Last time, I was talking about country music, and how people don’t even know that it can be cool anymore. There was a hip underbelly in country music even as it was also marketed as the safe, God-fearing, family loving music embodying rural hearth and home. Oddly enough, the artist who best represents both sides of this dynamic in country music – hip as fuck, but also corny and hokey and willing to shamelessly pander to the moron demographic – is Buck Owens.
Buck Owens in the 1960s epitomizes country music at its coolest. A gifted songwriter with an amazing string of hit records (in an era when widespread popularity and quality were not mutually exclusive concepts), Buck’s output during this period will never be equaled. They just don’t make ‘em like this anymore. 15 consecutive number one hits – and they’re all great! Buck wasn’t a solitary genius, either. He had an amazing band of musicians behind him, honed into a razor-sharp outfit by a punishing road schedule, and dressed to the nines…
More after the jump!
The Buckaroos were forged in the fire of constant touring, playing in some of the roughest hillbilly bars across the country. The uncanny musical relationship between Buck and his killer guitar player Don Rich made for the kind of vocal harmonies that usually only siblings who have sung together their entire lives, like the Everlys, can pull off. The Buckaroos also had style. Check out the suits on the covers of some of those Buck and the Buckaroos LPs. In her review of the excellent and hilarious animated series Archer, Eileen Jones tossed off the tangential question and answer:
“Will we ever be done revisiting the high modernist look of the early-mid‘60s? Short answer: no. It’s the last time America found a good look for itself.”
This is painfully true with country music, for both performers and fans. After the beautifully gaudy, yet crisply tailored and dignified Nudie suits of this period fell out of style, country music fashion began a long downhill slide from which it has never recovered.
While I love much of the outlaw era of seventies country, compare a picture of Johnny Paycheck in the mid-60s to the Paycheck of a decade or so later, and tell me that his later look is an improvement. Check out how sharp flat top George Jones looks, vs. big-collar-polyester-shirt-and-bowl-haircut Possum in the 1980s. His voice got better while the production on the records, and the suits on the album covers, got worse and worse!
Hell, even the average country fan was better dressed back then. Check out how the characters in the 1963 Martin Ritt-directed classic Hud are dressed, compared to the rack of baggy Carhart camo jackets and tacky embroidered Nickelback-meets-Baptist-church western shirts you’ll see in a modern western wear store, and you’ll see that the 20th century has not always been a constant march of progress and improvement.
And this brings us back to Buck Owens. If you read Buck’s posthumous autobiography Buck ‘Em, Buck addresses what might partially be blamed for this dumbing down and general all-around uglifying of country music: a little syndicated TV show called Hee Haw. When Buck started on Hee Haw, he began a rapid descent in the mind of the public from a hip musician who the Beatles thought was cool and who sold out Carnegie Hall, to a bumbling hayseed wearing his overalls backwards and playing the straight man to Roy Clark’s corny jokes.
Hee Haw started out as a concept that didn’t sound terrible on the face of it: the show was pitched as a country version of the current 60s hit Laugh In. And while there would be some jokes, the main focus when the show was pitched to Buck was supposed to be the musical acts. Part of the reason that Buck was asked to be involved with Hee Haw was because he was already doing his own country music television program, the syndicated Buck Owens Ranch Show.
To look at the first episode of the Buck Owens Ranch Show is to see how the image of country music Buck Owens initially wanted to project was pretty different from what the producers of Hee Haw (who, it should be noted, were from New York City, probably Staten Island was the farthest out in the “country” they’d ever been) wanted to force Buck into.
The Bakersfield Sound is often described as a hard-core honky-tonk alternative to the pop-leaning, Countrypolitan output of Chet Atkins and much of Nashville at the time. But while it was country, it wasn’t cornpone. Instead of a cornfield or a barn full of straw bales in Kornfield Kounty, in the Buck Owens Ranch Show the band plays next to a fountain in what looks to be the courtyard of an Italian villa! Everybody’s suits are on fleek*, and most importantly, the band is tight as hell from pounding away in honky tonks in every corner of the country. As Steve Terrill said in his excellent review of the Buck Owens Ranch DVDs,
“The Buckaroos were an extremely tight little roadhouse band. ‘Tender’ Tom Brumley was one amazing steel guitarist. But the real menace was guitarist/singer/occasional fiddler Don Rich. His guitar solos often were breathtaking and sometimes downright crazy. His harmonies with Owens could rip out your heart and stomp on it.”
In Buck ‘Em, Owens talks candidly about how he knew that Hee Haw wasn’t going to present him or his music like he wanted, but pretty much uses the Krusty the Clown excuse (“They drove a dump truck full of money to my house! I’m not made of stone!”). Buck realized that his association with Hee Haw was having a negative effect on his image as a serious musician, but the cash was too good to turn down for a guy who had grown up the poor son of an itinerate dairy farm hired hand. In Buck ‘Em, Buck admits:
“I guess I’ll always have mixed emotions about Hee Haw… I know that a lot of younger people only know me from that ‘lightweight’ TV show… I guess if I’m going to be remembered after I’m gone, I’d like to be remembered for my music first.”
Though Hee Haw still has its fans, with the passage of time, Buck’s music has held up better than the television show. Luckily for Buck, he had younger musicians such as Dwight Yoakam come along to champion his importance as an artist. To see Dwight live is to get a bit of an inkling of what it must have been like to see Buck Owens and his Buckaroos circa 1965 or so: a country band hipper than any rock n’ roll band in town. In Buck ‘Em, Buck gives Dwight plenty of props, stating graciously:
“If people thought of me at all before “Streets of Bakersfield” came out, they were probably thinking of the character from Hee Haw. Dwight is the one who made people think of Buck Owens as a serious country artist again – and I’ll always be grateful to him for that.”
At the last Strange Country, as I was spinning pedal steel instrumentals and Western TV show themes, I actually had a couple of people express surprise at how much they were enjoying the tunes. These were knowledgeable record collector types who maybe knew their soul music or Killed By Death punk, but admitted that they had never listened to much country music before. “I didn’t know country music could be hip!” one confessed. Hey, I’m no Dwight Yoakam, but I’m doin’ my part. * Just thought I’d slip that in to see if anybody actually reads that far.