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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.
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.
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.