Buck Owens has been a pioneer throughout his long career. That pioneering spirit continues with the release of his autobiography Buck ‘Em!, and the two-CD “soundtrack,” Buck ‘Em! The Music of Buck Owens (1955-1967). In this case, his pioneering spirit is shown with the simultaneous release of the book and the music. As far as I know, this has never happened before, but it sure is a smart way to do things. One of the best rock autobiographies I have seen was Keith Richards’ Life (2010), and I remember constantly getting up to put on various Rolling Stones CDs to play while I read. With the Buck ’Em! collection, I have the appropriate music right at hand.
The set opens with “Down on the Corner of Love,” which opens up like Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues,” and immediately establishes Owens as a musical force to be reckoned with. Next up is “Hot Dog,” which is pure rockabilly – something I did not even know that Owens had played. He not only played rockabilly, he played it with a passion. “Sweet Thing” is in much the same vein, a fierce rocker. These are just a couple of early examples of what makes Buck ‘Em! so necessary. Killer tracks like these have been overlooked for far too long.
With “Second Fiddle,” we get that high lonesome sound that guys like Gram Parsons just loved, while “Under Your Spell” is almost Western swing. The songs I have mentioned so far are all among the first 10 of this 50-song set, and already the range is enormous. There is a little promotional sticker on the front cover that kind of says it all: “Not Your Father’s Buck Owens Collection!” and they sure got it right. Buck ‘Em! is the real deal.
About a third of the tunes are presented in their “Original Mono Single” versions, and they sound great. There are also a number of rare early, alternate, and live versions included as well. According to the liner notes, the live version of “Act Naturally” was recorded 9/12/63 at the Bakersfield Civic Auditorium. Owens had hit it big by that point, and was playing his hometown. The crowd just goes nuts for this song and it must have been quite a show.
This is a rare 50-song collection in that every song is a winner. “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail” was one of his biggest hits, and the original mono version of it sounds brilliant. “Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy” is a lot of fun, as is “Buck’s Polka.” A great many of the tunes on the set were singles, but there are some album tracks as well. Two are from his landmark Carnegie Hall Concert, recorded in 1966. These are “Together Again,” and “Buckaroo.”
Another major live performance that was captured for posterity was released as In Japan! Buck ‘Em! contains two cuts from that recording, “Adios, Farewell, Goodbye, Good Luck, So Long,” and “We Were Made for Each Other.”
Owens’ backing band was The Buckaroos, led by the incomparable Don Rich. They were just about the best in the business. Listening to Rich’s fiddle accompaniment on tracks such as “Close Up the Honky Tonks,” or “Playboy” is really something special. Although I have not had the chance to read the book yet, I would guess that Rich’s early passing must have devastated Owens. He was a brilliant musician, and was just 32 when he was killed in a motorcycle accident. Omnivore released Rich’s solo album and The Buckaroos’ (minus Buck) albums this past summer, and they are well worth checking out also.
Buck wrote the liner notes to Buck ‘Em! Actually, the notes are excerpts from the book, which is perfect. I know that little blurb about not being your father’s Buck collection was meant to say that this is the “hip” Owens collection, and it is. But I think that anyone who likes Buck Owens will love this set. It is excellent.
There are a lot of current artists who praise the Bakersfield sound, particularly that of Buck Owens (and former Buckaroo Merle Haggard). If you ever wondered where to start in hearing what the fuss is all about, here you go. Having immersed myself in the music, I can’t wait to read the book now.