Scott B. Bomar

In addition to writing liner notes for several Buck Owens reissues, Scott penned the essay about Buck's famed live album at Carnegie Hall when it was inducted into the Library of Congress's National Recording Registry in recognition of its status as a recording that is "culturally, historically, or aesthetically important." Additionally, he created a list of Ten Essential Buck Owens Recordings for Buck's hometown newspaper, The Bakersfield Californian, upon the tenth anniversary of his death. Both can be found via the above links, or in text-only form below.  

 

Carnegie Hall Concert with Buck Owens and His Buckaroos
Library of Congress National Recording Registry essay
2013

In the fall of 1965, Buck Owens was the biggest country star in the world. He was halfway through a string of sixteen consecutive #1 singles on the country chart in the industry-leading “Billboard” magazine, and had just been invited to appear at New York City’s prestigious Carnegie Hall. Already designated a National Historic Landmark, the esteemed venue had hosted Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Gershwin, Bernstein, and Ellington. Owens recognized the honor of being asked, but instructed his manager, Jack McFadden, to decline the offer. “When they first started talking about it, it scared me to death,” he admitted in a 1967 radio interview with Bill Thompson. Buck was worried the Manhattan audience wouldn’t be interested in his music, and he wanted to avoid the embarrassment of unsold tickets. McFadden pushed him to reconsider. When Ken Nelson, Owens’ producer at Capitol Records, suggested they record the performance and release it as his first live album, Buck finally conceded.

Buck Owens’ journey to the top of the charts and the top of the bill at the most revered concert hall in the United States began in Sherman, Texas, where he was born Alvis Edgar Owens, Junior in 1929. By 1937, the Owens family was headed for a new life in California, but they wound up settling in Mesa, Arizona, when a broken trailer hitch derailed their plan. As the family scrambled to make a living picking crops or doing other manual labor, Buck swore he’d find a way to build a better life. Mastering several instruments, he soon began supplementing his wages by performing with local bands.

In 1951, Owens moved to California, settling in Bakersfield at the southern tip of the state’s agriculturally-rich San Joaquin Valley. He soon found work on the city’s burgeoning country music scene that grew up around the children of the refugees who fled to California to escape the dust and depression that plagued Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, and Arkansas in the 1930s.

Hired to play guitar in Bill Woods’ band at the legendary Blackboard Café, Buck was soon taking the microphone and building a solid local reputation as a first-rate vocalist and instrumentalist. He began writing songs and traveling 100 miles south to Los Angeles, where he played guitar on a number of sessions for other artists at the Capitol Records studio. He recorded a handful of songs and released a few singles on the tiny Pep label, but success outside Bakersfield eluded him.

In 1957, Ken Nelson recognized his potential and signed Owens to an artist deal with Capitol Records. His first three singles flopped and Buck--who had by then relocated to Puyallup, Washington, where he co-owned a small radio station and performed with his own band-- suggested they call it quits. Nelson was willing to keep trying and, by the early summer of 1959, “Second Fiddle” became a minor hit. The Top 10 single “Under Your Spell Again” soon followed.

While in Washington, Buck met Donald Ulrich, a teenage fiddle player who, using the name Don Rich, would become his guitarist, band leader, harmony singer, musical partner, and “right arm,” as Owens frequently described him. Buck ultimately returned to Bakersfield and, with Don by his side, began scoring hits with such songs as “Above and Beyond” and “Under the Influence of Love.” Once his streak of #1 singles began with “Act Naturally” in 1963, Buck continually reaffirmed his allegiance to Bakersfield, choosing to remain in California rather than operating from the country music industry’s established headquarters in Nashville.

