Graded on a Curve:
Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, The Complete Capitol Singles: 1957–1966, Don Rich and the Buckaroos, Guitar
Pickin’ Man

Anybody desiring a hearty serving of topnotch country music shouldn’t dally in snatching up Omnivore Recordings’ 2CD Buck Owens and the Buckaroos retrospective The Complete Capitol Singles: 1957-1966; out on December 9, it’s a bountiful but easily digestible dive into the birth and growth of the innovative and enduring Bakersfield sound. Those needing another helping need not fret, for a week later Omnivore spills the spotlight onto key Buckaroo Don Rich via the rewarding 18-track collection Guitar Pickin’ Man.

The career of Alvis Edgar “Buck” Owens, Jr. remains one of the essential developments in the history of country music; primarily remembered today for a still impressive string of chart hits and as the co-host of the TV show Hee Haw from 1969-’86, he wasn’t an immediate success. Often described as a prime dissenter during the reign of countrypolitan, Owens’ embracing of the honky-tonk style and pioneering of the Bakersfield sound (alongside Merle Haggard, who came later) occurred only after his initial 45s for Capitol stiffed.

Active as a musician as far back as the mid-’40s, somewhere in the middle of the following decade Owens made his recording debut for the Pep label. The resulting sides include the pretty cool rockabilly one-off “Hot Dog” b/w “Rhythm and Booze” issued under the pseudonym Corky Jones, but the rest finds him largely in honky-tonk mode and with a detectable debt to Hank Williams.

Due in part to extensive session work in Hollywood for Capitol, Owens landed a contract with the label at roughly the same time that country music was establishing its mainstream; his debut for the company reflects this trend, lacking fiddle and steel guitar while adding the backing voices that were soon to become a defining countrypolitan trait. To be fair, “Come Back,” the rockabilly-ish “Sweet Thing” and their respective flips are decent enough tunes, but they’re not what anybody thinks off when they think of Buck Owens.

It took him a while to perfect the sound that secures him as far more than just a TV personality, making disc one of The Complete Capitol Singles a formative affair. And highly methodical, for Owens contradicts the hazy stereotype of the roots/ rural musician as a vessel brimming with talent yet lacking in self-awareness and therefore needing producers and record execs to properly fine tune raw ability into a saleable commodity.

Owens was fully cognizant of what he was doing, deliberately recording his songs with the treble up to maximize their effectiveness on AM radios, wholly refusing to be submerged in Nashville syrup and simultaneously pioneering the Bakersfield tactic of utilizing a working band for both performance and studio recording (a maneuver shared with Haggard, who as an early and brief member of his group named them the Buckaroos).

“I’ll Take a Chance on Loving You” and its B-side “Walk the Floor” brought the fiddle and steel guitar back into the equation, but it was his fourth single “Second Fiddle” that delivered Owens his first hit. A minor success at #24 on the C&W chart, it was enough to maintain the relationship with Capitol and allow the recipe to cohere. From the following June ’59 session, “Under Your Spell Again” reveals growing confidence that carried the song all the way to #4; its flip “Tired of Livin’” is even more assured.

But it’s the next 45 that marks a major historical turning point, with Don Rich making his first appearance on an Owens recording. “Above and Beyond,” cut two days before Christmas in 1959, features Rich on fiddle; he wouldn’t make the credits on lead acoustic until the December 6, 1961 session that yielded B-side “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall.”

If Rich’s importance to the Buckaroos is dominated by his lead playing on Fender Telecaster, his fiddling was no less important to Owens as he sought consistency of sound. And yet variety; there’s the ’61 duet 7-inch with the versatile (and terribly underrated) Rose Maddox (its flip “Loose Talk” besting the early C&W busted marriage ditty “Mental Cruelty”), a superbly countrified “Save the Last Dance for Me,” and such pleasurable accents as the recurring kickdrum motif in “Foolin’ Around.”

