Ray Charles and the Beatles both `covered’ him. He held his own with the era’s great rock and Soul singers to become part of America’s soundscape of the Sixties. Yet by the decade’s end he’d become a self-parody, popping out of cornfields on the hillbilly Laugh-In called Hee Haw. Twenty years after that (and before Johnny Cash), he’d become the first `retro-hip’ country star.
`Improbable’ is a mild adjective for the career of Buck Owens, a sharecropper’s son who aimed from childhood to `be somebody.’ The `somebody’ he became was that rare combination of a wildly successful artist and entrepreneur. He wrote and recorded hit songs while building a media empire that included song publishing companies and radio stations. Buck never met an opportunity he didn’t mine, and his keen business acumen contradicts the notion of creative types as out-of-touch dreamers.
Before his death in 2006, Buck intended to explain his enigma in autobiography. To that end he recorded a hundred hours of recollection, but ill health prevented his shaping the material into a book during his lifetime. Producer/writer Randy Poe undertook the daunting task of turning a pile of cassette tapes into Buck `Em! The Autobiography of Buck Owens (Backbeat Books). Poe wisely keeps Buck’s voice and words while making a coherent chronological narrative from them that leads from labor camps to Carnegie Hall and beyond.
Anyone looking for revelation or redemption in an autobiography won’t find much of either in Buck `Em! It has its share of racy road tales, but if Buck grappled with inner demons (he neither drank nor drugged), we don’t learn of it here. But we do learn tons about the West Coast country scene from one of its key players. Fans of his music get the stories behind his songs, details of session personnel, and insight into the importance Buck placed on his sidemen (Don Rich especially) in creating his sound and the attention he paid to how his records would come across on radio (their trebly sound was intentional).
Buck `Em! is so much about the music that it’s only fitting that Omnivore Recordings release a `soundtrack album,’ Buck Em! The Music of Buck Owens (1955-1967). It’s a 50-song double CD set which offers the hits with, at times, a twist: a `live’ “Act Naturally” punctuated by screaming girls (to many, this was a Beatles song); `alternate takes’ and `early versions’ of several songs and `original mono single versions’ (the way the songs first sounded on radio) of several more. Producer Patrick Milligan has an ear for the `Bakersfield sound’ and offers a few non-hits (notably Buck’s cover of Wynn Stewart’s “Playboy”) which epitomize Buck’s musical world beyond his own signature songs. The album’s liner notes are a `condensed version’ of Buck Em! the book, so listeners get Buck’s comments on what they’re hearing. Blunt and unapologetically ambitious in his autobiography, Buck’s music was by turns tender and comic, and there’s no denying the appeal of his timeless twang.
Join Mark Humphrey the 4th Saturday of most months for a mix of music on KPFK’s Roots Music & Beyond, Saturdays 6-8 a.m. 90.7 fm. The show is archived for two weeks after broadcast at KPFK’s website.