Friday, March 25, marked two important anniversaries in the extraordinary saga of Buck Owens.
Ten years ago the iconic performer, Bakersfield’s best known citizen, died just a few hours after performing at his Crystal Palace dinner club and museum.
And 50 years ago, to the day, Owens changed the course of commercial country music with a concert he once would have never thought possible or desirable: He and his Buckaroos performed at New York’s Carnegie Hall.
The circumstances of Owens’ death in 2006, well chronicled, fit the narrative of his life perfectly. Scheduled to perform with his Buckaroos that Thursday night, he had come to the Palace earlier than usual to dine on his favorite meal, that unpretentious standard of southwestern cuisine, a chicken-fried steak.
He wasn’t feeling well, though, and so he told the band they’d have to go on without him; he was heading home. On the way to his car, however, a group of fans stopped him and introduced themselves. They’d traveled all the way from Oregon to see him.
Owens pivoted and walked back into the club. He just couldn’t bear to disappoint.
Owens gave it his best shot, groaning and wheezing through the show, still managing to deliver for those fans from Oregon and beyond. He died of an apparent heart attack early the next morning, March 25, sometime after 4:30 a.m. Within hours, the country music world, and his adopted hometown of Bakersfield, were in full mourning.
The other, happier anniversary is much more telling of his stature.
On March 25, 1966, at the height of his renown as a country hit-maker, Owens and the Buckaroos rolled into Manhattan to perform what would eventually be recognized as one of the best performances of his life; certainly among his finest performances preserved on record.
“Carnegie Hall Concert,” released four months after that landmark show, rose to No. 1 on the Billboard country charts. But then so did virtually everything Owens laid down on vinyl in those heady days of commercial success.
Owens hadn’t been especially thrilled by the prospect of playing at Carnegie Hall. He agreed to it only after his manager, Jack McFadden, pleaded.
“Remember,” noted music writer Steven Stolder, “this is the guy who insisted in song that he wouldn't live in New York City ’if they gave me the whole dang town.’"
Owens and his Buckaroos — guitarist/singer Don Rich, bassist/singer Doyle Holly, pedal steel guitarist Tom Brumley and drummer Willie Cantu — had achieved stardom through performances and radio broadcasts all across the Southern states. The Big Apple was uncharted waters. And not just because of the demographics of U.S. pop culture.
”In those days, a wall separated country and pop: The British Invasion and the first wave of hippie counter-culturalists massed on one side. And on the other stood the Nudie-suited champions of homespun values. Owens was one of the most prominent exponents of this tradition,“ Bob Doerschuk, writing for Rolling Stone, noted in March 2015. ”But a community of country music enthusiasts was already rooted and expanding in Babylon. WJRZ, based in Hackensack, New Jersey, had agitated so aggressively for the band's appearance that by the time they arrived, they'd already sold out their two shows.”
They were a hit from the first note. “We started the introduction of ’Act Naturally’ and the applause was so loud and long we had to just keep playing the intro over and over until the crowd calmed down enough for me to start singing,” Owens wrote in his posthumous autobiography, “Buck ’Em!” with Randy Poe. “I couldn’t believe my ears or my eyes. From the opening song, we had that crowd in the palms of our hands.”
They performed many of their hits up to that point, and a few served up especially for the New York audience: “Love's Gonna Live Here,” “I've Got a Tiger by the Tail.” “Together Again” and a hillbillified take on the Beatles' “Twist and Shout.”
Critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine, in his Allmusic review of the live album, portrayed the show as technically and artistically remarkable. "Owens and the Buckaroos had to deliver a stellar performance, and they did. The group sounded like dynamite, tearing through a selection of their classic hits with vigor. Several decades removed from the performance itself, what really comes through is how musical and gifted the Buckaroos were, particularly Don Rich.”
Owens himself considered that show special. “When we finished that show a little over forty-five minutes later, not one of us had hit a wrong note, missed a beat or flubbed a single word,” he wrote in “Buck ’Em!” “... We’d literally recorded a perfect album in less than fifty minutes.”
The success of that show helped demonstrate that country music had evolved beyond its long-held commercial base. If “Hello Trouble” and “Act Naturally” could stir an audience in New York City, it could stir audiences anywhere. (That’s a truth the Buckaroos underscored later that year with a tour of and resulting live album recorded in Japan.)
In April 2014, the Library of Congress added “Carnegie Hall Concert” to its National Recording Registry.
The concert and resulting album weren’t just musical achievements, however. They marked a transcendent moment in American culture in which a central fixture of rural life brought down long-held social barriers. The country music genre had established itself in every corner of the country, and Buck Owens was there to assure it.