Buck Owens & His Buckaroos are a country and western band from Bakersfield, California. Alvis “Buck” Owens, Jr. is a guitarist and singer from Sherman, Texas. In 1937, the Owens family moved to Arizona after sustained droughts and high winds forced a move away from the family farm. Owens married and moved west to Bakersfield, California in 1951. For the next several years, Owens performed in local clubs, and worked as a session guitarist for Capitol Records in Los Angeles. After years of trying, his singing and songwriting career languished, and Owens moved to Tacoma, Washington, taking a job at radio station KAYE in Tacoma, Washington. During a live on-air program, he met guitarist and fiddler Don Rich, and began a fruitful partnership that lasted until Rich’s untimely death in 1974.
The characteristic sound of the Buckaroos slowly evolved. While in Tacoma, Owens made his first appearance on the Billboard country charts with “Second Fiddle”, notable for the use of fiddle and steel guitar, and without the saccharine orchestration typical of many country hit songs. Owens and Rich eventually switched to electric guitar, and assembled a quintet with drums, bass and steel guitar to complete the classic Buckaroos lineup. Beginning in 1959, Buck Owens enjoyed a remarkable string of country hit songs; in 1963 “Act Naturally” became his first of fifteen consecutive #1 hit songs during the sixties. He became a household name during the seventies while hosting the corny variety show Hee Haw with banjo/guitar player Roy Clark. By 1980, he essentially retired from recording, focusing on his many business ventures. Buck Owens was inducted to the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1996.
Buck Owens (1929-2006), rhythm guitar, vocals
Although Hee Haw made Owens a household name, the lesser known “Buck Owens Ranch Show” from 1966-1968 best represents the band in its prime. Here are three episodes currently showing on YouTube:
Old television programs are much more natural and unpolished. In a word, better.
Buck Owens is considered a founder of the Bakersfield sound, an antidote to the lush “countrypolitan” Nashville sound of the fifties and sixties. His influence within country music can be traced directly to Merle Haggard and Dwight Yoakam, among many others. The contemporary Nashville sound is a hybrid music, featuring some aspects of the Bakersfield sound, with extensive production techniques.
Buck Owens’ impact on country music is clear. Less discussed is Owens’ influence on rock music, and how he fits in the history of California popular music. In this passage, my friend Corry Arnold discusses the Buckaroos impact on the Grateful Dead:
“Buck Owens influence on Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead is no less fundamental. Owens and his Buckaroos played clean, rocking music that was the blueprint for Workingman’s Dead, and Garcia specifically mentioned Owens’s inspiration many times. The biggest success of the Bakersfield musicians was Merle Haggard, and some of Haggard’s songs (“Mama Tried” and “Sing Me Back Home”) also made it into the Grateful Dead repertoire. People interested in some of the roots of Garcia’s twangy Fender sound of the early 70s would do well to listen to Buckaroo guitarist Don Rich.
Owens’s influence on Garcia doesn’t stop with Merle Haggard and Don Rich. Old Garcia pal Pete Grant recalls driving somewhere with Jerry Garcia in mid-60s and hearing Owens’s 1964 song “Together Again.” The pedal steel guitar solo by Tom Brumley was so beautiful that Grant and Garcia agreed on the spot that they had to learn pedal steel. Grant learned before Garcia, as it happened, but the Buckaroos music was one of the signposts for the future Garcia, even if it lay dormant for a few years (and I should add that the New Riders occasionally played “Together Again”).”
— Corry Arnold
The anecdote gives insight to the young Garcia, who played both banjo and guitar, and was a devotee of both bluegrass and country music. The joys of “Together Again” are subtle at first glance, but a closer listen hears Brumley soloing throughout the song. To me, steel guitar ballads sound like a cat rubbing against your ankles, looking you in the eye and braying for her dinner. “Together Again” is first class kitty music.
One can imagine the two young musicians marveling at the Buckaroos’ precision as something to emulate. Ironic, considering The Grateful Dead, and other San Francisco rock bands of the late sixties, were considered anything but tight or precise, but during the late sixties and early seventies the Dead played a complement of country songs in the Buck Owens style, clean and swinging.
Other California rock bands profiled in this blog are direct descendants of the Buckaroos. Creedence Clearwater Revival, who would be considered a country band today, spent their formative years touring the San Joaquin Valley and have that Central Valley sound. Chris Isaak grew up in Stockton, four hours north of Bakersfield, also shares the California sound: smaller bands with sharp, twanging guitars, well enunciated singing of songs with simple themes, and a basic, swinging beat. California music tends to be unsentimental, with minimal displays of melisma and overwrought emotion.
Buck Owens and Don Rich’s voices overlap one another beautifully. Several Buckaroos songs are punctuated with stop time passages, and possess a brightness matched only perhaps by early Beatles songs. Songs like “Hello Trouble” and “Love’s Gonna Live Here” shine with cheer and lightness that bely the song’s subjects. A little research into Mr. Owens suggests he may have courted and welcomed that aspect of life’s excitement.
The argument for Owens’ influence extends to the surf guitar music of southern California that succeeds him, and even Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, who spent the bulk of their career in Los Angeles, after migrating from Florida. Included for your consideration are a list of twenty fine Buck Owens songs.
Buck Owens & His Buckaroos Song Notes:
1. Most of these songs can be found on either 21 #1 Hits: The Ultimate Collection or Buck Em! The Music Of Buck Owens (1955-1967), The exceptions are:
“Excuse Me (I Think I’ve Got A Heartache)” can be found on Buck Owens.
“Crying Time (Live)” can be found on The Best of Austin City Limits – Legends of Country Music.
“Love’s Gonna Live Here (Live)” can be found on Carnegie Hall Concert.
“Pick Me Up On Your Way Down” can be found on Sings Harlan Howard.
“If You Ain’t Lovin’ You Ain’t Livin'” and “High On A Hilltop” can be found on Sings Tommy Collins.
2. The Owens family had a donkey named Buck. One day, at the age of 4, young Alvis Jr. walked into the house and announced that from now on, he would also be known as “Buck”.
3. Reportedly, The Buckaroos never rehearsed.
Buck Owens & His Buckaroos Songs:
Act Naturally, Buck Owens & His Buckaroos ★★★★
Above And Beyond (Alt), Buck Owens & His Buckaroos ★★★★
Love’s Gonna Live Here, Buck Owens & His Buckaroos ★★★
Together Again, Buck Owens & His Buckaroos ★★★
Second Fiddle, Buck Owens & His Buckaroos ★★
Hello Trouble, Buck Owens & His Buckaroos ★★
Foolin’ Around, Buck Owens & His Buckaroos ★★
Pray Every Day, Buck Owens & His Buckaroos ★★
Together Again (Live), Buck Owens & His Buckaroos ★★
Cryin’ Time, Buck Owens & His Buckaroos ★★
High On A Hilltop, Buck Owens & His Buckaroos ★★
Excuse Me (I Think I’ve Got A Heartache), Buck Owens & His Buckaroos ★★
I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail, Buck Owens & His Buckaroos ★★
Buckaroo, Buck Owens & His Buckaroos ★★
Cryin’ Time (Live), Buck Owens & His Buckaroos ★
Under Your Spell Again, Buck Owens & His Buckaroos ★
Made In Japan, Buck Owens & His Buckaroos ★
Pick Me Up On Your Way Down, Buck Owens & His Buckaroos ★
If You Ain’t Lovin’ You Ain’t Livin’, Buck Owens & His Buckaroos ★
Streets Of Bakersfield, Dwight Yoakam ★
Act Naturally, The Beatles ★★
Foolin’ Round, Patsy Cline ★