Back in the early ’60s, Uncle Glen used to come home late from his chicken-trucking job, the reason he and Aunt Maggie moved to Bakersfield in the first place. Frozen chicken, I think, since Bakersfield was so hot even a truck driver could afford a swimming pool. Anyway, he’d come in just before bedtime wearing that sweet, tart smell beer makes when sweating out in the cool of the evening, but I could never guess where he’d been, nor why Aunt Maggie was so aggravated about it.
They’ve both passed on, so I can’t ask, but there’s a good chance he caught Buck Owens in the flesh, since Bakersfield then had a boom of honky tonks, and one can but hope that, as much as the bottle, they explained his absence on Friday night. Most of us, we found Buck on “Hee Haw” with his red, white and blue guitar, and figured him for the caricature of a fool he seemed.
A rich fool, of course. These five titles (of 15 reissued so far by Sundazed, an upstate New York label specializing in ’60s garage nuggets) catch much of the arc of Owens’ enormously successful career, beginning with 1961′s homage to Harlan Howard and ending with 1968′s sappy It Takes People Like You To Make People Like Me.
It is difficult, listening backward like this, to explain why Owens today seems to bear the brand of a rebel. Because he was from Bakersfield, not Nashville, and stayed there? Because he was more aggressively electric, and happily embraced the honky-tonk aesthetic? Because he preferred to record in Los Angeles with his own band, not in Nashville with session stars?
Today, these seem comparatively tame recordings, revealing none of the hungry, haunting passion of Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn or Lefty Frizzell. Like Ernest Tubb, Owens made the most of a limited vocal range, developed a distinct, signature phrasing, and had an easy, loping rhythm. But despite his obvious dominance of the country charts throughout the 1960s and his undeniable historical importance, few cuts here are revelations. Mostly these are the familiar sounds one tolerates on cross-country radio, singing along, waiting for more striking songs from less famous stars.
Sings Tommy Collins is the keeper of this batch, if only because Collins’ songs are lesser-known today than Harlan Howard’s. Originally released in November 1963, Sings Tommy Collins catches Owens at the apex of his career and is a splendid reintroduction to wonderful songs such as “If You Ain’t Lovin’ You Ain’t Livin’” and “You Gotta Have A License”. Sings Harlan Howard works less well, if only because better singers have made popular versions of songs such as “Foolin’ Around”, a Howard-Owens co-write, and “Heartaches By The Number”.
In Japan! is what you’d expect, a stilted, well-intended train wreck, complete with a translator onstage and the specially written “Tokyo Polka”. It doesn’t quite catch the Buckaroos, a first-rate ensemble, at the peak of their powers (everybody seems a trifle polite), but it’s fun, if only for the kitsch value.
The two later titles here, Your Tender Loving Care (August 1967) and It Takes People Like You… (January 1968) reveal fewer pleasures. The former, which provided the hit “Sam’s Place”, is far more lively; the latter is filled with saccharine love songs that wear about as well as the fur coat Owens donned for the cover.
All that carping is, of course, a minority view. For their part, Sundazed has done a fine job with these titles. The sound quality is all one could hope for, the original cover artwork has been retained, and the credits are easily found and read.