BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — The San Joaquin Valley city with a population of just over 300,000 served as the Western counterpart to Nashville from the ’50s on through the ’70s, producing such stars as Buck Owens & The Buckaroos, Merle Haggard, and the Maddox Brothers & Rose. Owens and Haggard topped the country charts for decades while retaining their Central California roots. But it wasn’t until 2012 that Omnivore Recordings, digging a little deeper, found two albums worth of never-before-released music from the Buckaroos camp: Buck Owens’ Honky Tonk Man and Don Rich Sings George Jones. Both CDs are set for release January 23, 2013.
The 18 tracks on Buck Owens’ Honky Tonk Man were culled from the vast trove of material he recorded at his Bakersfield studio for the rural hit comedy TV series Hee Haw in the early ’70s. The set is a concise tutorial on the history of country music — from “In the Jailhouse Now,” a song first popularized by Jimmie Rodgers in 1928, to “Rednecks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer,” a hit for Johnny Russell in 1973. Many of the songs Owens did for Hee Haw were originally recorded by his biggest and earliest influences: Bob Willis & His Texas Playboys’ “Stay a Little Longer”; Hank Williams’ “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It,” “Jambalaya” and “Hey Good Lookin’”; Hank Snow’s “I’m Moving On”; and Jack Guthrie’s “Oklahoma Hills.” Owens also nodded to fellow Bakersfield Sound stalwart Merle Haggard on “Swinging Doors.”
The CD’s title track, “Honky Tonk Man,” is a song first popularized by Johnny Horton in 1956. Thirty years later it became an even bigger hit for Dwight Yoakam, an avowed Bakersfield Sound disciple.
An unreleased Owens track is a rare thing indeed. To have 18 previously unreleased sides collected in one CD is a Bakersfield-sized bounty of riches for Buck Owens fans everywhere.
Until his tragic death in 1974, guitarist, fiddler and vocalist Don Rich appeared on nearly all Buck Owens’ hit records, beginning in the late ’50s. Don Rich Sings George Jones is one of the most exciting country music discoveries in decades — the only solo album ever recorded by the legendary lead guitarist and harmony vocalist for Buck Owens & the Buckaroos. Even more amazing is the fact that this album sat in Owens’ tape vault — unreleased and long forgotten — until now.
In the mid-’60s, with Owens a key part of the Capitol Records roster for a decade, the Buckaroos were issued a separate recording contract with the label, allowing the band to make its own recordings. The band recorded a dozen LPs, over half of which hit Billboard magazine’s best-selling album chart. While primarily known for sizzling instrumental tracks, almost all these albums featured vocals by Rich and other members. With Don’s vocal songs becoming charting singles in their own right, making a Don Rich solo album became pretty much a foregone conclusion.
As fellow Buckaroo Jim Shaw recalls, “Buck went to Don and said, ‘Why don’t you do an album of George Jones covers?’ I suspect Buck thought, ‘That’s a good commercial way to go. George Jones has a huge pile of hits to choose from.’” As to why the album languished in the tape vault for over 40 years, since Owens and Rich are both gone (Rich died in a 1974 motorcycle accident while leaving the Bakersfield studio), there’s no one to provide the answer. But Jim Shaw points out that Rich wouldn’t have bothered to remind anybody about the recording: “Don didn’t have a lot of ambition to be a solo artist. He just wanted to read books about military airplanes and ride his motorcycle.”
The album features such Jones hits as “A Girl I Used To Know,” “White Lightning” and the fittingly Bakersfield-esque “The Race Is On.” In addition are four never-before-released George Jones covers by Buck himself: “The Race is On,” “Four-O-Thirty Three,” “Root Beer” and “Too Much Water.”
About Omnivore Recordings: Founded in 2010 by longtime, highly respected industry veterans Cheryl Pawelski, Greg Allen, Dutch Cramblitt, and Brad Rosenberger, Omnivore Recordings preserves the legacies and music created by historical, heritage, and catalog artists while also releasing previously unissued, newly found “lost” recordings and making them available for music-loving audiences to discover. Omnivore Recordings is distributed by EMI.