Halfway there . . .
When I recorded this on Thursday, I’d been playing guitar nearly thirty years and bass for five days. You’d be forgiven for assuming the converse were true. Or for assuming that I’d been playing the bass at least two weeks and the guitar for an hour and a half. The song is a mess, but it was a very fun mess to make.
I mentioned last week that I’d bought a bass the previous Saturday. I bought it for this song, which was written August 5. I could have done it with just the acoustic, but I really wanted to go for something approximating the Bakersfield Sound. I thought maybe I could fake the electric guitar, but it just couldn’t be done, at least not with the little 10 watt amp I’ve been using. Therefore, on Tuesday I bought an electric guitar. That makes “Big Highway,” so far, about an $800 song.
I haven’t had an electric guitar since 1992, and even when I had one I rarely played it. That one was a Les Paul. For most people looking to buy a solid-body electric guitar, the classic first fork in the road is determining whether to go with the Gibson Les Paul or a Fender (and if you choose Fender, the second fork is whether you go for the Telecaster or the Stratocaster. This time I chose the Telecaster. The next day Les Paul died. That’ll teach me. Or him. One of us anyway.
I assumed I could play the guitar when I bought the Telecaster. Based on that assumption, I gave little attention to practicing the guitar part and concentrated my efforts on developing a bass part. I’ve never owned or played a bass. They’re fun. You should get one. (“A guy with a bass is a guy with a gig,” the guy in the music store told me. “A guy with a guitar is a guy who works in a music store.” Maybe so, but a guy with both who can’t play either is a guy in his garage with an internet connection and a nutcracker doll.) When I got the bass part pretty much how I wanted it, I went about putting the lead guitar part in, pretty much as an afterthought. I mean, I already knew what it was supposed to sound like, unlike the bass part, and I can usually play something when I know what it’s supposed to sound like.
On an acoustic guitar, that is.
Note to self: playing an electric guitar is different from playing an acoustic guitar.
Second note to self: just because you played the other instruments on the song, don’t assume you are naturally attuned to your own sense of rhythm.
Third note to self: As far as that goes, you don’t even have a sense of rhythm.
I am going to re-record this song when my whole recording/talent situation is straightened out-more on that at the end of this post. For now this version will have to do.
Bakersfield Sound. I think of the “Bakersfield Sound” as a fusion of honky-tonk and rockabilly, Buddy Holly crossed with Lefty Frizzell. In its pure form it is characterized by twin Telecasters, bass and drums, occasionally pedal steel or fiddle; the beat is strong, the sound is spare, dry and snaky. Imagine driving through the desert on a clear night and not seeing anything for miles, just stars and highway, and then noticing up ahead some little roadside beer joint, light showing through the cracks, a few cars and pickups scattered around it. When you open the door, the music you want pouring out will be the music I’m talking about. The Bakersfield Sound is whisky-in-the-desert music. The Telecaster has two pickups, one near the bridge for a very high treble sound and the other further up the body for a slightly more mellow tone. That twangy lead Telecaster played on the back pickup is what completes the Bakersfield Sound.
(Music critics and historians describe it as a reaction against the “Nashville Sound,” the string-laden Jim-Reevesy/Patsy-Cliney stuff that was being produced out of Nashville by Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley, among others. Why are music critics always describing things as being a reaction against something else? It makes it sound like the thought process of the musician is “(i) I don’t like that, so (ii) I’ll do this to show them how pissed off I am.” That’s nonsense. I bet it went more like this: “Hey, listen what happens when I put the switch way back here and sing in a highly enunciatory manner!”)
While nobody in particular can be said to have invented the sound, Buck Owens and his guitar player and best friend, Don Rich, ran hard with it and did more than anybody else to make it its own genre. (Buck and Don referred to it as the “freight train sound,” not the Bakersfield Sound.) It has never gone out of style and in its basic essence is infinitely adaptable across genres. Its “pure” form referenced above was never really all that pure; on youtube you can find Don Rich playing a Les Paul (he and Buck got pissed off at Fender because Fender, having given them some sort of endorsement deal, wanted Buck and Don to give their old instruments back whenever Fender sent them new ones. They subsequently made up with Fender and went back to their Telecasters.) A case could even be made for a connection between punk and the Bakersfield Sound, though you’ll have to ask somebody else to do it.
