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

Buck Owens: I was surprised to learn that I had eight songs on the pop charts and I thought, "Goodness gracious!" I knew I had some, "Tiger by the Tail," "Buckaroo," but some of those others got into the pop charts and I knew we were doing something that was beyond just the country-and-western scene -- but I didn't go after that. I knew I shouldn't. I had enough sense to hang back there and do just what we were doing 'cause that's what I loved to do. Not that I didn't want to grow, but I didn't want to get out there too far.

When Owens and the Buckaroos were asked to play Carnegie Hall in 1966, the singer thought it would be a major mistake. He didn't believe he could possibly fill a prestigious New York City venue. But the Carnegie Hall concert was a huge success, and the original (much shorter) album proved to be one of the best live records ever released.

Owens with his Buckaroos in front of Carnegie Hall.
Owens with his Buckaroos in front of Carnegie Hall.

Buck Owens: We couldn't afford a sound man (laughs), no light man, no guitar deck, none of that stuff, but it was electric -- an electric night which meant that the audience and we entertainers onstage were connected into the same piece of machinery. And it was funny! Like vaudeville, really. One thing I'm proud of, I think I cut 10 live albums and not once did we ever have to take it back to the studio and redo something. Not once. Not once! And the Carnegie Hall record -- you hear many modulations, changes in tempo, pickup notes to play and sing, medleys, and not one note was missed.

The Country Music Foundation released the full-length 49-minute version back in the late '80s, and now Sundazed has reissued it along with much of the Owens catalogue, including an anthology of Rich's work titled Country Pickin': The Don Rich Anthology. The Rich album and Carnegie concert disc showcase the unique chemistry of Buck and Don, and for Owens, talk of the project stirs up vivid memories of his old partner and friend.

Buck Owens: I never met anyone who didn't like Don Rich. I never met anyone who in the 16 years we were together that was mad at him, except his wife 'cause he didn't do something he was supposed to do or whatever (laughs). But he loved music. He was crazy about music. So I recorded albums on him, all the Buckaroos and him, and he had two or three singles but he didn't want to do anything but what he was doin'.

I can't tell you the times that I spoke with him, and I said, "Don, you got the looks, the personality, the talent -- you could be an artist in your own right" -- I'm talking after "Act Naturally," after "Together Again," "Tiger by the Tail," even. His answer was always the same: "Well, I'm about as famous as I want to be." That was his words. "I like what I'm doing and if I ever change my mind I'll let you know."

Don Rich never got a chance to change his mind; he died in a motorcycle accident in 1974.

Buck Owens: We were the team of teams. It was pretty hard in those days, especially when you're talking about the early '60s. But Don loved to throw in twists and all kinds of other things -- the difference is, he was so much better at it than I was. He could do things that I couldn't do, things that I could hear. And if I could hum 'em, the thing about his talent was, he could play 'em. I never met anyone else like him. I never met anyone else close to him.

But I'll tell you something else . . . after Don Rich's death, it just snuffed out my fire. I was not able to ever, um, enjoy it again. I mean, I still enjoyed it some, but I don't enjoy it anything like I did when Don was there. It never -- uh, he didn't write a lot but I still miss just having him around, you know, because of his creativity. But I never got over that, and just the last couple of years I've started writing songs again.

But I never made any secret of it. I didn't talk about it but I never made any secret of it. Everybody knew. Anybody that knew anything about me [knew] that. I tried steel players and fiddle players and all kinds of things. I just gave up and did the right thing because I'd been looking for a Don Rich and there was no more Don Riches. I don't think there is anyplace in the world. I've heard people that could play like him, but could they sing? Did they have the flavor? The tone? Did they have the stuff? The great chemistry with Don Rich was apparent the first time we got on a stage together.

After Rich's passing, Owens closed the door on his musical career, kept pickin' and grinnin' on Hee Haw until he couldn't take it anymore, locked his songs in a legal trunk and faded away into his business until Dwight Yoakam and a few others pulled him out from behind his desk and put him back under the spotlight in the late '80s. More recently, he's let the catalogue out and let the public rediscover music that's every bit as fresh as it was then -- even performing weekly at his own Crystal Palace theater in Bakersfield. And like the Beatles' music, Owens' work has aged well -- it still rings with good-natured charm and plenty of humor, and an occasional whiff of melancholy.

Dwight Yoakam: He had a great instinct that served him well, and he's a consummate showman. I'm the antithesis of that (laughs), which at times frustrates the hell out of Buck. But he's the best -- just the best.

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