Unlike the majority of commercially successful Nashville performers who typically relied on the same small pool of studio musicians on their records, Buck both toured and recorded with his own band. By 1964, his albums were credited to Buck Owens and His Buckaroos, a name that was suggested by fellow Bakersfield musician and future country superstar Merle Haggard during his brief tenure as one of Buck’s band members in the early 1960s. Eschewing strings, background choruses, and other adornments popular in country music at the time, Buck and the Buckaroos honed an exciting no-frills honky-tonk sound with hints of the energy of rock and roll, and plenty of unapologetic twang. Though a number of musicians would come in and out of the group over the years, most fans regard the classic era as the 1964-1966 lineup of Don Rich, bassist Doyle Holly, pedal steel guitarist Tom Brumley, and drummer Willie Cantu.

These were the Buckaroos who were backing Buck when they set the date to headline a package show at Carnegie Hall on March 25, 1966. As the performance drew closer, the 2,700 seat venue sold out, allaying Buck’s initial fears about ticket sales. The usually self-assured Owens then grew concerned about whether or not the capacity crowd would appreciate his music. “We were going to be playing in front of a bunch of New Yorkers,” he related in his posthumous autobiography, assembled by author Randy Poe from Owens’ taped recollections. “Those folks were known to be pretty selective about what they thought was a good performance.” Ernest Tubb had headlined a Grand Ole Opry package show at Carnegie Hall in 1947, followed by a second Opry troupe in 1961 that included Faron Young, Jim Reeves, Marty Robbins, Bill Monroe, and Patsy Cline. The bluegrass duo Flatt and Scruggs appeared there in 1962 and 1964. But the hallowed hall was still primarily associated with opera rather than the Opry, and Buck understood that he would be regarded as a de facto ambassador for the entire country genre.

During the 1960s industry professionals were uniquely preoccupied with the music’s acceptance in the cultural mainstream. The Nashville-based Country Music Association was founded in 1958 as the first trade group organized for the sole purpose of promoting a single genre of music. One of the early objectives of the CMA was persuading radio stations to consider country programming. In September of 1965, Hackensack, New Jersey’s WJRZ switched its format, and became the first all-country station to service New York City. Their promotion of both Buck Owens and the entire country field no doubt contributed to the successful ticket sales for the Carnegie Hall concert.

Likewise, country fans were swept up in the movement to earn respect for “our music,” as countless letters-to-the-editor in publications such as “Country Song Roundup” revealed. Fans debated about the ways country should be represented in the wider cultural conversation. Taking great pains to combat persistent stereotypes of backwater hillbillies, there were often impassioned debates regarding how far the genre should or shouldn’t go to make the music more palatable to a wide audience. In 1965, a series of letters appeared in “Music City News” under the heading “Country Music Battle Rages On.” For months, readers weighed in with their opinions about balancing modern and traditional sounds.

It was in the context of this debate that Buck Owens took out a full page ad in the magazine with his “Pledge to Country Music.” Assuring fans of his loyalties, he declared, “I shall sing no song that is not a country song. I shall make no record that is not a country record. I refuse to be known as anything but a country singer. I am proud to be associated with country music. Country music and country music fans made me what I am today. And I shall not forget it.”

When Owens appeared at Carnegie Hall, fans were thrilled, noting that an uncompromising country artist who wasn’t seeking pop stardom earned enough respect to perform at Carnegie Hall without changing his music or pandering to pop tastes. It was regarded by most country fans as a victory, not only for Owens, but for the entire musical community to which they were so deeply committed.

By the day of the show, Buck Owens was at the top of his game. At the start of 1966, he had replaced the Dodge camper he and the band had been traveling in and acquired a $60,000 tour bus. By March, he had purchased Bakersfield’s KUZZ radio, further expanding Buck Owens Enterprises, which already included a music publishing firm, a booking agency, and various real estate holdings. Additionally, he finalized a deal that month to star in his own syndicated television show. Filming began in Oklahoma City as Buck, his band, and their entourage of support acts stopped en route from Bakersfield to New York for the Carnegie Hall performance.

Once in New York, photographer Ken Veeder snapped a photo of the band standing on the corner of 7th Avenue and West 57th Street with the storied concert house looming in the background. Buck was wearing a flashy yellow Western suit designed and intricately embroidered by Hollywood tailor Nathan Turk. He was flanked by the Buckaroos who wore matching blue Turk suits with the same design. “I didn’t know how well we were going to perform in front of that audience,” Buck joked years later, “but at least I knew we were sure going to look good.” The photo would become the cover photo of the album.

