This is a reprint of an article I wrote for PepperAlley in 2005, Gus Austin’s great Drupal-based newssite.
Buck Owens changed music. Not just country music, but almost all popular music changed as a result of the innovations Buck brought about in his sphere of influence.
Like most music fans, my awareness of Buck began with the Beatles cover of “Act Naturally”, a droll little vehicle for Ringo, performed as close to note-for-note as possible. (British: “Help!”, American: “Yesterday and Today”) As a kid, my reaction was typical. The Beatles were godhead, and how amusing to hear their little goof on American “hick” musical forms. Little did I realize that the devotion was real, heartfelt, and couldn’t have been more serious. Although Buck didn’t write “Act Naturally” (Jon Russell/Voni Morrison), it contains all the classic elements of a great Buck single.
- Under 3 minutes
- Close (mountain style) harmony
- Pared-to-the-bone arrangement, simple song structure
- Intelligent, unpretentious lyrics
- Bright guitar tone
- Hot mix
- That “Freight Train” sound (2/4 time sig., lots of snare drum)
1. Under three minutes: On my well worn copy of “The Best of Buck Owens” (Capitol ST2105-vinyl) the longest track is a luxuriant 2:41. Gets right to the point.
2. Close mountain-style harmony: Buck and second guitarist Don Rich sang like brothers, and their choices in harmony had that sweet “mountain” sound borrowed from bluegrass and earlier folk forms from Appalachia to traditional Irish music, sometimes called “high lonesome.”
3. Pared-to-the-bone arrangement, Simple song structure: Buck’s song forms rarely have verse-chorus, let alone bridge. What functions as a “chorus” is just a tag line to the verse, usually consisting of the song title itself. There is usually a “B” section, that functions like a bridge or a “middle eight.” Structure is usually something like A-B-A-B-A. The Beatles loved this guy. Buck wrote for the club performer using easy-to-remember songs that could be learned and taught quickly, but stood on their own. Chords are Tonic, fourth, fifth.
4. Intelligent, unpretentious lyrics: Like all great country music, Buck kept it simple. A hard-working citizen doesn’t want to hear philosophy coming through the AM car radio, just honesty and maybe some humor. Like Hank Williams Sr., Buck tried to stick to universal themes that his audience had lived.
5. Bright guitar tone: Buck and Don played matching Telecasters, usually through Twin-reverbs. Both products were the babies of one Leo Fender of Fullerton, California. Both stressed clarity and purity, but had a fat, full range of tone underneath. Leo couldn’t carry a tune in a bag, but he could hear and steer away from crappy tone in an instrument or amplifier, unlike modern manufacturers, even his namesake’s. The way Buck’s guitar sounded on record changed forever the way people thought of the instrument.
6. Hot mix: Buck knew that the tube AM radios of the day favored “boomy” round tones, so he kept his arrangements and mixes spare, and rolled off bass in mastering, favoring upper frequencies. This is normally against my personal religion, but it worked in Buck’s case, because it set his records apart from everything else out there. Buck played a lot of his rhythym guitars capoed up, the drummer’s snare is tuned up, and the kick is tight, and vocals and solos are compressed nicely, so they pop out of even the shittiest speaker. In his excellent biography, “Buck Owens… Catch a Legend,” Rich Kienzle wrote, “Having worked in AM radio, Buck knew its sound properties. He and Ken Nelson (Capitol producer/engineer) mixed his recordings using small speakers to get optimal projection on AM radios and car radios.”*
7. That “Freight Train” sound (2/4 time sig., lots of snare drum): Lots of performers used this one, but in combination with the other elements listed above, Buck stacked the deck in his favor away from the factory that Nashville had become. He had a vision and he stuck to it. He changed the world.
When Buck signed on to do “Hee Haw” (basically a redneck re-working of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in) in 1968 he cemented himself in the TV audience’s mind as an affable clown. His wide-eyed humor spelled “ignorant hick” to those unfamiliar with his great records. Just like Louis Armstrong before him, he became a celebrity based on a caricature of himself. (I remember the shock of hearing the “Hot Five” sessions, where Armstrong’s mastery of the form and scary chops charted the course of jazz forever. This from the guy who sang “Hello Dolly”? But I digress. What else is new?)
Nevertheless, Buck got before a wider audience, as did bluegrass legend Grandpa Jones and others, who deserved to make a decent living after all. History will sort out the real players, and future historians will treat Buck with true deference and respect.
Take some time to check out Buck’s own website and get the full story straight from the man. As a fan, I’m not the most accurate source for facts, but I have some crackpot opinions I am always willing to share.
I’ll sum up his background in the context of the Great Depression. Young *Alvis Owens Jr. (he re-named himself “Buck” at age four) was born into a sharecropping family on the Texas/Oklahoma border. Like most depression-era families, hard work wasn’t a lifestyle choice, it was life, period.
Like so many of the great innovators (Leo Fender parallel again), Buck wasn’t trying to create great art, he was opportunistic and inventive, and tried to create a product that was an honest value for the dollar. Along the way, great art happened.
Buck’s journey took him through stints as a cottonpicker, potato digger, truck driver, deejay and finally as a unique and sought after guitar player. His lead style was enough to draw the attention of Ken Nelson at Capitol, who put Buck under contract. After a series of misses, they scored with “Second Fiddle” featuring the beautiful fiddle playing of Don Rich, Buck’s alter ego (who rates his own Hidden in Plain Sight article, truth be told). Buck lost Don in 1974 to a tragic motorcycle accident.
After a lengthy run of consistently chart-topping hits between 1956 and 1976, Buck’s star faded from view for a time before being lauded by a new generation of country fans and artists, notably Dwight Yoakam, who recorded a duet with Buck, “Streets of Bakersfield” in 1988. Along with fellow Bakersfield artist, Merle Haggard, Buck’s California assault on the Nashville country music establishment still sounds vital and potent and close-to-the-bone.
Although he took on several proteges over the years, it was Buck’s own will to succeed, born in the adversity of the Great Depression, that proved impossible for his students to emulate.
Although he had a good twenty years on Buck, Leo Fender’s life course was shaped by the Depression as well. Leo was an accountant until he lost his job in the ’30s, and started a radio repair shop with a borrowed $600. Always searching for new ways to bring money in, he tinkered his way into amplifier design and the (then popular) Hawaiian steel guitar.
Leo loved country and western music, and would hang with musicians and ask them what they wanted in a piece of equipment. Unlike the manufacturers of today, Leo listened, and put the suggestions into practice. He eliminated the non-essential, and stressed reliability, style and repairability. He designed his amps to be simple and durable enough to be repaired by the average radio shop.
And the tone? Clear and sweet and loud enough to cut through the chaos of a crowded honky-tonk on a Saturday night. This is the reason these early amps and guitars fetch as much as a new car. The tinny crap that replaced them doesn’t fare as well.
The parallel with Buck Owens is another example of how a modest goal, pursued with tenacity and integrity, can effect unprecedented results. Together, Buck and Leo changed recorded sound, popular music, and the musical instrument industry all at once.
Postscript: Before Buck passed in 2006, Gregg Sarfaty and I made the pilgrimage out to Bakersfield and got to catch him live. Buck was pretty sick, but he really worked hard and put on a good show. The crowd was pretty “Bransonesque”, and some in the crowd had no idea who he was, but he was game, taking ALL requests the audience threw at him (Wooly Bully? Really? You’re asking the great Buck Owens to cover Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs?).
Despite his age and illness, occasionally that old spark of brilliance and gravitas would kick in and Gregg and I grinned at each other, “Oh yeah. It’s HIM.” That sound was unmistakable.