Boiling down Buck Owens’ recorded output to a small handful of key songs is no easy task. He recorded more than 40 studio albums and eight live albums over the course of three decades. He placed almost 50 singles in the Top 10 on the Billboard country chart, more than 20 of which went to the No. 1 spot. By almost any measure, Owens was the most successful country artist of the 1960s.
And his legacy can still be heard in the music of current country radio stars. Though an argument could be made that dozens of selections should be added to this list, here are 10 essential Buck Owens recordings:
1. “Hot Dog” (1956) – non-charting single; released under the name Corky Jones (Pep Records); written by Buck Owens and Denny Dedmon
Before he found success on Capitol Records, Owens was a guitarist and singer in the house band at Bakersfield’s storied Blackboard Café on Chester Avenue. In search of broader horizons, Buck released a handful of singles on the small Pep label in Los Angeles. This rockabilly-flavored disc was far enough outside the country mainstream that it was released under a pseudonym to avoid any potential backlash from the Bakersfield radio station that played his other early country singles. Featuring guitar hero Roy Nichols, the session was recorded by Lewis Talley and Fuzzy Owen in their tiny studio on East 18th Street, years before they launched Merle Haggard’s career on their Tally label. The record is a reminder that Buck and his fellow architects of the Bakersfield Sound were paying attention to plenty of music beyond the Western Swing and dance hall twang that are most often cited as the core ingredients of the genre. “I think guys like Elvis and Little Richard and Chuck Berry and Fats Domino had as much influence on my music as Bob Wills did,” Owens once confessed. Thanks largely to Buck’s own influence, rockabilly sounds were eventually embraced by the country mainstream. When Owens re-recorded the song under his own name in 1988, it hit the national country charts, falling just shy of the Top 40.
2. “Above and Beyond (The Call of Love)” (1960) - No. 3 single; from the “Buck Owens” album (Capitol Records); written by Harlan Howard
After years of slogging it out in the honky-tonk trenches as a guitarist, singer, and songwriter, Buck’s big break came in February of 1957 when legendary producer Ken Nelson signed him to an artist deal at Capitol Records. But fame wasn’t soon to follow. His first couple of singles stiffed and Buck moved to Puyallup, Wash., to work in the radio business with his friend Dusty Rhodes. At one point, Owens suggested to Nelson that they terminate the deal, but Ken wanted to give it another shot. At the next session they recorded “Second Fiddle,” which became Buck’s first charting single. The following year they recorded “Under Your Spell Again,” which became his first Top 5 hit. “Above and Beyond” was recorded two days before Christmas in 1959 and was Buck’s first session to feature a young fiddle player named Don Rich with whom he’d been working in Washington. When the single became Buck’s second Top 5 success, it was the sign he needed that he could build a sustained career as a national country artist. He sold his interest in the radio station to Dusty Rhodes and returned to Bakersfield, which would become his base of operations for the rest of his life.
3. “Foolin’ Around” (1961) - No. 2 single; from the “Buck Owens Sings Harlan Howard” album (Capitol Records); written by Buck Owens and Harlan Howard
Released in January of 1961, “Foolin’ Around” spent eight weeks in the No. 2 position on the Billboard country chart without breaking through to the top spot. While that first No. 1 single was an elusive milestone for Buck in the early years, there was no doubt that “Foolin’ Around” was a massive hit that perfectly represented what came to be called the Bakersfield Sound. Drummer Pee Wee Adams included a couple of fills in the chorus that, though minor, called particular attention to the drums. And calling attention to the drums was an oddity in country music in the early 1960s. That little flourish, coupled with Ralph Mooney’s aggressive pedal steel guitar, signaled to country fans that something different was happening on the West Coast. It attracted enough attention that the single also became the first Owens offering to appear on the pop charts. While artists such as Wynn Stewart might have pioneered a similar sound before him, nobody took it to the masses like Buck Owens. When most people refer to the Bakersfield Sound today, what they probably have in mind is the Buck Owens sound.
4. “Love’s Gonna Live Here” (1963) - No. 1 single; from “The Best of Buck Owens, Vol. 1” abum (Capitol Records); written by Buck Owens
Buck Owens finally hit the No. 1 position on the country chart in 1963 with a new sound. By that point, fiddler Don Rich had switched to lead Telecaster, the bottom end was supplied by an electric bass guitar (rather than an upright model), and the drums drove the songs with a tightly closed high-hat cymbal played precisely on top of the beat. Because Rich described the sound of the uptempo recordings as “a runaway locomotive coming right through the radio,” Buck came to call his string of hits from that era his “freight train songs.” Having worked in radio himself, Buck fine-tuned his approach to the recording process to make sure his music sounded great coming from the tinny speakers of AM transistor and car radios. Of those carefully-crafted hits, “Love’s Gonna Live Here” was the most popular with country radio audiences. Once it reached the top spot on the charts, it stayed there for an astounding 16 weeks. It would be almost 50 years before another country single topped the charts for that long.
