|Buck Owens and Don Rich during their mid 60's heyday|
In my recent post on country rock I did a lot of digging to find out more about the roots of country rock. I mentioned toward the end of that post that it was only when I was older that I started to gain a greater appreciation for country music. When I was a kid I totally detested it, particularly when my mother would torture me with songs like “Elvira” by the Statler Brothers, or anything by Kenny Rogers (seriously, is there a dumber song than “Coward of the County”? Even my well-established love of story songs hasn’t been enough to make me like that song).
It has only been in the last decade or so that I’ve (a) acquired enough age to appreciate country more—I seriously question the sanity, intelligence, and taste of anyone who professes to like country music who is under 30 years of age, country is something I feel you have to have been kicked around by life a bit to appreciate; (b) been able to delve deeper into the roots of country and really find what I like. I can honestly say that I am now a fan of country music, though with some huge caveats.
Caveat number one is that I still prefer country ROCK to country almost any day. My first exposure to “country” was highly indirect and initially occurred through an appreciation of 80’s LA post-punk, in particular the so-called cowpunk of bands like X and the Long Ryders. In the 90’s I briefly got into alt country through my appreciation of bands like the Geraldine Fibbers; in the late 90’s and early 2000’s I got further into alt country through my love of Wilco and Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt. In the late 90’s I also saw Iris Dement in concert for the first time and was blown away by her sweet pure country voice. Also in the late 90’s I was finally able to “sample” some songs by Gram Parsons, about whom I’d hear much but of who’s music I’d heard very little. Parsons’ solo efforts, as well as his work with the International Submarine Band and the Flying Burrito Brothers, was as hardcore country as I’d ever listened to, and in fact was probably a little TOO country for me at first. For most of my adult life, I’ve been very much an urban person, attracted to modern art and punk rock and contemporary jazz and classical music; I feel way less comfortable in redneck situations.
But I’ve definitely gained a greater appreciation for real, raw country music, which led to my recent revelation that I don’t actually dislike country, what I actually dislike is NASHVILLE country, i.e., the slick, overproduced pap that is simply twangified pop music that has oozed out of Nashville for the past 40 years. And so Caveat Number Two is that the only country that I really will listen to and enjoy is stuff nobody who is a regular country fan has ever heard of. It was in the 60’s that Nashville producers started crafting a slicker, more polished country sound to appeal to pop fans and cross over to the pop market; one of the first such movements was called “countrypolitan” in an effort to emphasize it’s accessibility to city folks as well as rednecks. This is not to say that artists like Patsy Cline (I love “Crazy” and “I Fall to Pieces”; I also like "Angel of the Morning" by Merrilee Rush for its stately adulteress dignity) didn’t put out some good songs during this time, but in subsequent decades this polish came at the price of grittiness and authenticity.
But country music isn’t just produced in Nashville, and what I’ve finally come to understand is how much I love some of these other, often less commercial strains of country music. Specifically, I recently discovered that what I REALLY like is the country music produced in the California farming and oil town of Bakersfield. As I mentioned in my previous post, part of my attraction to this sound may be because I actually lived in Bakersfield in the early 70’s (specifically for part of 1973) and remember enough of its hardscrabble charm to appreciate this music on a more fundamental level. But more importantly, I’ve come to appreciate this music for exactly what it is: a rawer, simpler, more rock and roll version of country than what was being produced in Nashville at the time (or since).
Arguably the king of the Bakersfield sound is Buck Owens. I mostly remember Owens from his lengthy stint as co-host of the cornball hillbilly comedy show Hee Haw in the 70’s (and into the 80’s though I obviously wasn’t watching it by then), but during the 60’s Owens almost literally put Bakersfield on the map in musical terms by the slew of hit singles he produced. Owens’ sound was the antithesis of the overproduced Nashville sound; raw, simple, clean country that focused on Buck’s Texas drawl and acoustic guitar as well as electric guitar and some light rhythm. Few if any overdubs, no strings or horns, no choirs, just a few instruments played extremely efficiently.
Buck Owens is rightly credited for bringing this clean and simple country sound back to the charts, but an unsung hero, the real architect of this sound, was his guitarist Don Rich. Rich is revered by true country fans for his rockabilly-influenced electric guitar playing and high singing harmonies, both of which perfectly complemented Buck’s acoustic guitar and lead vocals. Rich gave Buck Owens a sound that was both rooted in country history as well as forward facing toward the rock generation. Sadly, Rich died in a motorcycle accident in the mid-70’s; Buck was supposedly never the same afterward.
