When Buck Owens died last year at the age of 76, he went out the way most musicians dream about: After eating his favorite dinner (the chicken-fried steak at his own restaurant and nightclub, the Crystal Palace in Bakersfield), he played a gig with his longtime band (the Buckaroos) for an enthusiastic hometown crowd, went home, climbed into bed and never woke up.
That brought to an end a remarkable life that began in the cotton country of northeastern Texas and took him to the pinnacle of international country-music stardom. Along the way he amassed a fortune at one time estimated at more than $100 million, and became a trusted and beloved father figure to a generation of younger musicians.
Owens famously advised Garth Brooks during his contract battle with Capitol Records not to relinquish ownership of his master recordings, advice that Brooks wisely, and profitably, took. And when Dwight Yoakam was getting his career off the ground in the mid-'80s, he lobbied Owens to end his self-imposed recording hiatus long enough to join his young acolyte in the studio for a new version of "Streets of Bakersfield," a record that took Yoakam to the No. 1 slot on the country singles chart for the first time, and Owens there for the last.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, October 16, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Derailers band: A review in Sunday's Calendar of three Buck Owens tribute albums referred to the Derailers as a Phoenix-based group. The band is based in Austin, Texas.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, October 21, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Derailers band: A review in the Oct. 14 Calendar of three Buck Owens tribute albums referred to the Derailers as a Phoenix-based group. The band is based in Austin, Texas.
The loss of this musical paterfamilias is now manifesting itself in tributes to the man who cranked out 90 charted country singles -- 20 of them reaching No. 1 -- over a period of 30 years.
Yoakam's "Dwight Sings Buck" (due Oct. 23, New West Records) is the highest profile of three salutes to the man credited with creating and disseminating the "Bakersfield sound" in country -- a snappy, upbeat counterpoint to the string-heavy style that prevailed in Nashville in the '50s and '60s, the West Coast sound carrying as much rock sting as down-home twang.
The Phoenix-based Derailers recently put out "Under the Influence of Buck" with 13 tracks (Palo Duro, www.palodurorecords.com), while Orange County-based country singer-songwriter Jann Browne beat both to the punch earlier this year with "Buckin' Around" (Plan B Records, www.jannbrowne.net) bringing a woman's viewpoint to 11 of Owens' hits.
Because of the depth and breadth of his catalog, it's not surprising that among the collected 39 cuts, only seven songs appear on two of the albums, and just one wound up on all three: "Love's Gonna Live Here," the record that entered the chart in 1963 and stayed at No. 1 for four months, easily Owens' biggest hit. That helped him become the No. 1 country artist of the '60s in terms of his chart numbers, ahead of George Jones, Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Loretta Lynn and all the rest.
The Derailers' album is the most conventional, sticking closest to Owens' arrangements and vocal phrasing -- the musical equivalent of a well-lighted photographic portrait. Yoakam and Browne are a bit more painterly, and because Browne is working in another gender universe, she's probably the least beholden to the Owens blueprint. Yet there's no question of her devotion to the California country style built on musical clarity and concise emotional punch.
Where Yoakam and the Derailers both weigh in with committed versions of his heartbreakingly happy ballad "Together Again," Browne makes the canny choice of his witty self-referential follow-up, the 1979 duet with Emmylou Harris, "Play 'Together Again' Again," Browne's time-worn dusky alto playing beautifully off the gravelly tenor of duet partner Chris Gaffney.
Yoakam pushes the envelope furthest in "Only You," a country weeper in Owens' hands, transformed by his disciple into a harrowing psychological journey that's more Roy Orbison by way of David Lynch than chipper ol' Buck. His rendition of Voni Morrison and Johnny Russell's "Act Naturally" splits the difference between Owens' original and the Beatles' breakthrough pop version, and his elastic phrasing on "My Heart Skips a Beat" would surely give the song's composer one of those great ear-to-ear grins.
One of Owens' pet peeves later in life was how slavishly similar he felt mainstream music out of Nashville sounded to him, a byproduct of the same session musicians playing in the same studios for so many different singers. On that front, each of these albums has a refreshingly distinct sonic personality: Yoakam's atmospherically full-bodied, the Derailers' crisply energetic, Browne's affectionately scrappy.
Whether it's reflective of each act's respect for Owens or the inherent vitality of his music, all three tributes channel the spirit Owens consistently invested in his own performances. It's inspiring enough to make your heart skip a beat.