Buck Owens, Bound For Bakersfield

Published on October 4th, 2011 in: Current Faves, Music, Music Reviews, Retrovirus, Reviews |

By Melissa B.

buck owens

A couple of months ago, I bought a compilation album of old country music artists because the first track listed was by Buck Owens. The song “Rhythm and Booze” was unlike any Buck I’d ever heard: jangling, frenetic, and rock and roll, all slinky and naughty. I was mystified, and not at all sure it was Owens. This was kind of amazing.

Imagine my delight to find “Rhythm and Booze” on the brilliant collection of Buck Owens’ pre-Capitol Records demos Bound For Bakersfield. I can’t lie: I was freakishly excited to hear this CD and I am delighted to report that it has not disappointed. This is an often-surprising collection of songs written and recorded by a 21-year-old Buck Owens, who had not yet found the sound that would make him famous and define the “Bakersfield Sound.” However, there are little flashes here and there of the man and musician that Buck would become later in his recording career.

The album starts with a bit of studio chatter on the demo of “Blue Love” from 1953. The sound quality isn’t great—there is a bit of hiss—but it is nonetheless interesting. This is the only song on the album that isn’t written by Buck Owens (alone or with a co-writer) and it’s strange how obvious this is, in retrospect. It’s a pleasant enough, by-rote sort of performance, with swooping slide guitar and a muted trumpet. But it doesn’t sound like Buck Owens.

The next track, “Down on the Corner of Love” is presented as most songs on this album, with the song proper first, then an alternate take. In this case, the alternate take is simple and the chorus is a clever ear worm that really shines with simple production. The second version fills in with fiddles and piano and it swings a bit more, as the tempo is quicker. It’s more obvious as a single.

Owens was always quite gifted at writing the sad songs, and the next two tracks, “It Don’t Show On Me” and “The House Down The Block,” are fine examples of this. The maudlin nature of both is showcased on the alternate takes, again sparse and unadorned. On both of these, the later takes with added piano and fiddle change the nature of the songs, making them seem like happier ones than the lyrics would suggest.

There’s a story in the liner notes about the A&R man from Capitol not wanting to sign Buck because he “lacked a distinctive vocal style.” “Right After The Dance” is the first track on the album that really sounds like Buck Owens, vocally. This is one that sounds much better on the initial take; it’s a charming up-tempo number, and the single version gets bogged down in excess instrumentation and a draggier beat.

In the 1950s, the line between country and rockabilly was thin, and our musically curious Mr. Owens realized this. He recorded a couple of songs as Corky Jones for Pep Records, one being “Hot Dog.” This one was an unexpected treat. There aren’t enough songs about girls working at hot dog stands. It’s a sweet rockabilly number with Buck throwing out lines about “red soda pop” and “hepcats.” The overdubbed version muddies things up a bit and not to good effect.

“Rhythm and Booze” is another rockabilly curiosity. It starts with a strange moaning and then takes off with restrained vocals (perhaps he got a sore throat from all that moaning). It’s quite great, and the guitar jitters along nervously.

Buck Owens found his musical soul mate in Don Rich, who was his right hand man in the Buckaroos. They harmonized so flawlessly that listening to “There Goes My Love,” while it is lovely, is a bit raw without Don. I only hope that he recorded the song again later with the Buckaroos proper (though I’m finding no evidence that he did) because it’s too good not to have done so.

The alternate take of “Sweethearts in Heaven” is another song that is better before it was fussed with. It fairly chugs along, with a swinging fiddle and slide guitar and sweet harmonies. It gets weighed down in the single version with muddy production. It clearly wasn’t broken in the first take, so slowing it down sucks the excitement out of what is an interesting song.

The summer session of 1956, produced by Owens himself, sounds properly like Buck Owens’ later stuff. His band is tight (he recorded his rockabilly numbers with most of the same musicians) and sounds like they are having fun on the instrumental “Honeysuckle.” This was released as a single with “Country Girl (Leavin’ Dirty Tracks),” the latter being a fairly unremarkable song with a wheezy slide guitar.

“You’re Fer Me” adheres to the tenet that a good song can be under two minutes long and say everything that needs to be said. Succinct and charming, this one is a winner. They tackle “Blue Love” again and while the production is better, it’s still pretty bloodless. The track cuts off abruptly, clocking in at just over a minute. It’s merciful. Following on its heels is another not terribly exciting song, “Please Don’t Take Her From Me.” Though he wrote it, Buck sounds almost bored on this one.

Things pick back up with “Three Dimension Love.” Buck’s vocals veer into the nasal territory; he’s still finding his voice. However, this is a pleasant little diversion of a song with nice lyrics. The same can’t be said for “Why Don’t My Mommy Stay With My Daddy And Me.” This is a member of the subgenre of cloying, overly sentimental country songs. It makes me feel a bit embarrassed to even type the title. The album wraps up with a Jerry Lee Lewis style rave up, “I’m Gonna Blow.” This would be a fantastic song no matter who did it. Again, vocally, it doesn’t sound like Buck Owens, but it is a good listen.

Buck Owens was a country music pioneer and honestly, my favorite country music artist (sorry George Jones). Bound For Bakersfield is an amazing document of a young man on his way to becoming a great artist. This is well worth a listen.

Bound For Bakersfield was released on September 27 via RockBeat Records through e0ne Entertainment and can be ordered here.

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