Lost Record of the Week: Buck Owens, The Very Best Of (Rhino Records, 1994)
Finally, a review of Buck Owens, the recording that started this project.
I was really glad for the liner notes that accompanied this CD, which detail Owens’s life and career until 1994 and provide a description of each song, along with their positions on the Billboard C&W/Pop Charts, because to me it was a totally wacked-out trip through his stylistic trajectory.
Everything is fine for the first half of the disc. I’m not all that familiar with Owens, only knowing him as the guy with sharp guitar and good songs like “Act Naturally” and “Excuse Me (I Think I’ve Got a Heartache),” both of which (obviously) appear on this disc. This roundup of Owens’s chart toppers proves that he is the king of memorable one-liners and catchy songs. The collection begins with his first big country hit from 1959, “Under Your Spell Again,” a song that features sweet harmonies and concise little slide guitar and fiddle riffs that trade off. “Excuse Me” follows, and was apparently written after Owens’s songwriting and publishing partner, Harland Howard, visited DJ Texas Bill Strength while Strength was going through a separation. Strength eventually had to live the room with the reason that eventually became the song’s title.
I was surprised to learn that “Act Naturally” wasn’t Owens’s own composition, but one he discovered on a demo of songs by Voni Morrison. I had always thought of this as his signature song, as it showcases his friendly voice and affable persona in the lyrics. I really like the way Owens employs rising and falling vocal scoops throughout all of his songs without it seeming unnatural or forced. There are a lot of them, and rather than verging on overkill, they seem to complement the pedal steel heard regularly in these early hits and add to the overall warm country aesthetic that defines his sound.
“Together Again,” another classic, follows, which starts a stream of sweet, positive songs. Atypical for country, I think, especially for this post-Honky Tonk, early Nashville Sound period when Owens’s popularity was peaking, and many country songs were focused on heartbreak and solitude. “I Don’t Care (Just As Long As You Love Me)” is the next in this set, and shortly after, the similarly fun and joyful songs “Waitin’ In Your Welfare Line” and “Open Up Your Heart” appear. This line of songs is interrupted by “Only You (Can Break My Heart)” (what is up with Owens and all the bracketed half song titles? It’s like an academic conference, where half the title has to appear as a pseudo subtitle to cover up how long it actually is), one of his few sadder ballads that is augmented by the tearful pedal steel and plodding tempo. “Waitin’ ” continues the tradition of great lyric hooks: “I’ve got the hungries for your love, and I’m waitin’ in your welfare line.”
“Sam’s Place” is fantastic for the opportunity it gives Owens to display his accent. Each “Sam” has thick, syrupy pronunciation, with several diphthongs across the middle of the word. In fact, his accent is richly pronounced throughout all of these country songs, which adds to Owens’s appeal.
The last portion of the record is where things take a strange turn. At first, I just figured he had watched too many episodes of The Partridge Family (which I know doesn’t make chronological sense); the songs, like “Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass,” move in the pop direction and are riddled with high, repetitive, jangly (borderline silly) acoustic strumming and fuzztone effects. Similarly, “Tall Dark Stranger” has an overemphasized backing chorus and light, slightly dissatisfying accompaniment. (*side note* I just read that the backing vocals are the Jordanaires and Anita Kerr, so you can’t really fault the producer from making them prominent). Owens’s accent is notably absent here too, as he was clearly striving to reach a broader audience. He acknowledged the commotion caused by his deviation from Buck Owens norm, saying fans “damn-near lynched” him. It’s also worth noting that these songs barely touched the pop charts, compared to the relative success that other songs like “Tiger By the Tail” (#25) and “Waitin’ In Your Welfare Line” (#57) had.
The album finishes with a rendition of a bluegrass tune from 1931, “Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” a hopping, backbeat-heavy song with solid fiddling and speedy banjo picking. It’s a nice finish after the odd feeling the pop numbers bestow, and when the album is on repeat, it makes for a much smoother transition back to the old tunes.
I think, though, I need to go further into the old Buck Owens catalogue after enjoying the first half of the album so much. Any suggestions?
*Lost Record of the Week is an effort to properly listen to albums in my collection that have been ignored for too long. Next week: Whiskeytown, Faithless Street.