Shortly after 10:00 pm, following a variety of warm-up acts, WJRZ deejay Lee Arnold introduced Buck. The band ripped into “Act Naturally,” his first #1 hit, which was later recorded by The Beatles, who made their own New York concert debut at Carnegie Hall two years prior. The crowd cheered so loudly that the band had to extend the introduction before the audience quieted down enough for Buck to sing.

Over the next 45 minutes, Buck and the Buckaroos gave a stunning performance, showcasing a variety of material. They played the #1 hits “Together Again” and “Love’s Gonna Live Here,” before launching into a four song medley, that included his #1 hit “Only You (Can Break My Heart),” as well as “Cryin’ Time.” Though the latter was originally a B-side for Buck, Ray Charles’ version of the Owens-penned ballad peaked at #6 on the “Billboard” pop chart the previous month. Owens wanted to make sure audiences knew whose song it was.

Barely pausing, Buck moved into another medley, hitting the highlights of “I Don’t Care (Just As Long As You Love Me),” “My Heart Skips a Beat,” and “Gonna Have Love.” The first two had been #1 hits in 1964. The latter was a Top 10 that Buck co-wrote with fellow Bakersfield performer Red Simpson, who also appeared on the Carnegie Hall package show.

Overwhelmed with the audience response, Owens paused after the second medley. A wide grin spread across his face as he told the crowd, “You guys have got to be the best audience we ever played for.” He performed his current single, “Waitin’ in Your Welfare Line,” before introducing the band as Dashing Doyle Holly, Wonderful Willie Cantu, Tender Tom Brumley, and Dangerous Don Rich. Cantu, a Texas native, was only nineteen. “It was a once in a lifetime deal,” he recalled in 2014. “I remember my junior high band director telling us, ‘If you can make it to Carnegie Hall then you know you’ve accomplished something.’ It was the place that everyone aspired to. People like Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubenstein played there, so it was significant to me. I remember setting up my drums and thinking, ‘Gene Krupa played here with Benny Goodman’s orchestra.’ Gene Krupa was one of my first idols.”

After the introductions, the band launched into “Buckaroo,” their signature instrumental song, before bassist Doyle Holly took the lead vocal on a version of the cowboy standard “The Streets of Laredo.” They flawlessly executed a dynamic version of “I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail,” which was arguably Buck’s most popular song.

A comedy routine called “Fun ‘n’ Games with Don & Doyle” included cornpone humor intermixed with impressions of Tex Ritter, Ernest Tubb, and Johnny Cash. That portion of the show--along with a version of the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” (complete with shaggy wigs)--was left off the original live album, though both selections appeared on subsequent CD releases.

Buck and the band wrapped up the show with a final medley that began with his first four Top 5 hits--in the order they were released--and concluded with two cover songs, Orville Couch’s “Hello Trouble,” and Terry Fell’s “Truck Driving Man.” Fell had been an early encourager and mentor to Owens, and his song had also become the signature tune for Bill Woods, the Bakersfield band leader who gave Buck his first big opportunity on the local scene. Choosing the latter to end the closing medley was likely a personal nod to the two men who helped him early in his career.

“You’re without a doubt the warmest audience we ever had the opportunity to perform for,” Buck told the crowd before leaving the stage. It wasn’t an empty compliment. “I think it turned out to be my proudest moment,” he said of the Carnegie Hall show in an interview with CMT.com more than 35 years later.

Four months after the show, Capitol Records released “Carnegie Hall Concert with Buck Owens and His Buckaroos,” which climbed to #1 on the country album chart and crossed over to the broader-based pop album charts. Without overdubs or editing, the LP perfectly captured the band in their prime. “There was no fixin’ on that whole album, and I don’t think there’s a mistake on it,” Tom Brumley told journalist Rich Kienzle. Buck agreed. “Not one of us had hit a wrong note, missed a beat, or flubbed a single word,” he elaborated. “We’d literally recorded a perfect album in less than fifty minutes.”