If the Buckaroos weren’t yet solidified, by ’63 Owens was firing on all cylinders. But like Haggard and the Strangers to come, what occurred onstage was increasingly reflected in the studio, occasioning a sustained artistic peak documented throughout disc two. It opens with “Act Naturally,” a staple of Owens’ discography and his first in a long string of #1s that continue until this set’s finale.

Covered by The Beatles on the UK pressing of Help (it was initially on a 45 with “Yesterday” in the States), “Act Naturally” forecasted the country-rock phenomenon through flawless ensemble presentation capped by Fender Telecaster and Owens’ immediately recognizable voice, pointing the way forward as its B-side “Over and Over Again” (with Rich on fiddle) is more classically honky-tonk.

Both sides of a solid follow-up single with Maddox hit the C&W Top 20, and Owens returned to #1 with “Love’s Gonna Live Here,” the crisp Bakersfield delivery combining well with the George Jones-ish flip “Getting Used to Losing You.” This contrast of new and old is a smart tactic, as the gemlike title-referencing tom-rolls in “My Heart Skips a Beat” contrast well with the sustained steel guitar whine of “Together Again.”

By ’64 the Buckaroos had assembled, with Rich, Doyle Holley on bass and rhythm guitar, Tom Brumley on steel guitar, and Willie Cantu on drums; their playing on “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail” is a highpoint in ’60s country music and a crossover breakthrough (reaching #25 on the Billboard Pop chart) that did absolutely nothing to potentially alienate Owens core audience.

It kicked off a killer stretch. There’s the uncut honky-tonk of “Cryin’ Time,” the multifaceted structure of “Before You Go,” the punchy “(I Want) No One But You,” the surprisingly sturdy Christmas single “Santa Looks a Lot Like Daddy,” and the relaxed feel of “Waitin’ in Your Welfare Line”; as the singles amass the music rises in sophistication and in collective instrumental acumen without lessening their appeal.

Owens’ singing has sometimes been undervalued (mainly in comparison to Haggard or Jones), but this simple ordering of 45s reinforces one of country music’s defining innovators as an expressive and constantly engaging vocalist. But even more so than some of his peers, Owens achieved his stature through collaboration, and nobody was a more crucial partner than Don Rich; Guitar Pickin’ Man selects 17 tracks from 10 Buckaroos albums, with the clear emphasis on six-string dexterity and talent at the microphone an underlying theme (only three tracks feature Owens in an instrumental capacity).

The results span from ’63-’73 and exude guitar flair at times reminiscent of Joe Maphis and Chet Atkins (who’s pictured with Rich in the CD’s booklet) occasionally reaching across genre lines, e.g. the nifty instrumentals “Bossanova Buckaroo Style” and the Spanish-tinged “Ensenada,” though neither those nor the more straight-ahead non-vocal number “Chaparral” or the chops showcases “Chicken Pickin’” or “Aw Heck” attain the heights of “Buckaroo,” one of The Complete Capitol Singles standouts and the only instrumental to land at #1 on the C&W chart.

Instead, Guitar Pickin’ Man wields potent honky-tonk (“Out of My Mind”) full-band workouts (“I’m Comin’ Back Home”), familiar Buckaroo flavor (“Number One Heel”), nods toward country-soul (“One More Time”), and numerous strolls down the middle of the road (“Down at the Corner Bar,” “Hello California,” and Rich’s vocal highpoint “You Bring Out the Best in Me”).

Those dreaded backing singers do make a few appearances, but instead of countrypolitan they add to a vibe suggesting another smoking guitarist from the era, namely Jerry Reed. However, even with the unreleased Hee Haw version of the title track, Guitar Pickin’ Man resists the zaniness and corn of Reed’s ’70s hits and for that matter Owens’ run on the TV show that unfortunately persists in diminishing his standing for far too many.

The Complete Capitol Singles provides a corrective to that point of view, making a strong, no-fuss case for Buck Owens and the Buckaroos as a linchpin of 20th century country music.

The Complete Capitol Singles 1957-1966:

Guitar Pickin’ Man

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