Buck Owens. All the above is really just context for what I really want to talk about, which is Buck Owens himself, the man more than his music. That’s not even really accurate. I know no more about Buck Owens than anybody else with a Wikipedia bookmark knows or could know in about ten minutes. Maybe that is what I want to talk about.
Hee Haw was a staple of my childhood. I assumed it was a part of everyone’s childhood. I assumed everybody across America sat down at 6:00 on Saturday evening and watched Buck Owens, Roy Clark, Junior Samples, Stringbean, the Hager twins, Buck Trent, Roni Stoneman, John Henry Faulk, Minnie Pearl, Archie Campbell and whoever the surprise guest would be who would get slapped in the butt by the trick board on the fake barn wall. One of the earliest songs I learned was the “Where, oh, where, are you tonight” song that that week’s guest sang as a duet with one of the regulars (the song always ended with a raspberry blown in the duet partner’s face.)
I didn’t know that Hee Haw wasn’t even affiliated with a network beyond the first couple of years of its run, that it was a syndicated show that played in non-prime time in mostly rural markets. I didn’t know that its format was based on Laugh-In, a show with broader cultural cachet that we never watched. I didn’t know that Roni Stoneman—the homely, toothless, female banjo virtuoso who played Ida Lee Nagger—was country music royalty (the Stoneman family and the Carter family ruled neighboring, allied duchies in the Blue Ridge mountains of Western Virginia, and made the first country music in the recorded era in the famous “Bristol Sessions.”) I didn’t know Grandpa Jones had been Grandpa Jones since the 1930’s or that Minnie Pearl’s Grand Ole Opry bona fides were several feet thick or that John Henry Faulk was a liberal icon for his resistance to McCarthyism in the fifties, for which he was blacklisted. I didn’t know that many of the regulars were trained actors, that some were even Canadian. Only Junior Samples, who played an illiterate, backwoods moron, was really what he seemed—an illiterate, backwoods moron.
There’s nothing particularly interesting about discovering that a childhood touchstone isn’t as solid as you thought it was. Anybody who has watched any of the Hanna-Barbera cartoons as an adult knows that kids are easily fooled by all sorts of crap, that many touchstones turn out to be made of cardboard. That the show I spent so much time watching and that gave so much comfort to me—always on at the same time every week, telling jokes I understood (mostly), playing music I understood (mostly)—could be read as a mockery of the culture it purported to reflect and serve, a mockery in which the performers were made to mock themselves without being in on the joke, is sad in a broad, sociological way, but I can’t pretend too much outrage really. I’m not even sure I buy it. It was the seventies. Waylon Jennings narrated The Dukes of Hazzard, and a lot of respected musicians, including Buck Owens and Roy Orbison, willingly did cameos in that show, performing their songs for Boss Hogg in the Boar’s Nest as a condition of being caught in the Hazzard County speed trap. Again, it was the seventies; nobody had any sense. And there is such a thing as thinking about things too much.
I didn’t know that Buck Owens was . . . Buck Owens.
I knew that Buck Owens had had a career before Hee-Haw. I think I knew that. Clay’s mother had some old Buck Owens records. I don’t remember listening to them, but I remember seeing them. I remember hearing “Tiger by the Tail” on the radio now and then. Buck Owens and the Buckaroos performed on every show. I paid little attention to Buck or Roy Clark when they played. They played every week. They weren’t the reason I was watching. I was watching to see that week’s guest, which might be Johnny Paycheck or Charley Pride or Donna Fargo or Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton, and for the jokes. Roy and Buck were just filler. When they came on it was okay to leave the room.
