This week, Dwight Yoakam releases Dwight Sings Buck, a tribute to his idol that recalls Buck Owens' very own excellent songbook albums, 1961's Buck Owens Sings Harlan Howard and 1963's Buck Owens Sings Tommy Collins. Sings Harlan Howard arrived early in Buck's career: it was only his second album, so it shouldn't be too surprising that his classic sound hasn't quite gelled yet -- he's relying heavily on steel guitar and fiddle instead of electric guitars, bringing this closer to the vibe of barroom country. Part of the reason this doesn't quite sound like classic Buck is that he was still getting the Buckaroos off the ground. His right-hand man Don Rich was aboard, yet he's only on three cuts, playing fiddle (plus a lead acoustic guitar), not his trademark electric guitar, which doesn't give this album the twangy snap of Buck's best-known hits, yet it's possible to hear that sound beginning to take shape here. That alone would be interesting, but what's better is that the music is excellent, as pure a honky tonk album as Buck ever made, spearheaded by the hit "Foolin' Around" (which Owens co-wrote with Howard; Yoakam also cuts the tune on his tribute), plus timeless versions of the classics "Heartaches by the Number" and "Pick Me Upon Your Way Down" (which cleverly is followed immediately by its answer song, "I'll Catch You When You Fall"), and a host of other Howard gems.
As good as Sings Harlan Howard is, Sings Tommy Collins is even stronger. It may not have spawned any hit singles -- although it did hit number one on the country album charts -- yet it's one of Buck's best albums, partially because it captures the Buckaroos in full flight, playing the dexterous but tough sound that became their signature. That dexterity comes in handy with the songs of Tommy Collins, as one of his specialties was light, clever tunes. The Buckaroos keep things rolling along nimbly, yet that twangy toughness means they never succumb to the cutesiness at the core of "It Tickles," Tommy's ode to wearing a fuzzy moustache when he was a teenage pip. "It Tickles" is the exception to the rule, the only song that's just a bit too silly -- the rest of the lighter songs here are funny and clever, particularly the "I Always Get a Souvenir" and "You Gotta Have a License," plus they're balanced by ballads like "High on a Hilltop" and a great version of Collins' warhorse "If You Ain't Lovin' (You Ain't Livin')," popularized by Faron Young and done nearly as well here.
Both of these records, like Dwight's new offering, do exactly what a songbook album should do: they're affectionate tributes but they're thoroughly entertaining in their own right. Plus, they perform a valuable service in turning listeners onto music they may have missed. It's hard to imagine any Dwight fan that hasn't listened to a bit of Buck, but after hearing Dwight Sings Buck, they might want to dig deeper into Owens' catalog and they could bypass those hits comps and start with either of these albums. There might be some hits you'd miss, but you'd get the greatness of the man. Then, after you're done, you can follow Buck's lead and dig into Harlan Howard (his lone 1965 LP, All Time Favorite Country Songwriter, a boast that was largely true) and Tommy Collins (start with 2005's The Capitol Collection), another pursuit that is thoroughly rewarding.