More than seven years after his death, Buck Owens has had a remarkable year with a bumper crop of archival releases arguing for his influence on a new generation of country artists. Omnivore Records has issued several compilations from the singer’s apparently inexhaustible vault, including unheard material by Owens’ guitarist Don Rich and their ace backing band the Buckaroos. In addition to a lengthy singles collection, there’s also a book and soundtrack out next month, Buck ‘Em: The Autobiography of Buck Owens.
Even in this crowded market, Owens’ own Honky Tonk Man stands out. It collects 18 covers of classic country tunes he recorded to lip-synch on Hee Haw. Ranging from Bob Wills‘ “Stay a Little Longer” to Johnny Russell‘s “Rednecks, White Socks & Blue Ribbon Beer,” it shows Owens’ dynamic range and ranks among his most indispensable releases.
He’s not the only artist covering old tunes or rethinking the past. Here are nine more new albums that any fan of classic country will want to check out.
Glen Campbell: See You There
During the sessions for 2011′s Ghost on the Canvas, Campbell recorded a few vocal tracks of some of his best-known songs, including “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston.” His producers, thinking the performances too special to go unheard, set them to music, and the resulting album is a fine epilogue to a long and crazy career that ranges from the Champs (“Tequila”) to the Wrecking Crew. Unafraid to show the wear and grain that has accrued in his voice, he doesn’t strain to comment on his career with any finality but simply inhabits these songs easily and gracefully.
Johnny Cash: Life Unheard
It’s hard to imagine there are any unheard or undiscovered Cash recordings left, but Sony managed to locate two lost tracks in its vaults for this flagship release on Life magazine’s new Unheard/Unseen series. Ten of these tracks have appeared on recent Cash compilations (in particular, the excellent Bootleg Vol. 3: Live Around the World), which leaves only two truly undiscovered gems. “Ben Dewbury’s Final Run” is a tragic train song expertly narrated by the Man in Black while “Moving Up” is a gentle country-funk travelogue from Cash’s years in the wilderness — i.e., the 1980s.
Vince Gill and Paul Franklin: Bakersfield
A collaboration between Gill and pedal steel guitar maestro Franklin (who both play in The Time Jumpers), Bakersfield is an insightful tribute to that famed city’s heroes, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. The songs are sturdy in their dusty stoicism, and Gill and Franklin treat them all as duets between voice and pedal steel. They sound like old friends slugging beers and commiserating over the past in some roadside bar along Hwy. 99.
Alan Jackson: The Bluegrass Album
You’d never know it by the generic album cover, but Jackson has been planning this release for several years. The Georgia-born singer has always been a fan of bluegrass, but he’s not just dipping a toe in bluer waters. These cover choices aren’t obvious, and he corralled a crack backing band with some of the biggest names in the genre, including Adam Steffey on mandolin and Sammy Shelor on banjo. On songs like the Dillards’ “There Is a Time,” his instantly recognizable voice works surprisingly well in the bluegrass setting, showcasing a deft agility that doesn’t always come through on his country albums.
Waylon Jennings and the Old 97s: Waylon Jennings & Old 97s
In 1996, the godfather of Outlaw country and Texas’ most prominent alt-country band met up in Nashville to record two songs: the new “Iron Road” and “The Other Shoe,” a cheatin’-and-killin’ ballad that appeared on the Old 97s’ Wreck Your Life. Jennings’ voice is well-matched to the band’s rambunctious sound, especially Ken Bethea’s lively fretwork (he’s arguably the most underrated guitar player of the ’90s). Jennings died shortly after these sessions, and the pair of tracks gathered dust until earlier this year when Omnivore released them on Record Store Day. Now the label is expanding that EP with contemporaneous demos from the Old 97s, including a rambling cover of the Magnetic Fields’ “Born on a Train.”
George Jones: Amazing Grace
The Possum’s first posthumous release offers a collection of gospel tunes he recorded more than 10 years ago. To these hymns of faith and redemption, he brings the same yearning and dignity that defined his secular material, such that “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” has the same blunt finality as “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Songs like “Softly and Tenderly” and “Why Me Lord” blur the lines between saint and sinner, which makes Amazing Grace sound specifically autobiographical and a poignant epilogue to an often troubled life and a brilliant career.
Willie Nelson: To All the Girls
Nelson’s 3,837,456th album (or so it seems) is a collection of duets with several generations of female singers, from The Secret Sisters (in their 20s) to Mavis Staples (in her 70s). The Gray Headed Stranger’s voice is mostly in fine form, with a slight warble in his pitch but no loss of vocal agility as he and his guests tackle country classics and American standards. Nelson still dances around the meter as dexterously as ever, and he’s chosen some fantastic dance partners to join him.
Kenny Rogers: You Can’t Make Old Friends
The title track is no sequel to “Islands in the Stream,” but how could it ever be? Still, Rogers’ new duet with Dolly Parton, which gives this album its title, shows how much chemistry they still have and plays like a touching commentary on their careers. You Can’t Make Old Friends is low-key and laid-back, although it’s much livelier than the ruminative albums by some of Rogers’ contemporaries. The biggest surprise may be “Dreams of San Joaquin,” a ballad full of cinematic strings and vocals that prove his empathy has not diminished with age.
Randy Travis: Influence Vol. 1: The Man I Am
Legal and medical problems have overshadowed Travis’ music recently, but his 24th album for Warner Bros showcases a voice that remains spry and wily. You can almost hear the sly wink in his phrasing on these faithful covers of old songs he’s been listening to all his life. Travis explores Texas swing on Bob Wills’ “Trouble in Mind” and non-Texas swing on “Pennies From Heaven,” and the preponderance of Hag tunes leaves little question as to which artist has influenced Travis the most.