It seems strange now to think that Buck Owens, he of Hee Haw fame and hits like “Tiger By the Tail” and “Act Naturally”, was ever considered outside of the mainstream. Compared to the slick countrypolitan sound that dominated Nashville at the time of his biggest hits, though, Owens’s honky-tonk style probably seemed pretty rebellious. Owens’s style was straightforward and infectious, and it didn’t need a whole lot of strings or studio gloss to get its point across, as Owens proved by stringing together 15 straight Number One hits.
As you’d expect, though, Owens didn’t just walk out of the mists with the Bakersfield Sound fully formed. Even before his first unfortunate session for Capitol Records in 1957, which Owens described as an attempt “to make the biggest hillbilly in Bakersfield into something he wasn’t”, he was paying his dues playing in Bakersfield clubs and recording for a series of small indie labels.
Bound for Bakersfield collects Owens’s output for the Pep, Chesterfield, and LaBrea labels. Everything here is a treat to listen to, even if you can immediately sense that it’s also the sound of Owens attempting to find his style. The disc opens up with a bit of studio chatter, with Owens sharing instructions like “don’t want too much cow on this bell”, before kicking off with “Blue Love”. A short run of boilerplate honky-tonk numbers follow, including “Down on the Corner of Love”, which was later recorded by Red Sovine and Bobby Bare, presented in pairs of released versions and alternate takes. The differences between the two are often interesting, but overall, the released versions display a spry energy that the alternate takes lack.
Bakersfield really takes off, though, with “Hot Dog”, a rockabilly number that Owens recorded under the name Corky Jones because he didn’t want his rockabilly leanings to get him ostracized from the country community. It’s a great showcase for Owens’s guitar chops (especially the hot overdubbed version). It’s accompanied by another Corky Jones track, “Rhythm and Booze”, which finds Owens offering his best Elvis imitation. From there, we hear more of Owens finding the sound that would make him famous on tracks like “There Goes My Love”, “Sweethearts in Heaven”, and the nimble instrumental “Honeysuckle”.
The small window of time represented by Bakersfield might not have been lucrative for Owens (most of his singles went nowhere, despite some of them being recorded by bigger artists), but his exposure to different sounds and styles served him well as he found his own style and then navigated the Nashville system. It’s safe to say that a lot of what we know of as country music wouldn’t exist without Buck Owens’s influence, and without his time in the Bakersfield trenches, Buck Owens as we know him probably wouldn’t have existed either.
- Multiple songs Myspace