Buck Owens is known for many things, including a direct songwriting style that he perfected with Harlan Howard, a wardrobe full of brightly bejeweled suits and a knack for lucrative business practices. But he’s perhaps best-known and loved as a chief architect of the Bakersfield Sound, that rowdy brand of West Coast country music built on taut rhythm sections, gritty vocals, feisty electric guitars and rip-roaring displays of musical chops.
Owens spent most of the 1950s playing that California town’s honky-tonks, first as a sideman, then as a session player and finally as one of the most popular bandleaders of the era. Today the Buck Owens Crystal Palace Ballroom — located on Buck Owens Boulevard, no less — stands as a monument to the musician who scored 19 No. 1 singles during the 1960s and co-hosted the hit TV series Hee Haw for nearly two decades.
Those accomplishments, however, barely hint at the very rich and expansive catalog of songs he penned and performed during his half-century career. Below are 10 of his best:
“Under Your Spell Again”
Built on a two-stepping steel guitar riff, “Under Your Spell Again” was his breakthrough single in 1959, introducing a few of the tropes that became the foundation of his career — the steely electric sound, the flinty vocals, the sense of romantic compulsion underpinning his lyrics. He wrote, played and sang like he had personally experienced the depths to which a man could sink in the name of love.
“Excuse Me (I Think I’ve Got a Heartache)”
Written by Owens and Howard, the jaunty pace of this 1960 hit belies the sorry subject matter of “an aching deep inside, and it just won’t be denied.” Owens was never the most emotionally expressive vocalist, but he turned that stoicism into something poignant on his songs about men fighting to keep their composure. You know the heartache’s bad when he has to excuse himself “before I cry.”
It’s hard to believe it took songwriter Johnny Russell several years to sell “Act Naturally.” He’d written the tune in the ‘50s, only to have it rejected by artists for years before Owens saw its potential. Buck made it a hit, but more than that, he made it his signature song — one of the biggest country smashes of the 1960s. Covered by Loretta Lynn, the Beatles and just about everyone in between, “Act Naturally” remains a witty and insightful jab at celebrity, and Owens sings it like he knows he’s the butt of the joke.
“Love’s Gonna Live Here”
Country music does rock bottom better than just about any other genre as broken hearts and busted marriages are perennial themes in twangy weepers. What makes “Love’s Gonna Live Here” stand out in Owens’ catalog — and in country music — is its dogged optimism as Buck sees the sun peeking through dark clouds. Released in 1963, the song spent a remarkable 16 weeks at the top of country charts.
“My Heart Skips a Beat”
Owens’ self-penned 1964 hit could be a sequel to “Love’s Gonna Live Here.” A sweet ode to romantic giddiness, Owens revels in the physical stirrings caused by love. He’s got weak knees, jelly legs and light tachycardia. The stellar musicians in his Buckaroos band slyly play up that psychosomatic effect, backing him with barely contained exuberance as drummer Ken Presley mimics the sound of Owens’ heart turning backflips.
“Together! Again!” Owen sings in the a cappella intro to his bittersweet 1964 single which was the B-side to “My Heart Skips a Beat.” Despite his lyrics, it sounds to some listeners like a cry of despair — not happy or relieved but miserable. The tempo plods moodily, the pedal steel weeps and consoles, and Owens sounds resigned to his romantic fate. The fissure between the words and the music suggests that perhaps he has seen how the story ends — apart again.
Despite the fact that they never rehearsed, the Buckaroos were one of the best and tightest country bands on the West Coast, and this 1965 instrumental is a fine showcase for their impressive chops. Owens gets a few licks in, but it’s trusty sideman Don Rich who steals the show, not only unspooling indelible Bakersfield riffs like tangles of yarn but making it all seem so easy.
“I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail”
Inspired by the Esso service station slogan “put a tiger in your tank,” Owens and Howard wrote this ode to a woman who looks meek as a lamb but turns out to be mighty as a tiger. He may not appreciate that she drags him out every night “to where the bright lights are found,” but he sounds like he’s enjoying the ride. The tune was a country smash and a crossover hit for Owens, introducing him to a much broader pop audience.
“Made in Japan”
Owens’ tenure on Hee Haw helped to make the show a success and ensured him a television audience in the millions, yet he believed the overexposure made him less popular on the singles chart. His final No. 1 hit as a solo performer, 1972’s “Made in Japan” should be little more than a just-this-side-of-embarrassing novelty about a long-distance relationship carried out over ham radio. But the bouncy rhythm section, cinematic strings and Owens’ stalwart vocals inject the song with grave emotions that excuse the faux-Asian guitar lick.
“Streets of Bakersfield”
Owens’ heyday might have ended by the early 1970s, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t putting out quality material. “Streets of Bakersfield,” written by Homer Joy and released in 1972, ranks among his best performances, a sympathetic ode to his adopted hometown that begs for a bit of empathy. “How many of you that sit and judge me,” he asks not-quite-rhetorically, “ever walked the streets of Bakersfield?” In 1988, Dwight Yoakam released a zydeco-tinged cover version featuring Owens, giving one of the younger singer’s biggest heroes his final chart-topper.