One of the most gratifying aspects of the Carnegie Hall triumph for Buck was that he had the opportunity to present country music as a legitimate art form. Though Buck made corny country humor a part of his show, he took pains to present himself professionally and was always conscious about combatting the negative images of country performers that continued to linger in the popular imagination. What he craved was respect for his music, and country music as a whole. “All my life,” he confessed, “I’ve wanted to represent country music with more dignity, more integrity—more class.”

“Listen to an inspired man render the greatest performance of his life,” WJRZ Program Director Ed Neilson wrote in the liner notes on the back of the original “Carnegie Hall” LP. And Owens agreed with the assessment for the rest of his life, often telling those close to him that Carnegie Hall was the best show he ever played. Though he would become more famous for his role on the “Hee Haw” television series, Buck believed that he was at his best when he was on stage with his faithful Buckaroos. In 1996, he opened a multi-million dollar restaurant and performance venue in Bakersfield, where he personally entertained audiences every weekend. He died in his sleep on March 25, 2006, hours after what turned out to be his final performance at the Crystal Palace. It was 40 years to the day after his triumphant appearance at Carnegie Hall.




The 10 Essential Buck Owens Recordings

The Bakersfield Californian
March 25, 2016

Boiling down Buck Owens’ recorded output to a small handful of key songs is no easy task. He recorded more than 40 studio albums and eight live albums over the course of three decades. He placed almost 50 singles in the Top 10 on the Billboard country chart, more than 20 of which went to the No. 1 spot. By almost any measure, Owens was the most successful country artist of the 1960s.

And his legacy can still be heard in the music of current country radio stars. Though an argument could be made that dozens of selections should be added to this list, here are 10 essential Buck Owens recordings:

1. “Hot Dog” (1956) – non-charting single; released under the name Corky Jones (Pep Records); written by Buck Owens and Denny Dedmon

Before he found success on Capitol Records, Owens was a guitarist and singer in the house band at Bakersfield’s storied Blackboard Café on Chester Avenue. In search of broader horizons, Buck released a handful of singles on the small Pep label in Los Angeles. This rockabilly-flavored disc was far enough outside the country mainstream that it was released under a pseudonym to avoid any potential backlash from the Bakersfield radio station that played his other early country singles. Featuring guitar hero Roy Nichols, the session was recorded by Lewis Talley and Fuzzy Owen in their tiny studio on East 18th Street, years before they launched Merle Haggard’s career on their Tally label. The record is a reminder that Buck and his fellow architects of the Bakersfield Sound were paying attention to plenty of music beyond the Western Swing and dance hall twang that are most often cited as the core ingredients of the genre. “I think guys like Elvis and Little Richard and Chuck Berry and Fats Domino had as much influence on my music as Bob Wills did,” Owens once confessed. Thanks largely to Buck’s own influence, rockabilly sounds were eventually embraced by the country mainstream. When Owens re-recorded the song under his own name in 1988, it hit the national country charts, falling just shy of the Top 40.

2. “Above and Beyond (The Call of Love)” (1960) - No. 3 single; from the “Buck Owens” album (Capitol Records); written by Harlan Howard

After years of slogging it out in the honky-tonk trenches as a guitarist, singer, and songwriter, Buck’s big break came in February of 1957 when legendary producer Ken Nelson signed him to an artist deal at Capitol Records. But fame wasn’t soon to follow. His first couple of singles stiffed and Buck moved to Puyallup, Wash., to work in the radio business with his friend Dusty Rhodes. At one point, Owens suggested to Nelson that they terminate the deal, but Ken wanted to give it another shot. At the next session they recorded “Second Fiddle,” which became Buck’s first charting single. The following year they recorded “Under Your Spell Again,” which became his first Top 5 hit. “Above and Beyond” was recorded two days before Christmas in 1959 and was Buck’s first session to feature a young fiddle player named Don Rich with whom he’d been working in Washington. When the single became Buck’s second Top 5 success, it was the sign he needed that he could build a sustained career as a national country artist. He sold his interest in the radio station to Dusty Rhodes and returned to Bakersfield, which would become his base of operations for the rest of his life.

