Roll Out the Red Carpet

A group of admiring locals is set to salute country legend Buck Owens with a birthday bash

With his diverse stylistic forays, and his penchant for driving twang-rock beats, Owens set himself apart in the early '60s as a catalyst for a new country style emanating from the West Coast. For those who try to characterize Owens as a limited honky-tonk artist, they simply need listen to his Bakersfield revamp of the Drifters' "Save the Last Dance for Me" or Chuck Berry's "Memphis." Certainly no one in country music ever received a more convincing stamp of rock 'n' roll approval than Owens. At the height of their fame in the mid-'60s, the Beatles sang his praises, even including one of Owens' signature songs, "Act Naturally" (penned by Johnny Russell and Vonie Morrison), on the soundtrack to Help!.

Of course, no Buck Owens tribute would be complete without a nod to the work of his guitarist Don Rich. One of the unheralded heroes of country music, Rich's punchy picking and train-whistle harmony were integral in the development of the "Bakersfield Sound." His musical partnership with Owens lasted nearly two decades, ending with his death in a 1974 motorcycle accident. Despite his untimely demise, Rich still casts a long shadow.

"Don Rich has been a big influence on a lot of people," says White. "If you listen to Greg's [Swanholm] playing, he's kind of a cross between Luther Perkins and Don. Jim Beach as well. Really, there's a lot of people who have been influenced by that style."

Back to the streets of Bakersfield: Owens during his late '80s comeback.
Back to the streets of Bakersfield: Owens during his late '80s comeback.
Second fiddle to no one: A "young Buck" in an early Capitol Records photo.
courtesy of Buck Owens Production Co.
Second fiddle to no one: A "young Buck" in an early Capitol Records photo.

The Buck Owens birthday tribute has the potential to become a watershed for Tempe's music scene, bringing together artists with a sense of clarity and purpose that few events or causes have been able to muster. Aside from the main focus, the concert promises to unfold a number of smaller, but no less interesting, story lines.

Peacemakers front man Roger Clyne, known for his Southwestern pop ditties, will take a stab at performing straightahead country, singing lead on a quartet of Owens classics including "Tiger by the Tail" and "Hello Trouble." The show will also feature a rare performance from the Grievous Angels' Russ Sepulveda and Dan Henzerling, who have not appeared locally for close to a year. For musical mavens, the show promises to be especially memorable as it will pay equal tribute to Owens' legendary backing band, the Buckaroos. The highlight is a sure-to-be-dazzling dual steel guitar setup, featuring Haywire's John Rickard and Sleepwalker (and Grievous Angels) member Jon Rauhouse.

For White, the Owens tribute represents the first in what he hopes will be a series of shows that will celebrate other country giants. "We want this whole thing to be a nod to the traditional country veterans that you don't hear a lot of on the radio. A George Jones, an Ernest Tubb, a Merle Haggard, whoever. I think a lot of people will be into that."

After several hours of rehearsing, the musicians sit down to commiserate over beer and wings. After recapping the practice and making plans for the next session, the talk slowly turns to other things: amplifiers, pickup trucks, weekend plans. Eventually, the flannel-wearing crew packs up its old guitars and amplifiers into wellworn cases and heads out into the night.

While these earnest locals may not perform in matching Nudie suits, or play silver sparkle Telecasters, they're doing their best to ensure that the spirit and sound of Buck Owens, Don Rich, the Buckaroos and Bakersfield twang remain very much alive. -- Bob Mehr

A Salute to Buck Owens, featuring members of the Peacemakers, Flathead, Dialectrics, Grievous Angels, Pistoleros, Revenants, Haywire and others, is scheduled for Wednesday, August 11, at Balboa Cafe in Tempe. Showtime is 8 p.m.

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