Before signing with Capitol Records and pioneering new sounds in country music, Buck Owens recorded in the 1950s for Pep, and waxed a number of original demos. His earliest sides showed little of the invention and none of the electric sting he’d develop in his Bakersfield days; instead, the pedal steel, fiddle and piano are pushed to the fore, and Owens’ voice, though easily recognized, is drawn more directly from the lachrymose honky-tonk tradition than the unique, upbeat style he’d develop in the ‘60s. The lack of drums and harmony vocal also distinguish these sides from those he’s lay down with Don Rich and the Buckaroos a few years later.
From the start, Owens’ guitar playing and songwriting caught on; he developed a relationship with Capitol for session work, and his Pep rendition of “Down on the Corner of Love” was covered by Red Sovine and Bobby Bare. By the mid-50s his session work and his live dates at Bakersfield’s Blackboard club were expanding his musical vistas to contemporary pop, rock and R&B. In Elvis’ breakthrough year of 1956, Owens recorded the original rockabilly tune “Hot Dog,” but using the name Corky Jones to avoid offending the country faithful. Future Merle Haggard guitarist Roy Nichols added the twang, and the B-side, “Rhythm and Booze” sounds as if it were written for the Cramps to cover. Owens’ last single for Pep (“There Goes My Love”) continued his failure in the market, but its B-side, “Sweethearts in Heaven” was picked up by fellow Bakersfield resident Wynn Stewart.
Dropped from his label, Owens recorded a number of demos that were issued on the La Brea label in the wake of his later fame. You can still hear an old-timey honky-tonk sound in the piano, but the drums are starting to pick up steam, the bass is more full-bodied and the guitars borrow notes from the contemporary pop to which Owens had been exposed. Comparing the 1956 waxing of “You’re for Me” (originally titled “You’re fer Me”) with the 1962 Capitol hit single, you can still hear the song’s honky-tonk roots, but Owens’ vocal is more confident and the balance of piano, steel and guitars has a great deal more finesse on the remake. Some of these changes are no doubt due to Capitol’s studio and Ken Nelson’s deft hand as producer, but there was an overall shift in style that was all Owens.
Many of these tracks have been released before, including Audium’s nearly complete Young Buck: The Complete Pre-Capitol Recordings, and as part of Bear Family’s box set Act Naturally: The Buck Owens Recordings 1953-1964. But Rockbeat’s done a great job of consolidating the known pre-Capitol recordings, including alternate takes and demos, onto one affordable disc. This isn’t the place to start your Buck Owens collection (Rhino’s 21 #1 Hits: The Ultimate Collection or Time-Life’s All-Time Greatest Hits are good entry points, as well as reissues of classic albums such as Together Again & My Heart Skips a Beat, I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail and Carnegie Hall Concert), but once you’ve become a fan, this is a fine place to hear the firmament from which his Bakersfield invention sprang.
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