3. “Foolin’ Around” (1961) - No. 2 single; from the “Buck Owens Sings Harlan Howard” album (Capitol Records); written by Buck Owens and Harlan Howard

Released in January of 1961, “Foolin’ Around” spent eight weeks in the No. 2 position on the Billboard country chart without breaking through to the top spot. While that first No. 1 single was an elusive milestone for Buck in the early years, there was no doubt that “Foolin’ Around” was a massive hit that perfectly represented what came to be called the Bakersfield Sound. Drummer Pee Wee Adams included a couple of fills in the chorus that, though minor, called particular attention to the drums. And calling attention to the drums was an oddity in country music in the early 1960s. That little flourish, coupled with Ralph Mooney’s aggressive pedal steel guitar, signaled to country fans that something different was happening on the West Coast. It attracted enough attention that the single also became the first Owens offering to appear on the pop charts. While artists such as Wynn Stewart might have pioneered a similar sound before him, nobody took it to the masses like Buck Owens. When most people refer to the Bakersfield Sound today, what they probably have in mind is the Buck Owens sound.

4. “Love’s Gonna Live Here” (1963) - No. 1 single; from “The Best of Buck Owens, Vol. 1” abum (Capitol Records); written by Buck Owens

Buck Owens finally hit the No. 1 position on the country chart in 1963 with a new sound. By that point, fiddler Don Rich had switched to lead Telecaster, the bottom end was supplied by an electric bass guitar (rather than an upright model), and the drums drove the songs with a tightly closed high-hat cymbal played precisely on top of the beat. Because Rich described the sound of the uptempo recordings as “a runaway locomotive coming right through the radio,” Buck came to call his string of hits from that era his “freight train songs.” Having worked in radio himself, Buck fine-tuned his approach to the recording process to make sure his music sounded great coming from the tinny speakers of AM transistor and car radios. Of those carefully-crafted hits, “Love’s Gonna Live Here” was the most popular with country radio audiences. Once it reached the top spot on the charts, it stayed there for an astounding 16 weeks. It would be almost 50 years before another country single topped the charts for that long.

5. “Together Again” (1964) - No.1 single; from the “Together Again / My Heart Skips a Beat” album (Capitol Records); written by Buck Owens

In January of 1964, Owens returned to the Capitol Studios in Hollywood to record his next single. That song, “My Heart Skips a Beat,” reached No. 1 on the country chart in mid-May. Three weeks later, the B-side of the single, “Together Again,” knocked “My Heart Skips a Beat” out of the No. 1 slot and took its place at the top of the heap until “My Heart Skips a Beat” reclaimed the top spot yet again. Buck was so popular in the mid-1960s that he was fighting himself for chart dominance! While his “freight train” sound was wildly popular, “Together Again” is a testament to his skills with a tender ballad. Pedal steel guitarist Tom Brumley, who had recently joined Buck’s band, played a memorably mournful solo that stood in stark contrast to the positive lyrics. Once again, Owens showed that by tweaking the rules of the game he could blaze his own hit-making path of country music innovation.

6. “Close Up the Honky Tonks” (1964) – non-single; from the “Together Again / My Heart Skips a Beat” album; written by Red Simpson

This Red Simpson-penned standard was the first song Owens tackled at his June 10, 1964, recording date. It didn’t become a hit for Buck, but the session marked the first time the classic lineup of his backing band, the Buckaroos, worked together in the studio. With guitarist Don Rich, bassist Doyle Holly (who usually played guitar in the studio, most often leaving bass duties to session man Bob Morris), steel guitarist Tom Brumley, and drummer Willie Cantu, the Buckaroos became one of the most revered bands in country music history. In an era when most performers relied on a small handful of professional musicians, Buck insisted on using his own players in the studio so that his recordings captured the immediacy of his live shows. Owens had high expectations of his band, but he readily admitted that the musicians with whom he worked were a significant factor in shaping the sound that kept him on top.