I recently purchased the album Buck Owens: 21 #1 Hits off iTunes, and I am enjoying it immensely. Often collections that focus on #1 hits only can give a skewed view of an artist’s output; after all, not all of an artist’s best songs always hit #1, and plenty of songs that aren’t so great become #1 songs. But this collection really provides an excellent overview of Buck’s most successful (both commercially and musically) period, from around 1963 through the mid-70’s (the collection also includes a re-recorded version of “Streets of Bakersfield” from the 80's featuring Dwight Yoakam). Buck’s first #1, 1963’s “Act Naturally”, is one of his best songs, featuring Rich’s clean, twangy rock-infused picking and high harmony with Buck; this song was actually covered by the Beatles on Help! (it was released as the B-side of “Yesterday” in the States). His second #1, “Love’s Gonna Live Here” is another jaunty slice of Bakersfield country; Rich’s picking here is funkier, less reverbed than on “Act Naturally” and is a perfect accompaniment to Buck’s simple acoustic strumming. “I Don’t Care (As Long As You Love)” is similarly fantastic and owes a debt to the early country of Roy Acuff and Jimmie Rodgers.
In 1965, Owens had a staggering four #1 singles “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail”, “Before You Go” (with its incredible, ringing guitar intro by Rich), the phenomenal instrumental “Buckaroo” (named for his backing band the Buckeroos and sounding like Richie Valens’ “La Bamba” filtered through “Day Tripper” by the Beatles; this is still the only instrumental song ever to top the country charts), and the slow ballad “Only You (Can Break My Heart)”. In 1966 Owens barely slowed down, producing three more #1 hits, “I’m Waiting in Your Welfare Line” (with its terrific chorus “I’ve got the hungries for your love, and I’m waitin’ in your welfare line), “Think of Me” (with its Spanish rhythm and Rich’s high, ringing guitar), and the funky “Open Up Your Heart” (with its tejano beat). 1967 brought three more #1’s, the oddly named lament “Where Does the Good Times Go”, the slow, soulful “Your Tender Loving Care”, and the high-tempo rom “Sam’s Place”.
The next year, Buck’s incredible streak showed signs of tapering off. His singles branched out from his typical formula, and while several charted, he had only one #1, “How Long Will My Baby Be Gone”. 1969 brought “Tall Dark Stranger”, with its cowboy choruses and greater emphasis on acoustic and Spanish guitar, and the oddly suggestive “Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass”, with Rich playing his electric guitar through a fuzzbox for a weird, pseudo-psychedelic roar that sounds more like “Sneaky” Pete Klenow’s work with the Flying Burrito Brothers.
Buck continued to have chart success but his staggering run of #1 singles was nearly at an end; his final #1 was 1972’s faintly embarrassing “Made In Japan”, with its hokey chop-socky guitar and corny lyrics. This is one of the few musical missteps on this amazing album. From 1963-1969 Owens had something like 19 #1 songs, an amazing feat. But more importantly, he did so on his terms and against the prevailing grain of the Nashville sound. For this reason Owens can truly be considered an original country punk, making music that was rawer and simpler and achieving success on his own terms. Another thing I love about Buck’s music is how much it pulls on, and would influence, Spanish country or tejano music. Many of the rhythms and guitar textures Buck used in his songs come from that Spanish/Tex-Mex influence, and his music in turn was a huge influence on the burgeoning tejano music scene. Tejano typically uses more accordion and a firm 2/2 beat—which can be heard on Buck’s re-recording of “Streets of Bakersfield” with Dwight Yoakam—but many of the flourishes Buck put into his songs came from a Hispanic influence that as a long-time (former) Californian I appreciate and respect. Buck was making music for ALL of the honky tonk folks of the California Central Valley. His music pulls more on the Western music aspects than on the Country music aspects of country western music, and as a lifelong Westerner I appreciate that immensely.
Buck wasn’t the only superstar to emerge from the Bakersfield scene; the other was Merle Haggard. Haggard’s influence on country, country rock, and alt country was massive, gargantuan. Haggard played briefly in Buck Owens’ band and through Buck he absorbed some of the simplicity of the Bakersfield sound, but Haggard had one of the most captivating lyrical muses in the history of country music, fed no doubt by a colorful life spent in and out of jail and working the oil fields around Bakersfield. I particularly love some of his key early hits with his group the Strangers, like “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive”, “The Bottle Let Me Down”, “Swinging Doors”, and “(My Friends are Gonna Be) Strangers”. Merle was also a pioneer in what eventually came to be called “outlaw country”, with artists like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings jumping on board in the 70’s.
