Buck Owens’ The Complete Capitol Singles 1967-1966 starts with so-what songs and subdued settings, but his voice is already flexible and on point, mining each note and syllable just enough to check for whatever might be worth extracting–carefully but quickly (2 hours, 12 minutes of music here, and virtually every track is under three minutes, some of the best and worst just over two).
In the booklet he’s the first to assert that these early tracks were not so hot, because he didn’t have the cred to things his way until the success of “Under Your Spell Again” proved his point (several follow-ups glance off its template; whatever the commercial results, takes a while before one sounds nearly as good). It’s still a startling quality bump—more like a leap, as the classic BO suddenly materializes, declaring (no complaints, not like in those apprentice slogs). “You’ve. Got. Me. Unn-der, your spellll again, “ doing all the things he does with beats and short phrases in the California melding of country with rock ‘n’ roll appeal—-in brief of course, though later he’ll sometimes bring in a suggestion of Latin and/or Caribbean curvature in the held vocal notes and supporting sounds, or, more on the per se country side, wail each note of the chorus over a thin ticky-tocky snare and rhythm guitar pick: this is music from another hit factory, for sure. Starting, as he says, with the rule of treble—no more tracks “where it sounds like the bass player is standing in front of the singer”—-and little mono speakers in the control room, to check how the mix will sound on transistors and car radios: he wants it clear, and it sounds like he wants it edgey, baby: the bright metallic “Bakersfield Sound” of money-making machinery, in synch and bouncing off the tin roof sun, with jangling breezes and currents, dust and foliage and the available or at least glimpsed waters: all in in California chrome reflections cruising by.
Cruising by what, you may ask. Well— not that he spends much time, after label-imposed early stints, hunkered down and brooding, but when he does, it’s all somebody else’s fault. Or, if he gets up and stumbles by the house that used to be his home, where his wifenkids still live, where he mumbles that he maybe kinda blew it—but he paid for it, and there they are, all warm and together and shit—but he can make himself grudgingly acknowledge his sins and thus join them in Heaven someday, after everybody’s dead—and this is all, at most, that taking responsibility etc can get you—so the exception proves the rule.
But he has no flair for “J’accuse!”, nor for guilt and expiation and other whiskey-selling Jukebox Gothic rituals, none of that cobwebbed indoor stuff. This is Cali, dude! Responsibility and wide-opening-mindedness gradually appear organically—transition first noticed in “Mental Cruelty”, where he brings Rose Maddox into a Divorce Court reenactment of how she took him to the cleaners; really nobody’s fault, it happens, but all she had to do was drop those two little words—one starts with an “M.”, the other with a “C.”—and cha-ching. But, as she recites her part, dryly enough to seem wry, and hollow-toned, suggesting a prisoner-of-war’s forced confession, subliminally conveyed—time enough to devise a code, in that cell, she caps it all by barely bearing down on the mention of his “way of life”, which she declined to participate in any longer…and this is allowed! In a perhaps alternate time, he proposes that they stop “Kickin’ Hearts Around”, ‘cause it’s just too time-and-maybe-other consuming; in “Loose Talk”, he and Maddox rally against a common threat, of a mobocracy of gossiping, even gaslighting neighbors and fremenies: he assures her that the terrible things they tell her he does go ditto for tales of that flaming Rose. This same thing happens in another song on down the line—-see, you just gotta keep moving. In yet another possibly alternate-universe turn, he gets turned on, not scandalized, by her going out, “Foolin’ Around”—didn’t know she had it in her, maybe, or maybe his competitive side, gets turned on, in a sporting way—he cheerfully proposes that she “come on home, and fool around with me..” Subsequently, when he’s got “A Tiger By The Tail”, he sounds a bit apprehensive, but also “one hand waving free”, as young Mr. D. can only wish for—here ‘tis, over the Buckaroos’ rodeo jolt and swirl (despite a few duds and placeholders, sound quality gets better and better, with more room for instrumental interplay, without stretching out).
The swirl gets get a tad braincloudy in the resonant street-wide sunlight of “Waiting In Your Welfare Line”, where an inspired gentleman caller is sure you’ll give him another shot—after all, he gave up everything the first time he saw you, and it’ll all make sense when you bring it back—and if you do so in a “Welfare Cadillac”, that’s gravy—that song isn’t here, but it’s nice the way this one leaves its strictures in the dust of absurdist pop social commentary, if you want to take it as such. Mostly, of course, we get good clean fun—the speedy corn-plucking seasons of Hee-Haw aren’t far away–and here we also have some vocal x instrumental turns that still conjure drooling Byrds, Beatles, Parsons, Mavericks, and certainly certainly at least one Yoakam (not thinking of Pappy or Mammy at the moment).