I’ve always agreed with Willie Nelson. Once, when asked what kind of music he prefers, he said he likes “good music.”
Me too. I like all kinds of music — as long as it’s “good.”
That said, one of my favorite types of music has always been country music. By that, I mean authentic country music, not the pop stuff which often floats out of Nashville nowadays. In fact, the type of new country music I most like these days is often labeled as Americana, roots or alt-country. It’s still country music, but a little too raw (real) for some.
The recent surge of pop-oriented music flowing out of Nashville is not the first time Music City has been flooded by a wave of pop. As far back as the early 1960s, a number of Nashville music executives decided to “sweeten” the hard-scrabble sound of authentic country music with saccharine-sounding strings and layers of background choruses.
Before long, watered-down country music is all that seemed to gush out of Music City.
Having grown up with the gritty sound of Johnny Cash and the gunfighter ballads of Marty Robbins — with Cash featuring the boom-chicka-boom sound of the Tennessee Two and Robbins usually spotlighting the Spanish cantina acoustic guitar sounds of Grady Martin — even as a youngster I felt rankled by that overly-orchestrated, vocal chorus-laden cookie-cutter sound that soon began filling up the airwaves. Heck, they even cluttered up the great Lefty Frizzell’s hit song “Saginaw, Michigan” with an orchestra and chorus-ridden production. Thank goodness they kept their over-producing hands off the “Long Black Veil.”
Before long, you rarely heard a steel guitar or fiddle on any country music recordings coming out of Nashville, but a musical savior of sorts loomed on the West Coast — and he and his band were getting ready to buck the Nashville sound big-time.
The first time I heard Buck Owens and the Buckaroos I felt like a jolt had hit my body. Wow! The lyrics were simple and heartfelt, the voice both ebullient and emotional — and oh, that sound of the Buckaroos in full musical flight.
This has nothing to with the Buck Owens of later years. Those who’ve only seen Buck Owens on reruns of the “Hee Haw” television show — most of which were telecast long after the original Buckaroos were no longer together— really have no idea of what a powerful group Buck Owens and the Buckaroos were.
They were led by Don Rich, one of the greatest sidemen in musical history. Rich sliced through ringing guitar solos with his Fender Telecaster on the faster songs and sometimes provided a wistful fiddle to the slower ones. His ace harmony singing perfectly matched Owens, giving them a unique sound, sort of like a later-day Everley Brothers.
The Beatles weren’t the only band on Capitol Records ruling the airwaves. Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, soon to be followed by Merle Haggard and the Strangers, showcased what came to be known as the Bakersfield Sound — and a welcome alternative to the heavily-produced Nashville Sound coming out of Tennessee.
In Nashville, almost all the country singers — except for Cash and a few others — were using studio musicians. While the musicians were proficient and outstanding, the country singers usually didn’t record with their road bands. (Bluegrass musicians did, but that’s another story).
Ignoring the Nashville status quo, Buck Owens and the Buckaroos recorded one of the greatest double-sided hits in country music history at California’s Capitol studios: the upbeat “My Heart Skips a Beat” coupled with the ballad “Together Again.” Soon, hit followed hit: “I Don’t Care,” “Love’s Going to Live Here” and “Think of Me,” to name a few.
George Harrison’s early lead guitar solos with The Beatles and Keith Richards’ leads with the Rolling Stones had nothing on the fret-work Rich performed with Owens, with Rich often playing both the higher and the lower notes — obviously influenced by everyone from rock ‘n roller Duane Eddy to surf guitarist Dick Dale, with a little Chuck Berry thrown in as well.
At the height of Beatlemania, The Beatles covered Buck Owens and the Buckaroos’ recording of “Act Naturally.” Harrison did his best to capture the spirit of Rich’s original guitar solo — quite a compliment to the country guitarist.
Along with Rich, the Buckaroos consisted of Tom Brumley on steel guitar, Doyle Holly on bass and Willie Cantu on drums. They have the distinction of recording the only instrumental to hit number one on the country charts, called — naturally enough — “Buckaroo.”
Buck Owens and the Buckaroos were the first recording artists I ever met in person, thanks to my aunt Shirley, who took me to see one of their concerts in Joplin, Missouri. They were just as great in-person as they were on their recordings.
Afterwards — I could hardly believe it — they said they would stick around after the concert to say hello to anybody who wanted to come by and meet them. Imagine that happening today.
I got a chance to talk to both Buck and Don Rich. Although I was just a kid, they weren’t at all condescending. Being a budding guitarist myself, I had a guitar pick in my jeans pocket. Filled with a sudden inspiration, I fished out the pick and handed it to Buck Owens.
“I’d like to give you this,” I said, handing him the pick. Buck graciously accepted it. The only thing is, I’d forgotten until I handed it over that it was a thumb pick — the kind that fits on your thumb, sort of like a ring, so you don’t have to worry about dropping it in mid-performance.
Having been a lead guitarist himself for Tommy Collins before embarking on his solo career, Buck took guitar-related matters seriously. He immediately tried to slide the pick onto this thumb. While it fit my youthful thumb perfectly, there’s no way it was sliding over his. Nevertheless, he held his thumb upright and tried to jam the pick onto it — kind of like Cinderella’s stepsisters tried to jam that glass slipper onto their respective feet.
Finally though, Buck saw there was no use. No way would this kid’s pick slide onto his man-sized thumb.
“It won’t fit,” he said, looking down at me, unsure what to do next.
Buck Owens had already given me countless hours of musical joy through his great songs and musicianship. Now, it felt very important to me to give him something in return — even if it had no utilitarian value to him whatsoever.
“Would you keep it anyway?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said, dropping the pick in his pocket with a grin and giving me a nod of thanks.
No Buck, thank you, for making a kid from Oklahoma very happy. I don’t know what ultimately happened to that pick, but I’m pretty sure it left Joplin on the bus that carried Buck Owens and the Buckaroos away into the Missouri night.
Contact James Beaty at email@example.com.