I respect Haggard but I am also less comfortable with his reactionary redneck side, which is highlighted on songs like “Okie from Muskogee” and “The Fighting Side of Me”; Haggard has claimed at various times that these songs, which glorify a narrow-minded, jingoistic take on American values, were written tongue-in-cheek, but I think they ring a little too true to be parody. In contrast, Buck Owens embraced, and was embraced by, the counter-culture during the 60’s; as mentioned above, his “Act Naturally” was covered by the Beatles (Buck was supposedly a big fan of the Beatles, unusual among country artists at the time), and Buck famously played a series of shows at the Fillmore West to an audience of appreciative hippies. And while I think I prefer Haggard’s voice over Owens’, Buck had a much better band (specifically guitarist Don Rich). But Haggard was also arguably a better lyricist, and his songs have found new life in some of my favorite country rock covers, including “Big City” by Iris Dement, “Silver Wings” and “I Can’t Hold Myself in Line” by John Doe, “White Line Fever” by the Flying Burrito Brothers, and “Kern River” by Dave Alvin.
Buck and Merle put Bakersfield on the map, but there were musicians playing in Bakersfield before them. Tommy Collins was arguably the first Bakersfield artist to gain recognition by the country music establishment in the 50’s. I only have two songs by Collins, “Whatcha Gonna Do Now” and “You Better Not Do That” off the album Country Music’s Greatest Hits of the 50’s; both are kind of tinny and twangy and owe more to the Appalachian country sound than Owens’ more western-influenced sound but you can hear glimmers of the stripped-down Bakersfield sound here.
Wynn Stewart was a stepping stone between Tommy Collins and Buck and Merle. I am just starting my Stewart collection but right now my favorite song by him is “Wishful Thinking”, even though its sound is busier and more polished than Buck or Merle’s. I also like “Big Big Love” and “I’ve Waited a Lifetime”, the latter of which comes the closest to the high lonesome simplicity of Buck Owens’ work.
The Bakersfield sound has remained incredibly durable over the decades since its mid-50’s to late-60’s heyday. As mentioned, a wide array of pioneering country rock artists idolized Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, including Gram Parsons, as well as members of The Speckled Bird, Poco, and the Byrds. In the 80’s, Dwight Yoakam was a standard-bearer for the Bakersfield sound and even released an entire album of Buck Owens covers. In the 90’s and 2000’s the main musical progeny of the Buckaroos are probably Texas’ Derailers, who almost perfectly capture the clean lines and facile elegance of mid 60’s Buckaroo sounds (and who, like Yoakam, have released an entire album of Buck Owens covers called Under the Influence of Buck). I am just getting into these guys but pretty much everything off their 1996 album Jackpot but specifically “My Heart’s Ready” (Don Rich is smiling somewhere at the funky guitar twang here), the honky tonk stomp of “This Big City”, “I’m Your Man” the quickstep of “Where Ya Been”, and the marvelous title track. “Whatever Made You Change Your Mind”, “Someone Else’s Problem”, their gender-reversed cover of the Crystal’s “Then She Kissed Me”, and “The Right Place” off 1999’s Dave Alvin-produced Full Western Dress are some other terrific old school Bakersfield western songs. I also like “The Get-Go” and “The Sun Is Shining on Me” off their 2008 album Guaranteed to Satisfy, though these move away from the crisp sparseness of Buck’s best work and more toward the work of those who interpreted Buck in a rock setting, specifically the Byrds. The big, chiming rock guitars and soaring harmonies that start “The Get-Go” are straight from the Byrds playbook (with a dash of “Drive My Car” or “Ticket To Ride” by the Beatles) and even though it departs from the country simplicity of the Bakersfield sound I still like this work a lot. They started migrating away as early as 2003’s Genuine, specifically on the Beatlesque song “Scratch My Itch”, and on 2006’s Soldiers of Love they channel Jerry Lee Lewis and “Day Tripper” on “Get ‘er Done” and Chuck Berry and the Killer on “Hey, Valerie!” It’s great to see a band evolve, and while I lament their migration away from their Buck influenced origins I can’t fault them too much for trying to move toward something new.
