jimmy Dean Show (yes, the sausage guy). Rich fires off some impressive guitar playing throughout, and Brumley shows off his stuff on the steel at the end of the video.
Stay tuned for more Buck Owens album examinations in the coming days.