7. “I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail” (1964) - No. 1 single; from the “I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail” album (Capitol Records); written by Buck Owens and Harlan Howard

Buck and songwriting legend Harlan Howard collaborated on many songs together, but the most successful of them was “I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail,” which was released in December of 1964, hit the charts in January of 1965, and was sitting at the top spot less than a month later. According to Buck, he and Harlan were traveling down the highway when an Esso gas station sign that advertised “Put a tiger in your tank” sparked the idea. Not only did the song become the fifth in an unbelievable streak of 14 consecutive No. 1 hits, it also hit No. 25 on the pop rankings. It was Buck’s sole entry in the pop Top 40, and the first major step at making him a household name. By the time he joined the cast of “Hee Haw” in 1969, Owens was one of the few country artists who was familiar to general audiences that didn’t typically buy country records.

8. “Buckaroo” (1965) - No. 1 single; from “The Instrumental Hits of Buck Owens and his Buckaroos” album (Capitol Records); written by Bob Morris

“When Capitol put out ‘Buckaroo’ as my next single,” Owens revealed in his posthumous autobiography assembled by author Randy Poe, “I figured my streak of chart-topping singles was finally going to come to an end. I mean, whoever heard of a country instrumental making it to number one?” But that’s exactly what happened. The infectiously bouncy melody was a reminder that, not only was Buck an accomplished singer and songwriter, he was also a top-notch musician. Owens had paid his dues in the Bakersfield honky tonks and backed a long list of artists as a supporting musician in the studio, including Tommy Collins, Wanda Jackson, Faron Young, Gene Vincent, and others. He might have been a superstar by that time, but Buck was also a guitar slinger who still had a great love for the instrument and a passion for making records that showed off both his chops and the talents of his fantastic band.

9. “Act Naturally” (1966) – non-single (live version); from the “Carnegie Hall Concert” album (Capitol Records); written by Voni Morrison and Johnny Russell

When Buck was invited to play New York City’s hallowed Carnegie Hall, he instructed his manager, Jack McFadden, to decline the offer. He assumed the Manhattan crowd wouldn’t be interested in his music. When producer Ken Nelson suggested they record the performance and release it as Buck’s first live album, however, he reconsidered. The now-legendary performance occurred on March 25, 1966, precisely 40 years to the day before Buck’s death. Any fears Owens might have had about being accepted in New York were quickly put to rest when he and the classic lineup of the Buckaroos ripped into the opening song, “Act Naturally.” The crowd responded so enthusiastically that the band had to extend the introduction so the audience could quiet down enough for Buck to start singing. The studio version of the song had been Buck’s first No. 1 single in 1963, and the first to feature Don Rich on lead guitar. The fans loved the live version just as enthusiastically. The Carnegie Hall Concert with Buck Owens and his Buckaroos LP hit No. 1 on the Billboard country album chart in September of 1966.

10. “Streets of Bakersfield” (1973) – non-single From the “Ain’t It Amazing, Gracie” album (Capitol Records); written by Homer Joy

By the early 1970s Buck was conducting most of his recording sessions at his own studio in a converted movie theater at 1215 North Chester Ave. At that point he had become far more than an entertainer, having branched out into a variety of businesses that included music publishing, artist management, radio station ownership, and more. He was arguably the most powerful man in Kern County, and his dominance over the local music scene earned the town the nickname Buckersfield. “Bakersfield will always be home to me,” Owens often told reporters who asked about his decision to build his empire outside the Nashville establishment. It’s fitting, then, that he would pay tribute to the spirit of his chosen city by recording Homer Joy’s “Streets of Bakersfield.” Although only an album cut in 1973, Dwight Yoakam suggested that he and Buck revive the song in the late 1980s. Their duet version of the now-classic tune reached the top of the charts in 1988, marking Buck’s final No. 1 hit.