5. “Together Again” (1964) - No.1 single; from the “Together Again / My Heart Skips a Beat” album (Capitol Records); written by Buck Owens
In January of 1964, Owens returned to the Capitol Studios in Hollywood to record his next single. That song, “My Heart Skips a Beat,” reached No. 1 on the country chart in mid-May. Three weeks later, the B-side of the single, “Together Again,” knocked “My Heart Skips a Beat” out of the No. 1 slot and took its place at the top of the heap until “My Heart Skips a Beat” reclaimed the top spot yet again. Buck was so popular in the mid-1960s that he was fighting himself for chart dominance! While his “freight train” sound was wildly popular, “Together Again” is a testament to his skills with a tender ballad. Pedal steel guitarist Tom Brumley, who had recently joined Buck’s band, played a memorably mournful solo that stood in stark contrast to the positive lyrics. Once again, Owens showed that by tweaking the rules of the game he could blaze his own hit-making path of country music innovation.
6. “Close Up the Honky Tonks” (1964) – non-single; from the “Together Again / My Heart Skips a Beat” album; written by Red Simpson
This Red Simpson-penned standard was the first song Owens tackled at his June 10, 1964, recording date. It didn’t become a hit for Buck, but the session marked the first time the classic lineup of his backing band, the Buckaroos, worked together in the studio. With guitarist Don Rich, bassist Doyle Holly (who usually played guitar in the studio, most often leaving bass duties to session man Bob Morris), steel guitarist Tom Brumley, and drummer Willie Cantu, the Buckaroos became one of the most revered bands in country music history. In an era when most performers relied on a small handful of professional musicians, Buck insisted on using his own players in the studio so that his recordings captured the immediacy of his live shows. Owens had high expectations of his band, but he readily admitted that the musicians with whom he worked were a significant factor in shaping the sound that kept him on top.
7. “I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail” (1964) - No. 1 single; from the “I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail” album (Capitol Records); written by Buck Owens and Harlan Howard
Buck and songwriting legend Harlan Howard collaborated on many songs together, but the most successful of them was “I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail,” which was released in December of 1964, hit the charts in January of 1965, and was sitting at the top spot less than a month later. According to Buck, he and Harlan were traveling down the highway when an Esso gas station sign that advertised “Put a tiger in your tank” sparked the idea. Not only did the song become the fifth in an unbelievable streak of 14 consecutive No. 1 hits, it also hit No. 25 on the pop rankings. It was Buck’s sole entry in the pop Top 40, and the first major step at making him a household name. By the time he joined the cast of “Hee Haw” in 1969, Owens was one of the few country artists who was familiar to general audiences that didn’t typically buy country records.
8. “Buckaroo” (1965) - No. 1 single; from “The Instrumental Hits of Buck Owens and his Buckaroos” album (Capitol Records); written by Bob Morris
“When Capitol put out ‘Buckaroo’ as my next single,” Owens revealed in his posthumous autobiography assembled by author Randy Poe, “I figured my streak of chart-topping singles was finally going to come to an end. I mean, whoever heard of a country instrumental making it to number one?” But that’s exactly what happened. The infectiously bouncy melody was a reminder that, not only was Buck an accomplished singer and songwriter, he was also a top-notch musician. Owens had paid his dues in the Bakersfield honky tonks and backed a long list of artists as a supporting musician in the studio, including Tommy Collins, Wanda Jackson, Faron Young, Gene Vincent, and others. He might have been a superstar by that time, but Buck was also a guitar slinger who still had a great love for the instrument and a passion for making records that showed off both his chops and the talents of his fantastic band.
9. “Act Naturally” (1966) – non-single (live version); from the “Carnegie Hall Concert” album (Capitol Records); written by Voni Morrison and Johnny Russell
When Buck was invited to play New York City’s hallowed Carnegie Hall, he instructed his manager, Jack McFadden, to decline the offer. He assumed the Manhattan crowd wouldn’t be interested in his music. When producer Ken Nelson suggested they record the performance and release it as Buck’s first live album, however, he reconsidered. The now-legendary performance occurred on March 25, 1966, precisely 40 years to the day before Buck’s death. Any fears Owens might have had about being accepted in New York were quickly put to rest when he and the classic lineup of the Buckaroos ripped into the opening song, “Act Naturally.” The crowd responded so enthusiastically that the band had to extend the introduction so the audience could quiet down enough for Buck to start singing. The studio version of the song had been Buck’s first No. 1 single in 1963, and the first to feature Don Rich on lead guitar. The fans loved the live version just as enthusiastically. The Carnegie Hall Concert with Buck Owens and his Buckaroos LP hit No. 1 on the Billboard country album chart in September of 1966.
10. “Streets of Bakersfield” (1973) – non-single From the “Ain’t It Amazing, Gracie” album (Capitol Records); written by Homer Joy
By the early 1970s Buck was conducting most of his recording sessions at his own studio in a converted movie theater at 1215 North Chester Ave. At that point he had become far more than an entertainer, having branched out into a variety of businesses that included music publishing, artist management, radio station ownership, and more. He was arguably the most powerful man in Kern County, and his dominance over the local music scene earned the town the nickname Buckersfield. “Bakersfield will always be home to me,” Owens often told reporters who asked about his decision to build his empire outside the Nashville establishment. It’s fitting, then, that he would pay tribute to the spirit of his chosen city by recording Homer Joy’s “Streets of Bakersfield.” Although only an album cut in 1973, Dwight Yoakam suggested that he and Buck revive the song in the late 1980s. Their duet version of the now-classic tune reached the top of the charts in 1988, marking Buck’s final No. 1 hit.