Sunday, March 26, 2006

… And All He Had to Do Was Act Naturally

We feel comfortable in predicting that Hollywood will never make an Oscar-nominated biopic of Texas native Buck Owens. An astute businessman, never publicly addled by drink or drugs, Owens sorely lacked the mystery and unknowability that made Johnny Cash a posthumously hot box-office property. While Cash dressed in black, gobbled speed and imbibed Dylan on those jingle-jangle mornings, Owens wore his electric Nudie suit to the London Palladium, cut harshly beautiful duets with the immortal Rose Maddox* and albums entitled Live in Scandinavia, and had the genius to sing of having the “hongries” for a woman’s love and profess his abject willingness to stand waitin’ in [her] welfare line for a mere handout. Cash brought Dylan and other hipsters on the summer replacement show he hosted for the Smothers Brothers (the first time we saw Dylan perform); Owens spent eons self-consciously stroking his hambone with Roy Clark and Grandpa Jones on Hee-Haw, and growing hugely rich in the process.

Yet Owens’ talent and way with a song was at least equal to if not greater than Cash’s: There were few country singers outside of Hank Williams and George Jones with a more expressive voice, and no one did more to rock country music, to return it to the wild environs from whence it sprang, than Alvis Edgar Owens and his great fiddler-guitarist Don Rich. Owens was a true crossover phenomenon: most of his big country hits in the ’60s made their way to the top of the Top 40 charts, where they sounded right at home among the Stax-Volt, Motown and British rockers that were played one after another during that brief, glorious flowering. Mostly, we liked Buck Owens ’cause he always made us smile.

This is a pretty good appreciation from Salon (even though they got his first name wrong), while Rhino’s The Buck Owens Collection (1959-1990) has all the Buck you need plus a handsome booklet with much background and many fine photos (including a classic of Buck and the Buckaroos at the Astrodome not long after it opened).

* The duo’s Mental Cruelty from the early '60s was a hilariously deadpan, noir-ish slice-of-life in which Rose asked a judge to grant her a divorce on grounds of men-tal cru-el-ty, while Buck, pleading ignorance to the charges, suggests it’s all a loaf of bullshit the plaintiff has baked in an attempt to slip the bonds of matrimony. Words cannot describe its sublimity.

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