Under Their Spell Again

Amid a spate of long-overdue releases, we celebrate the life and career of Buck Owens and the overlooked genius of his sideman, the late Don Rich

It's Buck Owens month. Like daylight, it's always Buck Owens month somewhere, leastways it ought to be. Driving down one highway or another, you can see the giant red, white and blue guitar that advertises country radio -- that's Buck's old custom-made Mosrite. The stations may not play his music anymore, but if the Beatles can be No. 1 in 2001, and Marvin Gaye can re-release "What's Going On," then somewhere, someone is sitting upright, jolted suddenly out of a 35-year coma and singing "I've Got a Tiger by the Tail."

This Sunday, Owens turns 72. But this August marked a bittersweet occasion, as it would have been the 60th birthday of Owens' late partner, musical foil and friend Don Rich. Earlier this year, the Sundazed label released a pair of platters that serve as testament to the peculiar and brilliant musical alchemy of country music's most dynamic duo. The first, Buck Owens and the Buckaroos: Carnegie Hall Concert, captures the band during a white-hot live set on the fabled New York stage, while the second, Country Pickin', is the first-ever collection chronicling the solo and featured work of Rich.

Who were Buck Owens and Don Rich? It's one of those "if you have to ask" questions -- but a forgivable query if you're not a hard-core honky-tonk historian or if you only remember Owens as one of the affable cornball jokers from Hee Haw reruns.

Together the pair crafted some of the most important albums in honky-tonk history, in the process shifting country music's gaze west to Bakersfield, and influencing successive generations of musicians -- from Merle Haggard and the Grateful Dead to Gram Parsons and Dwight Yoakam.

There's another Buck Owens, of course -- the California guy who put his money in radio and real estate and created a mini-empire through smart investing and the kind of entrepreneurial instincts that are more often born than bred. And although there were early glimmers of the mogul and the TV clown, the guy on the records and the charts was another Buck altogether.

Owens rarely allows himself to be interviewed, but he granted New Times an opportunity to speak to him about his career and the talents of the late Don Rich. We also hear from Owens' and Rich's modern-day counterparts, singer-songwriter Dwight Yoakam and his guitarist/producer, Pete Anderson.

Dwight Yoakam:You know, when Buck started out, he wasn't the front guy. He was working a club up somewhere's around Bakersfield, I think, and these two kind of gangster-hoodlum guys owned it, and Buck was playing lead guitar in a five-piece band. Buck would sing a couple of songs and then the singer would come out, and one night the singer didn't show, and these guys told Buck, "You're the singer now." They figured they could save some money 'cause they were paying by the man.

Owens eventually moved to Tacoma, Washington, to run a radio station -- his first foray into the business. It was there that he met Don Rich. Rich became his fiddler and back-up vocalist, while Buck sang and played lead guitar. Rich was a fine, trad fiddle player who sang what they call "the third" -- the part Paul McCartney warbled above John Lennon, and what made Don and Phil Everly sound so sweet. And then Don Rich learned to play the lead guitar.

Buck Owens: One of the first sidemen I had was Don, and for about two years it was just Don and I and the old Ford, you know, and we'd just drive around all over the country, the two of us, playin' with the house bands. And one day all of a sudden he's sittin' there playin' the guitar and I thought, "Good Lord!" so we decided he would play guitar. The way he sang with me -- I think it's born in you. I don't think you can learn it from anybody. Don took what he learned from me and put his own stuff with it and took it another level or two higher and -- I think Don just loved music so much. He loved music -- he loved all kinds of music. He was the most unique individual I ever met.

Pete Anderson:Buck and Don were like little kooky musical savants -- like the Meat Puppets -- who sat in their houses in Phoenix 'cause it was so hot, and just jammed together, and if they were breaking any musical rules, they didn't know it. Isolated, innocent, mutant musical geniuses. Buck and Don were the original Glimmer Twins -- Mick and Keith before there was a Mick and Keith. Buck and Don, Don and Buck. Don Rich had a really good ear for harmony and was used to playing a fretless instrument and he had maybe a more naive -- innocent -- fresher perspective when it came to guitar. He wasn't schooled like Joe Maphis or James Burton or Chet Atkins, or those jazz guys that played the Elvis sessions.

They later called it the Bakersfield sound, but Anderson is right when he observes that it could have come from Austin or Denver or Seattle. Whatever it was, it wasn't quite Nashville, but it was very commercial -- so much so that some of the songs crossed over to the pop charts, or were covered by bands like the Beatles ("Act Naturally"). Owens knew how to write tunes and how to pick the ones he didn't write. With a seemingly unstoppable outfit backing him, Owens scored hit after hit in the days when a crossover success like the sad, sweet "Together Again" would be covered by 50 different singers.

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