Album Reviews: Buck Owens — Honky Tonk Man; Don Rich — Sings George Jones
Buck Owens — Honky Tonk Man: Buck Sings Country Classics
Thanks in part to his weekly appearances on Hee Haw, Buck Owens was one of the most visible country musicians of the late 1960s and early 1970s. He’d already well established himself by the mid-1960s, and he and The Buckaroos helped to develop the “California sound”—dominated by driving pedal steel guitars and twangy “chicken picking” electric guitars—as country music evolved from shuffle to a harder edged sound.
Every week on the show, Buck and The Buckaroos took an opportunity to stretch beyond their own wide collection of hits and perform well-known songs made famous by other country singers from Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Snow, and Johnny Russell to Hank Williams and Merle Haggard. Pulled from the treasure trove of the Owens’ vaults, this collection of eighteen never-before-issued songs recorded for the show features Owens and The Buckaroos (Don Rich on lead guitar and fiddle; Buddy Alan Owens on guitar and backing vocals; Jerry Brightman on pedal steel; Ronnie Jackson on banjo; Jim Shaw on piano and organ; Doyle Cutsinger on bass; Jerry Wiggins on drums; Don Lee plays lead electric guitar on “Rednecks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer,” and Jana Jae plays fiddle on “Rednecks”) lending these songs their own special touch of Bakersfield gold.
On Hee Haw, Owens sang live vocals but the band prerecorded their parts. Owens would go into the studio and lay down reference vocals in order to make it easier for the musicians to record their parts. While many musicians might simply have laid down soft vocals to guide the band, Owens sang these songs as if he were performing them live, and his energy and playfulness infect all these songs.
The album kicks off with a spirited take on “Honky Tonk Man,” originally a 1956 hit for Johnny Horton, and the thumping guitars on the track anticipate Dwight Yoakam’s 1986 version. Owens throws together Bob Wills’ swing with The Buckaroos’ trademark rockabilly for a blazing, playful upbeat take on Hank Williams” “Hey, Good Lookin’.” Owens offers an almost phrase-by-phrase take on Ray Price’s “My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You,” while his version of “Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young,” a 1955 hit for Faron Young, features Don Rich’s blistering guitar. Owens’ cover of Johnny Russell’s “Rednecks, White Sox, and Blue Ribbon Beer,” captures the anthemic quality of the song, lending it his own yearning tone. Owens and The Buckaroos never sounded tighter, and the sound quality on the collection is pure and clean. It’s a real treat for country music fans.
Don Rich — Sings George Jones
Don Rich’s riveting, sometimes playful, but always sharp and tasty licks on his Telecaster helped define Buck Owens’ signature sound. Yet, Rich, who didn’t appear to have any desire to be a solo artist, never much stepped out from the background to let his own smooth tenor voice and intricate guitar work shine.
Except once. In 1970, so the story goes, Owens suggested that Rich do an album of George Jones covers. Why Jones’ songs? We’ll never know and need not care very much, since these songs provide an ideal vehicle for Rich’s multitude of talents. Now, after over forty years of languishing in the vault, we can now listen to this little gem of an album in which Rich, backed by The Buckaroos (Buddy Alan Owens; Jim Shaw; Doyle Cutsinger; Jerry Wiggins), lets himself go, outJonesing Jones on the most familiar of Jones’ many hits.
The album gallops off with “The Race is On,” and features Rich’s guitar racing up and down the frets; Rich drives “White Lightning” as fast Robert Mitchum drove the cars carrying this homemade brew—the blistering guitar solos in this song illustrate not only Rich’s prowess but also that “chicken picking” style that he helped develop and that can be heard not only in other rockabilly artists but also some early British rockers. Rich is at home with a balled like the Dickey Lee-penned “She Thinks I Still Care” and the Kay Savage/Sandra Seamons song “Walk Through This World With Me” as he is with Harlan Howard’s “Your Heart Turned Left (And I Was on the Right).”
On tracks 11-14 of this collection, previously unissued Hee Haw recordings, Buck Owens sings George Jones, offering his own take on “The Race is On”—closer to Jones’ original than Rich’s—and “Too Much Water.” The funniest song on the album is the PG-version of “White Lightning,” written by Jones and Darrell Edwards, called “Root Beer.”
We’re fortunate Rich’s long-buried album has now been resurrected.
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