A few random memories:
July 17, 1974-I’m seven years old, in the car with my mother, when the DJ says that Don Rich was killed in a motorcycle accident. My mother reminds me that he was Buck Owens’s guitar player, that he was on Hee-Haw. It’s the first death I remember in which I sense at that moment, the moment of hearing about it, that somehow this has something to do with me. I try to recall what Don Rich looked like, which one he was.
Sometime around 1981-82. I’m fourteen or fifteen and I’m at Mike Smith’s house and his dad and a couple of his brothers are watching Hee-Haw. I think, “How can anybody watch this crap?”
1981. I discover the Beatles, big-time. I buy the two, double-album compilations that cover before and after 1966, respectively. I also buy Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, because I’ve read it is the greatest album ever made, and Rubber Soul, because it has “Yesterday” on it. On a trip to the mall in Wichita Falls with my girlfriend Jill George and her mother I splurge and buy The Compleat Beatles, a two-set book of sheet music that contains every Beatles song recorded, one of which, I am surprised to find, is a Johnny Russell song made famous by Buck Owens, “Act Naturally.” I assume it’s a joke, because the Beatles were jokesters. I read, maybe in the same place, that the Beatles were really crazy about Buck Owens. I assume it’s a joke, because the Beatles were jokesters.
1992. My grad school friend Doreen Piano, who is a bit older and much cooler than me and from upstate New York and has lived in all kinds of places and has her finger on the pulse of all sorts of things, who is married to an English guy who’s a real musician playing all kinds of avant garde art music, knowing that I’m a hick, questions me with great interest about country music, which I have recently begun to re-investigate and reclaim after several years of Jackson-Browne Syndrome. I want to tell her about Willie and Waylon, Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett, Gary Stewart, Hank Williams, Kitty Wells, George Jones. She wants to know about Buck Owens. “You mean the guy on Hee-Haw?” I ask her.
August 16, 2009. I still wonder what the hell I’m supposed to make of Dwight Yoakum.
In the mid-nineties, Buck Owens came gradually into focus as the pioneer and icon he was. This 1999 article in Salon describes me perfectly: “A generation, and then another, grew up knowing Buck Owens as the doofus on the TV show that defined the word ‘hick.’”
I felt guilty about how I’d shorted Buck Owens for as long as I’d known his name. I started looking a bit more into his life, though not so much his music yet. I read how Buck’s first entry into music was as a guitarist and that he developed the style of playing that Rich, under Buck’s tutelage, would master. I’d seen him playing or more precisely holding that silly red-white-and-blue acoustic for years on the Hee-Haw set, doing that goofy “I’m a pickin’ . . . and I’m a grinnin’” routine with Roy Clark, but the guy apparently could really play. I read that, in a four-year period in the early sixties, every single that Buck Owens released went to number one—fifteen in all. Fifteen number ones in a row.
He was huge. In Liverpool and London, the Beatles sought out his records. They hadn’t been joking.
A generation, and then another, grew up knowing Buck Owens as the doofus on the TV show that defined the word “hick.”
It would be hard to turn down that kind of gig, I suppose. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that that kind of national exposure would be good for your career—you’d get the chance to bring your music into people’s living rooms every week. You wouldn’t have to tour so much. Having their own shows didn’t harm the careers of Johnny Cash or Glen Campbell; in fact, Johnny Cash’s show, in which he hob-nobbed with Dylan and other counterculture figures of the day, helped lay the foundation for the all-purpose-cool, hipster image that the (cynical and phony) Rick Rubin recordings tweaked and canonized into a near-messianic image in the 1990s, greatly inflating Cash’s reputation. But TV sank Buck Owens’s career, and it stayed sunk for twenty years.
In 1974, Don Rich had his motorcycle accident and died. By all accounts, Owens was devastated. “He was like a brother, a son and a best friend, and since he died I never quite got over it,” Salon quotes Owens as saying.
