Buck Owens

The Warner Bros. Recordings

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As the '70s drew to a close, Buck Owens was still a superstar, thanks largely to his starring role on Hee Haw, still going strong after several years on the air. He may have been big on TV, but his recording career was on shaky ground. Things had never quite been the same for Buck since the death of Don Rich, and as the years passed, he started to seem a bit adrift, floating through the end of his Capitol contract and then jumping ship to Warner Bros toward the end of the '70s. Once he was situated at the new label, he began to do many things he promised never to do, chief among them recording in Nashville, which of course led to all sorts of compromises, culminating in covering England Dan & John Ford Coley songs -- something that would have been inconceivable just ten years before. These are the reasons his four Warner albums are commonly dismissed as dull and boring. As tempting as it is to think of this attitude as mere griping from country purists, the kind of thing that's ripe for revisionism, Rhino Handmade's double-disc 2007 set The Warner Bros. Recordings proves all of the conventional wisdom sadly accurate. Despite the uproarious attitude of the title of his 1976 album Buck 'Em, these recordings are an aural definition of listless, lacking in heart and energy -- it sounds as if Buck doesn't really care to be in the studio at all, he's merely biding time, waiting until the clock runs out. It seems as if he turned to Nashville because he not only had nowhere to go, he had no idea what to do, so might as well try the industry's rules for once. The industry helped make Buck 'Em and its successor Our Old Mansion professional records that could ease onto the charts, but such slick surroundings only emphasized the lifeless performance from Buck. Even his latter-day Capitol records had more pep than this -- take a version of "Lady Madonna" on Buck 'Em, which is taken as a slow crawl instead of a brisk skip, which it would have been cut several years earlier. He sounds disinterested in covering "Nights Are Forever Without You," and the neo-Waylon glitzy outlaw of "Let Jesse Rob the Train" -- which reworks "Ladies Love Outlaws" to a disco spin of "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way" -- is a poor fit. It's little wonder that Owens didn't finish the 1982 album he was recording, the results of which are aired here for the first time -- it sounds like he could barely be bothered to piece together the first two, that he gave up the ghost long before this 1982 session. As dispiriting as this set is, at least it ends on an up note: Buck's 1988 duet on his old hit "Streets of Bakersfield" with his disciple Dwight Yoakam, who helped bring Owens' Bakersfield sound back to the charts and, in doing so, clearly helped breathe life into the singer once again. After sitting through The Warner Bros. Recordings, it's easy to see why Owens embraced Yoakam, and why Yoakam's emergence sparked a comeback in old Buck.

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