In a similar way, North Carolina’s Two Dollar Pistols channel Merle Haggard and the Strangers. Lead singer John Howie Jr.’s voice reminds me a lot of John Doe’s of X, which I have always been a fan of (Doe recorded two of the best Haggard covers ever so that's not a bad person to emulate). I’m just getting into this band but I love their series of duets with alt country chanteuse Tift Merritt from 1999 that evokes the best of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, most notably on “Just Someone I Used To Know”, “(I’m So) Afraid of Losing You Again”, and “We Had It All”. I also like “You Ruined Everything” off their 2002 album of the same name and “Too Bad You’re Gone” off 2004’s Hands Up!
Wayne Hancock plays a hardcore honky tonk music closer to Hank Williams than Buck Owens and with an incredible mix of western swing, rockabilly, big band swing, jump blues and even 50’s crooner pop. I am really becoming a huge fan of his; right now he along with the Derailers is at the top of my current favorite artist list. I really enjoy the spare, simple arrangements of much of his work, most notably songs like “Thunderstorms and Neon Lights” off his 1995 album of the same name; this song is just infused with the spirit of Hank Williams through and through. Another of my favorite songs of his is the title track off 1997’s That’s What Daddy Wants—I love how his Hank Williams vocals meld with the swinging guitar twang, which has elements of Tal Farlow and even Django Reinhardt in it, and the braying sax and rumbling tympani give this a jump blues feel similar to the music of the Brian Setzer Orchestra (his song “Juke Joint Jumping” off his debut also has this same honky tonk plus jump blues feel, with rockabilly guitar flourishes tossed in for good measure). I also enjoy the rockabilly/swing/honky tonk feel of “Lose Your Mind” and “Big City Good Time Gal” from his 2003 live album Swing Time. The title track from 2006’s Tulsa swings and bops, and the shout-out chorus spelling of “Tulsa” owes a big debt to jive numbers like “Pennsylvania 6-5000”, and his yodeling vocals on “Goin’ Home Blues” evoke Jimmie Rodgers as much as the immortal Hank. Finally, “Jump the Blues” off his latest album, 2009’s Viper of Melody, continues his streak of great swing songs. I’m no two stepper but this music makes even me want to get up and get in the line!
Sean Reefer and the Resin Valley Boys also play some old tyme yodeling Hank Williams style country in a 40’s/50’s style, with plenty of amazing fiddle work combined with clean electric picking. There’s only one album by him on iTunes, 2003’s Texas Hill Country, but I like pretty much everything off it. Particular favorites are the sweet, twangy picking and fiddling of “The Other Side” and Reefer’s yodeling “Whiskey Bottle”.
Georgia’s Joey Allcorn, also heavily influenced by Hank Williams, isn’t quite as yodeling or twangy as Reefer or Hancock; his voice is more nasally and sounds more alt country than hardcore neotraditionalist, but his overall sound is nevertheless rooted in classic country and western sounds. His song “50 Years Too Late” off his 2006 album of this name is a lament about how he missed out on the heyday of country; in this way it reminds me of Saint Vitus’ similarly themed “Born Too Late”, which laments their missing out on metal’s 70’s era. I also like the sweet Hawaiian steel guitar on “Honky Tonk Ramblin’ Man” off All Alone Again.
The retro outlaw sounds of J.B. Beverley & the Wayward Drifters from Virginia are also something I’m really enjoying now. “Dark Bar and a Jukebox” from his 2006 album with the same name really summarizes my feelings about country music—‘You won’t find no country on country radio’. Amen. Beverley played in a punk band called Bad Habits before forming his western swing infused outfit in the late 90’s. I also like his yodeling delivery on “Lonesome, Loaded and Cold” from this same album. And I love the finger snapping ditty “Walked Across Texas” off his 2009 album Watch America Roll By.
Moot Davis, from New Jersey of all places, is another retro stylist mining a less commercial country vein. His vocals fall just to the right side of country for me but are much closer to traditional Nashville sounds. In some ways he comes off like a country version of Chris Isaak (whom I’m definitely a fan of)—kind of alt country lite. Again, I’m still just exploring his work but so far I enjoy “Thick of It Now” off 2004’s Moot Davis, “Talkin’ About Lonely” off 2007’s Already Moved On and his duet with Elizabeth Cook “Crazy In Love With You” off 2012’s Man About Town.