When the pillars of country music are listed, there are always the usual suspects of Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, and the like, but one big player is constantly forgotten. You rarely hear someone mention Buck Owens. Time and popular opinion have a way of flattening out things, and Owens has been increasingly overlooked. Luckily, helping to generate the needed interest in Owens’ legacy are releases like Omnivore Recordings’ Buck ’Em! Volume 2: The Music of Buck Owens (1967–1975).
Naturally, Buck ’Em! Volume 2 is the sequel to the first Buck ‘Em! volume, which was a companion to the autobiography of the same name released posthumously in November 2006, eight months after Owens’ death. For the majority of his career, Buck was simply put a titan. His achievements include 21 Billboard number ones, being one of the earliest country acts to tour Japan, and through his co-hosting gig on Hee-Haw, being instrumental in expanding the popularity and reach of country music. Just as importantly, he was the one of the forces in pushing the Bakersfield Sound forward. In the way that Stax Records was a reaction against the more polished sounds of Motown, the Bakersfield Sound was in response to the polished, frequently strings-infused version of country that Nashville was trafficking at the time. The Bakersfield Sound instead infused honky-tonk and rock & roll, with some splashes of Texas swing and Mexican polka. When you hear it now, it seems to scream classic country, but Owens remains a touchstone for contemporary artists outside the mainstream like Dwight Yoakam, with whom he collaborated in 1988.
Buck ’Em! Volume 2 is a fairly exhaustive look at the second chapter of Owens’ career, after his star was firmly established. The two-disc collection is 50 songs deep for a just more than two hours of listening. It is a mix of hit singles, album cuts, and live tracks in approximately chronological order, so if you know nothing at all about Owens going in, the album quickly brings you up to speed. From the story songs that were his trademark to ballads and playful numbers, nearly every side of Owens is present. If there had been a gospel song, the set would run the table as far the whole country experience goes. What all the variety highlights is that Owens was creatively restless, and the Bakersfield Sound was flexible enough that he could add horns (“Big In Vegas”), come off sounding like a Monkees deep cut (“Who’s Going to Mow Your Grass”), or infuse a touch of soul (“Today I Started Loving You Again”), and it still sounds like him.
The most striking thing about the collection is not just variety, but the performances and writing, which are timeless enough that it doesn’t seem that far fetched to imagine these songs as current hits were it not for the fact that twangy guitars, fiddles, and pedal steel seem to be quite out of favor with modern country. Yet, that’s kind of fitting as throughout his lifetime Owens ran counter to what pop country was doing at the time. Of course, with so many songs, not everything is going to hit. There’s no way anyone will play songs like “Corn Likker” or “(It’s A) Monster’s Holiday” for more than an initial spin as they’re too terribly corny for repeated listens. There’s no telling if a third volume of Buck ’Em! will hit the shelves, as Owens’ recorded career, like that of most of his contemporaries, faded a bit as the years went by. But for now this is an excellent look at a too often overlooked legend of country music.