CD Review: Buck Owens – Honky Tonk Man: Buck Sings Country Classics (Omnivore, 2013)
After dozens of original album reissues, an omnibus box set series [1 2 3], pre-Bakersfield and post-Capitol material, tributes [1 2 3], and a two collections of duets with Susan Raye, one might wonder what was left in the vault. Omnivore answers that question this month with two new releases, including a previously unreleased album by Owens’ right-hand man, Don Rich, and this volume of cover songs originally recorded for the syndicated run of television’s Hee Haw. Those who enjoyed Owens’ weekly performances at his Bakersfield club might remember how enthusiastically he played requests for country classics, and how easily they mixed with his original hits. The same was true for his television performances, where the covers gave older audiences a comforting connection to country music’s past.
The eighteen tracks collected here were originally produced by Owens between 1972 and 1975 in his Bakersfield studio for exclusive use on the television show. In the recording studio, Owens would lay down a guide vocal that was dropped for the television soundtrack; Owens sang live on the Hee Haw set as the band mimed the backing track. But ever the perfectionist, Owens invested in the guide vocals, giving performances that demonstrate his deep affection for these songs. The Buckaroos, led by Don Rich on all but two recordings from 1975, were as sharp as ever, and though the backing tracks were reduced to mono for Hee Haw, this CD is mixed in full-fidelity stereo from the original multi-track studio masters.
The songs reach back as early as 1928 for Jimmie Rodgers “In the Jailhouse Now,” but focus heavily on the 40s, 50s and 60s. A pair from the mid-40s include Bob Wills’ “Stay a Little Longer” and Jack Guthrie’s “Oklahoma Hills,” and Johnny Horton’s mid-50s hit “Honky Tonk Man” would become a hit for Owens’ protégé, Dwight Yoakam, in the mid-80s. Owens gives a nod to fellow Bakersfield resident Merle Haggard with “Swinging Doors” and fellow country music iconoclast Waylon Jennings with “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line.” There are three songs from Hank Williams’ catalog, a superbly forlorn take of Ray Price’s “My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You” and tunes written or made famous by Hank Snow, Faron Young and Webb Pierce.
Owens, together with then-recently added Buckaroo Jim Shaw, picked these titles from the catalogs of artists who’d been early Owens influences as well as his contemporaries. The album closes with a cover of Johnny Russell’s “Rednecks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer,” connecting back to Owens’ first chart-topper, the Russell-written “Act Naturally.” These covers don’t sport the genre-busting invention Owens had pioneered in the 1960s, but neither are they mere recitations – Owens was too devoted an artist to merely fill space, even on a scratch track he never expected the public to hear. If you love Buck Owens and classic country songs, this unexpected and rare treat is for you.