Buck Owens stayed on Hee-Haw another twelve years after Rich’s death. During that period he also built an empire of radio stations, real estate and entertainment establishments. He was a businessman first and a musician second if at all. He got very rich. He played the hick doofus and gave up on music. “Early on I was doing three songs in an hour, and at that time all my songs were hits,” he told The Washington Post in 1989. “It slowly gravitated to the point where I did a hell of a lot of comedy and hardly any music. Weekly TV, that’s death for recording artists. It’s too much exposure. There’s no longer any mystery.”
Eventually, thanks mostly to the efforts of his most fervent disciple, Dwight Yoakum, who coaxed Buck out of retirement in 1987 to re-record one of Buck’s old songs, “Streets of Bakersfield,” as a duet with Yoakum, recognition of Buck Owens’s influence across American music began to be restored. By the time Buck Owens died of a stroke in 2006, he’d resumed his rightful place in music history.
Only within the last seven or eight years, when I realized Buck Owens was the missing piece of a novel I’d been working on for several years, did I start listening to the music closely. That raw, bright sound jumps out of the speakers, and I realized that all the songs were familiar to me—I’d just never really heard them. What was most surprising was that many of his biggest hits were happy songs; they lean toward themes of love found rather than love lost. I’d always thought of Buck Owens’s voice as being very sad.
Because it is a very sad voice, plaintive and earnest. It’s the voice of a man trapped. Am I making that up? Probably. When those early recordings were made Buck couldn’t have known that in a few years he’d be stuck in a silly cornpone version of Laugh-In that would pretty much obliterate his musical influence for years.
People are wrong when they say country music’s power is in its simplicity. There’s nothing simple about it except the chords. Country music is subversive. You’re never really sure if you’re being put on. You don’t know if they’re joking about being that sad or if they’re really that sad. How could anybody be that sad? So you think it’s a joke. But then you listen to George Jones’s voice, or Hank Williams’s voice, and you think, shit, maybe they are that sad. So if it’s a joke, they’re not really letting you in on it. You have no way of knowing whether the singer is in on the joke because the singer himself doesn’t know.
When I hear Buck Owens, I hear something more than I hear in Hank Williams or even in George Jones. Hank Williams maybe thought he was in on the joke, but he wasn’t. He died at 29 in the back seat of Cadillac on New Year’s Eve. The joke was on him all along, but he was spared knowing that. George Jones, for all the power of his voice, is somehow apart from his voice. He’s just a vessel for some greater power; it’s not really coming from him. He’s an actor and a performer, a great one, the greatest one in country music, and I can listen to him for hours, but the pain you hear is the pain of the character singing the song, not George himself.
But with Buck Owens, it’s like he’s trying to tell you it’s real. The pain you think he’s joking about—the earnest over-enunciation of the lyrics—he’s not joking, and that’s not a character he’s playing; it’s him. He’s singing happy songs that sound sad as hell. How does that happen? You thought he was joking. He wasn’t joking. You just didn’t listen. You got up and walked away when he came on to sing.
Intermission until September 15. As I gave notice of last week, I’m declaring an intermission for the next few weeks, so I can play with my new stuff (I also bought a new amp this past Saturday), finish Mel’s opera libretto, get the work machine cranked up for the fall so I can pay for the stuff I bought, maybe learn to play guitar, etc. September 15 is the target resumption date. A lot can happen in a month, and nutcrackers are notoriously fickle creatures, but I’ll at least show up on September 15 to report in.
“Six Days on the Road”. I wasn’t really thinking of Buck Owens when “Big Highway” first occurred to me. I was thinking of “Six Days on the Road,” the greatest truck-driving song ever, as performed by Dave Dudley. It’s a good example of a joyful song undercut by a hint of menace—things might not be okay when this guy gets home, hopped up on speed and with a Blues-Brothers-length trail of cops behind him, but for the moment he’s ecstatic. There’ve been a lot of covers of the song, which was written by Carl Montgomery and Earl Green. Dudley’s is the definitive one and the best one I’ve heard (Steve Earle really screws it up with all the snarling and sighing.) But Taj Mahal’s is fearsome good. You could set your watch by that drummer.
 Fourth note to self . . . .