Having already been feted with exhaustive box sets, multidisc anthologies, vault finds, tribute albums, a posthumous autobiography, and dozens of original album reissues, one might ask: whatâ€™s left to say? As it turns out: plenty. Collecting Owensâ€™ Aâ€™s and Bâ€™s from his most commercially fertile years, this generous two-disc set replays Owensâ€™ emergence and dominance as both a country hit maker and a maverick artist. Recording in Hollywood, two thousand miles from Nashville, he added a new chapter to the country music playbook with the driving, electric Bakersfield sound, and established himself as an iconoclastic force on the both the singles and album charts. Among the fifty-six tracks collected here are twenty-two Top 40 hits, including an astonishing string of thirteen consecutive chart toppers.
While the hits will be familiar to most, and the B-sides to many, only the most ardent Owens fans will recognize the earliest Capitol singles. This quartet of originals, waxed in 1957, sounds more like Buddy Holly-styled rock â€˜nâ€™ roll than the Bakersfield sting Owens would later develop. The low twanging guitar, sweetly phrased lead vocal and backing chorus of â€œCome Backâ€ is more doo-wop than country, and its waltz-time B-side â€œI Know What It Meansâ€ sounds like Nashville going pop. â€œSweet Thing,â€ co-written with Harlan Howard, has rockabilly licks supplied by guitarists Gene Moles and Roy Nichols, and its ballad B-side, â€œI Only Know That I Love Youâ€ has a lovely guitar solo to accompany its double-crossed lyric.
Owens returned to Capitolâ€™s studio in 1958 with a reconstructed backing unit that included fiddler J.R. â€œJellyâ€ Sanders and Ralph Mooney on steel. It was from this session that â€œSecond Fiddleâ€ launched Owens onto the country chart. The same group, which also included pianist George French, Jr., bassist Al Williams and drummer Pee Wee Adams, cut a 1959 session from which â€œUnder Your Spell Againâ€ climbed to #4. By yearâ€™s end, Sanders was out and Don Rich was in, Harlan Howardâ€™s â€œAbove and Beyondâ€ carried Owens one notch higher, to #3, and Howard and Owensâ€™ â€œExcuse Me (I Think Iâ€™ve Got a Heartache)â€ then reached #2. The B-sides include the charting â€œIâ€™ve Got a Right to Know,â€ and the ironic â€œTired of Livinâ€™.â€ Ironic, because the songâ€™s sad-sack complaint about a lack of success was fronted by a Top 5 hit!
1961 found Owens paired with Rose Maddox for the double-sided hit â€œMental Crueltyâ€ b/w â€œLoose Lips,â€ and he just missed the top slot twice more with â€œFoolinâ€™ Aroundâ€ and â€œUnder the Influence of Love.â€ The success of his A-sides dipped slightly in 1962, though he was still charting regularly, minting staples like â€œYouâ€™re For Me,â€ and the B-side “I Can’t Stop (My Lovin’ You).â€ Owens turned out an incredible amount of high quality, original material throughout the â€˜60s and â€˜70s, winningly vacillating between sunny elation and sorrowful heartbreak. He also had an ear for other songwriters, recording albums dedicated to Harlan Howard and Tommy Collins, and charting covers of Pomus & Shumanâ€™s â€œSave the Last Dance for Meâ€ and Wanda Jacksonâ€™s â€œKickinâ€™ Our Hearts Around.â€
Owens finally topped the charts in 1963 with Johnny Russellâ€™s â€œAct Naturally,â€ kicking off a string of #1s that stretched into 1967. Incredibly, all of disc twoâ€™s singles topped the chart, except for a return duet with Rose Maddox that stalled at #15 and a 1965 Christmas single. The A-sides from this era are among the most iconic of Owensâ€™ career, including â€œLoveâ€™s Gonna Live Here,â€ â€œMy Heart Skips a Beat,â€ â€œIâ€™ve Got a Tiger By the Tail,â€ â€œWaitinâ€™ in Your Welfare Line,â€ â€œOpen Up Your Heartâ€ and Don Richâ€™s â€œThink of Meâ€ (which became a staple for the Mavericks). The B-sides include the chart-topping â€œTogether Again,â€ the stalwart â€œDonâ€™t Let Her Knowâ€ and the woeful â€œHeart of Glass.â€
The classic lineup of the Buckaroos had come together in 1964, with Owens and Rich joined by bassist Doyle Holly, drummer Willie Cantu and steel player Tom Brumley. Their chemistry was immortalized on Live at Carnegie Hall, and their instrumental skills carried â€œBuckarooâ€ to the top of the country chart. More importantly, it was this lineup that doubled down on Owensâ€™ rejection of the Nashville Sound. The polite drum accents of 1961â€™s â€œFoolinâ€™ Aroundâ€ might have alarmed Music Cityâ€™s gentry, but it was only a prelude to the more insistent tom-toms of â€œMy Heart Skips a Beat,â€ Don Richâ€™s twangy fills and solo on â€œAct Naturallyâ€ and Willie Cantuâ€™s full-kit drumming on â€œBefore You Go.â€
While Nashville was busy courting pop fans with syrupy layers of strings and choruses, Owens was stripping his sound down to guitars, bass, fiddle and drums, and riding the beat. He also bucked another Nashville standard by recording with his band, rather than picking up session players. Red Simpson sat in for a few sessions in â€˜65 and â€˜66, and James Burton provided the sputtering electric lead on â€œOpen Up Your Heart,â€ but what you hear on all the singles from â€˜64 onward are the Buckaroos. The set ends with Owensâ€™ last hit of 1966, â€œWhere Does the Good Times Go,â€ two singles shy of the end of his continuous string of #1s, and well short of the success that ran up to Don Richâ€™s 1974 death. Owens moved on from Capitol to Warner Brothers, and returned again in the late â€˜80s, but mostly retired from the studio to run his businesses and perform on the weekends at his legendary Bakersfield club.
The singles are presented in the order of their release, and remastered in mono from the original reel-to-reels. The brightness that Owens laid into the masters remains, but with more bottom end than you likely remember from AM radio. Owens emerges from these sides as a pioneering artist who wrote, sang (often doubling himself on harmony), picked guitar and led a band that was both revolutionary and commercially successful. And with the masters having come from the Buck Owensâ€™ estate, you can add top-flight businessman to his resume. The CD package includes a 20-page booklet highlighted by Dwight Yoakamâ€™s introductory notes, excerpts from Owensâ€™ autobiography, detailed personnel and session data, and label and picture sleeve reproductions. All thatâ€™s missing is â€˜67-â€™75, so hereâ€™s hoping for a sequel! [Â©2016 Hyperbolium]