Proving himself as savvy in business as he was innovative in music, Buck Owens wrested control of his masters from Capitol Records in a 1970s legal battle. His ownership led to a CD reissue program on Sundazed that stretched from 1995 through 2005 and encompassed nearly two dozen original albums. Add to that multiple box sets [1 2 3 4], greatest hits discs, pre- and post-Capitol anthologies [1 2 3], and a collection of tunes recorded for Hee Haw, and you have to wonder if there's anything left to say. The answer provided by this new double-disc set is a definitive yes. Compilation producer Patrick Milligan has done an expert job of assembling singles, album sides and rarities into a compelling fifty-track exposition of Buck Owens' key years before and with Capitol. The set tells a familiar story, but with an idiosyncratic selection of tracks that deftly balances the many elements of Owens' extensive catalog.
Starting with a few mid-50s sides for Pep, the collection traces Owens' rapid evolution from a country singer with steel guitar, tinkling piano and fiddle to the king of an exciting new Bakersfield Sound. As Owens developed his unique brand of country music, the Buckaroos grew into one of the world's premiere bands and live acts. With so many sides to their commercial success, it's tricky to find a compelling point between the shorthand of a single-disc hits collection and a Bear Family-length box, but Omnivore's done just that. The set succeeds by combining a well-selected helping of singles (both charting and non-charting), B-sides, live performances, duets, alternate and early takes, previously unreleased, unreleased-in-the-US and unreleased-on-CD tracks, stereo album cuts and appearances on rare compilation albums.
In addition to well-known hits rendered in their original radio-ready mono, the set includes the non-charting "Sweet Thing," the B-side "Til These Dreams Come True," and a sprightly early version of "Nobody's Fool But Yours" that stands side-by-side with the better-known master. Other early versions are closer to the masters, but tentative and not yet fully gelled. It's a treat to hear the works-in-progress and compare them to the refinements of the final takes. The early version of "My Heart Skips a Beat" is already a great song, but without Owens' opening lyrical cadence and Mel Taylor's tom-tom rolls, it's not yet an indelible hit record. The alternate arrangement of "Where Does the Good Times Go" includes a happy-go-lucky string chart (courtesy of future Bread main man, David Gates) that was dropped from the final release.
By 1964 the classic Buckaroos lineup had solidified around Owens, Don Rich, Doyle Holly, Tom Brumley and Willie Cantu, and it's this group that powers the last three tracks of disc one, and all of disc two. The quintet punched up the beat for "Gonna Have Love," "Before You Go" and "Getting Used to Loving You," with guitars and drums that no longer held the line on "Opry polite." The group's live sound has been documented across more than a half-dozen live albums (including the legendary Carnegie Hall Concert, represented here by "Together Again" and "Buckaroo," and In Japan! represented by "Adios, Farewell, Goodbye, Good Luck, So Long" and "We Were Made For Each Other"), but Omnivore's dug deeper to pick up a 1963 Bakersfield performance of "Act Naturally" from the rare Capitol release Country Music Hootenanny, recorded in surprisingly clear stereo.
The song list is given mostly to Owens' terrific originals (including the instrumental "Buck's Polka," with Owens picking lead), but adds a good helping of gems he selected from other songwriters' catalogs, including Eddie McDuff and Orville Couch's "Hello Trouble," Tommy Collins' "Down, Down, Down," Red Simpson's "Close Up the Honky Tonks," Eddie Miller and Bob Morris "Playboy," and Johnny Russell and Voni Morrison's "Act Naturally." Owens' work as a duet singer is touched on briefly with Rose Maddox on "Sweethearts in Heaven," but his more extensive collaboration with Susan Raye fell beyond the set's designated ending point in 1967. The end of that year saw Willie Cantu leave the fold, and the classic lineup of the Buckaroos come to an end.
Owens and the Buckaroos continued to have both commercial and artistic success well into the mid-70s, when the death of Don Rich seems to have sidelined Owens' initiative. With a wealth of post-67 hits and ever more far-reaching albums left to sample, hopefully Omnivore has a second volume up their sleeve. For the period they've selected, however, they've created a fresh view that expands upon shorter hits anthologies, but abbreviates the full albums into a compact telling of Owens' most successful commercial period. There are too many essential hits missing for this to be a complete view of Owens' genius, but as an introduction to his plain-spoken, naturally brilliant and stylistically diverse brand of country music, it's a winner.
Those new to Owens' catalog will be entranced by the ease with which he moved from tearful heartbreak to light-hearted humor. The album tracks don't always match the "wow" of the missing hit singles, but they help paint the picture of an artist whose well of creativity was a great deal deeper than the two-and-a-half minutes radio would play. The accompanying 28-page booklet includes liner notes excerpted from Owens' posthumously published, like-titled autobiography, along with several full-panel photos and cover reproductions. All of Owens other reissues - the hits collections, the box sets, the album catalog - are worth hearing, but if you want an affordable, compelling overview of his prime years, this is a great place to start.