Buck Owens

TrackSingle / Album
Act NaturallyCapitol 4937
BuckarooCapitol 5517
Sam's PlaceCapitol 5865
I've Got A Tiger By The TailCapitol 5336
Love's Gonna Live HereCapitol 5025
Who's Gonna Mow Your Grass?Capitol F 2377
Bridge Over Troubled WaterBridge Over Troubled Water
Johnny B. GoodeBuck Owens in London "Live"
Ruby (Are You Mad)Ruby
Together AgainCapitol 5136

Buck Owens and the Buckaroos (l to r): Buck Owens, Don Rich, Willie Cantu, Tom Brumley, Doyle Holly



Buck Owens playlist


Contributor: David Lewis

If you like your country music sweet, smooth and polished, well, you may not like Buck Owens, pioneer of the Bakersfield sound, rebel, wealthy businessman. He was beloved by fans but around certain people in the music industry he’s about as popular as an obscenity during a sermon. Nonetheless, a great performer, a great singer, a great musician and a hit machine. I’ve used several sources for background, but the best work on Buck Owens is the two episodes in the podcast Cocaine & Rhinestones Tyler Mahan Coe’s podcast on 20th century country music. The whole podcast is worth listening to. I’ve leaned on it fairly heavily.

Buck comes out of Bakersfield, California – home also to Merle Haggard. Indeed, they had worked together early, though there was acrimony over a business deal gone sour. Our story starts in Nashville. In the 1950s a young group of performers, some out of the ‘country’ – cities like Memphis, Austin, Birmingham; some out of the ‘city’, New York, Detroit, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, started playing Rock and Roll. The audience country performers relied on started listening to rock and roll and rockabilly. This led to worrying sales figures in Nashville. People like Chet Atkins and Owen Dudley start to remove ‘traditional’ instruments – banjoes, mandolins, fiddles and replace them with actual string sections, electric guitars, drums and ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ backing vocals. This saves Nashville – stars like Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline become prominent and sell in the millions.

Nonetheless, there are those who state that this is the “worst thing to happen to country music”. Out of Bakersfield comes Buck Owens and the Buckaroos. The natural extension to honky-tonk, the Buckaroos were raucous, fast, high, tight and probably high and tight as well. Honky-tonk music was music played in working class bars – it spoke of heartbreak, addiction, love, work – basically the everyday life of the listeners of it.

Buck was not a purist – though he sold himself as one. Those Fender guitars were fairly new when he starts his musical journey. But they give a snap and a pop. He finds Don Ulrich, a 16-year-old wunderkind whose name quickly gets changed to Don Rich. Don becomes absolutely essential to Buck – Buck often and genuinely described Don as his ‘right hand man’. It’s Don’s harmonies you’ll mostly hear, plus that incredible chicken pickin’ *. Don’s untimely death at the age of 32 via a motorbike accident in 1974 shattered Buck – he became a recluse, only being reluctantly coaxed out of retirement by Dwight Yoakam in the late 80s.

Many of you will know Act Naturally (released in 1963) – some English group had a hit with it, unusually with their drummer singing it. Ringo suits the song, but there’s a real pop that the Buckaroos bring to it. According to the legend, Buck loved it from the first line. According to the other legend, Buck disliked it and only decided to record it when he heard Don singing it. Buck realized that if Don liked it, it must be a good song. No matter what the truth, Buck was right.

Buckaroo is an instrumental piece, done on the cheap, no rehearsal (like most of the Buckaroos’ stuff) is a wonderful showcase for Don Rich. Buckaroo utilises the treble sound of the Telecaster in an effective and pleasing way. It is somewhat of a rite of passage for aspiring chicken pickers.

The party never ends at Sam’s Place. Obviously inspired by the types of places that would have hosted the Buckaroos in their early days (and the types of places that worshipped them), it’s peppered with intriguing characters, and a band you can hear playing twenty blocks away. Joe Maphis said that one of Buck’s early bands was the loudest he’d heard. Buck had hearing issues from a stroke he’d had as a 9-year-old during a brain fever, so he preferred loud bands. Note the twin guitar harmonies – the Yardbirds get credit as the first to do this, but I think Buck is doing it 12 or 24 months earlier.

Buck was never backward in extending his vowels, as in I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail – IIIII’vvvvve gyooottt aaaa tiger by the tail. This jaunty piece is a word of warning, and the beat is right, the playing is hot, and the song is fun.

Love’s Gonna Live Here, particularly as long as Don and Buck harmonise like this. This was yet another hit single – the follow up to Act Naturally. The jaunty swagger of the song is infectious.

Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass? Possibly the person playing the harpsichord? Or that fuzz guitarist. This is another track that shouldn’t work – but it does. Partly because the song is fairly strong, but also the Buckaroos are a crack unit. So instead of it being a poor attempt at a Byrds pastiche, it becomes a bizarre but effective performance.

Another track that shouldn’t work but does is Paul Simon’s Bridge Over Troubled Water. There’s an honesty in the performance, and I quite enjoy the backing vocals where the black church and white church seem to meet – not quite black gospel, not quite white gospel. About halfway through, Buck’s voice seems to gel with the material and we get a quite stunning performance from a man who wasn’t a great vocalist.

Let’s give a warm London Palladium country style welcome to a great version of Johnny B. Goode

They discard the iconic opening for a more stripped back one, and yes the words get muffed a bit, but what a great version. In Eileen Sisk’s biography of Buck, which can best be described as inaccurately salacious, she critiques Buck for promising only to play country music, then playing this. Of course, Chuck Berry was a country composer and Johnny B. Goode is one of the great country songs of all time. Sisk was, as usual, wrong there. But the Buckaroos are right here.

Eric Clapton said something along the lines of “we all go back to the music we grew up on” and it is possible that this is what prompted the Buck Owens album Ruby. It is ten bluegrass standards and the title track, Ruby (Are You Mad), features Don on fiddle – his first instrument – and Roger Johnson on a fiery and fun banjo. As Tyler Mahan Coe points out – check out those harmonies.

Finally, the gorgeous ballad Together Again. Tom Brumley’s lap steel guitar, cries and sobs over a lyric that might have been a happy song. What does the music give to the song? It starts in bed – is this the fantasy of a recently dumped swain? Or, are they back together in a poisonous and destructive relationship? Or something else? Together Again was the B-side to the 1964 single, My Heart Skips A Beat. Together Again replaced My Heart as #1 on the country charts, where it was replaced by My Heart in turn. An incredible achievement.

Buck died a very wealthy man – some estimates put his wealth at around $100 million – a lot of money. He climbed his way to the top and ruthlessly stamped out competition. He had 15 No.1 singles. He never won an award from the CMA but he was nominated once. Nonetheless, he is prominently featured in the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum in Nashville. These records changed the way country got done. No matter what you think of him, Buck Owens is one of the most significant figures in 20th century country music and popular music.



* Chicken pickin’ is a type of guitar playing, mostly played on a Fender Telecaster, which derives essentially from banjo playing. When Leo Fender released the Telecaster in 1950, players such as Jimmy Bryant, James Burton, Luther Perkins and Cliff Gallup develop the style. The style continued through such players as Don Rich and Jerry Reed, although English players such as Albert Lee and Jerry Donahue were as good as, or even better than, their American counterparts. Danny Gatton, known as ‘The Humbler’ because of how he’d outplay anyone who turned up to jam with him, also appeared around this time. Gatton is considered by many (including Steve Vai – who qualifies his opinion, but he has said it) the greatest electric guitarist who ever lived – a list that includes Hendrix and Gatton’s contemporary and rival Roy Buchanan. The tradition is kept alive today by among others, Johnny Hiland, Keith Urban and Brent Mason. If you like guitar pyrotechnics and you’re a bit over showy metal tapping or Hendrix-derived squealing, you might like the flash and pizazz of chicken pickin’. The name comes from the staccato playing sounding like a chicken.



Buck Owens (1929-2006)

Don Rich (1941–1974)

Tom Brumley (1935-2009)

Doyle Holly (1936–2007)


Buck Owens official website

Country Music Hall of Fame: Buck Owens

Buck Owens discography (Wikipedia)

Buck Owens pictorial discography

Buck Owens and the Buckaroos: The Complete Capitol Singles: 1957–1966

“Buck ‘Em! The Autobiography of Buck Owens” by Buck Owens with Randy Poe

The Buckaroos (Wikipedia)

The Bakersfield Sound

Buck Owens biography (Apple Music)

David Lewis is a regular contributor to Toppermost. A professional guitarist, mandolinist, banjoist and bassist, he plays everything from funk to country in several bands and duos. He is a professional historian and a public speaker on crime fiction, adventure fiction, philosophy art, history and popular culture. More of his writing can be found at his rarely updated website.

TopperPost #703


  1. Andrew Shields
    Mar 10, 2018

    David – thanks for this great piece. Although Buck may not have been the easiest person in the world to get along with (especially where there was money involved), the musical partnership he developed with Don Rich was something special indeed. Might put in a word for ‘My Heart Skips A Beat’ and ‘Close Up The Honky Tonks’ but hard to quibble with your selections here… The greatest Buck cover?

  2. Dave Stephens
    Mar 17, 2018

    I’ve always had something of a blind spot with regard to Buck Owens but you’ve done a fine job David, in trying to persuade me otherwise. I can’t say I’m a fully signed up Buck fan yet but I’m happy to have Together Again on replay.

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