The king of the Bakersfield country sound, Buck Owens (born 1929), was originally a Capitol Records session man for rockabilly artists Gene Vincent and Wanda Jackson. In the mid- 1960s he enjoyed a streak of fifteen No. 1 singles on the country chart and was the James Brown (“hardest working man”) of country, playing hundreds of shows a year. He had his own publishing company and booking agency, and started buying radio stations.
Owens kept the music flowing with sparkling singles such as “Buckaroo” and his March album I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail. Its title song is a typically wry vignette about a guy struggling to keep up with his club-hopping woman. The album also includes “Crying Time,” which Ray Charles covered at the end of the year. A decade earlier, Charles had outraged purists by combining gospel with R&B into soul, but when that was no longer controversial, he turned his attention to an even more radical experiment: fusing soul with country. Charles took “Crying Time” to No. 6 on the pop charts, No. 5 R&B, and No. 1 easy listening. “I’m crazy about Buck,” said Charles, who won two Grammys for the song.
Owens and the Beatles were label mates at Capitol Records, and Owens added the Beatles’ version of “Twist and Shout” to his set. He and guitarist-fiddler Don Rich would imitate Liverpool accents for between-song banter, and wore Beatle wigs when their band, the Buckaroos, played Carnegie Hall. The Beatles in turn picked up all Owens’s albums when they came to Los Angeles, and started writing their own country-rock songs, such as “I’ll Cry Instead,” “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party,” and “I’m a Loser.” The pinnacle of the Beatles’ country exploration would be Ringo Starr’s cover of Owens’s “Act Naturally.” The song’s theme of movie stardom fit for the Beatles’ second soundtrack album, Help!, released in August.
When Owens acknowledged publicly that he liked the Beatles, he later recalled, “People would say, ‘You shouldn’t be sayin’ that. You should be talkin’ about country music.’ And I said, ‘Why not? It’s the truth! Why can’t I say I’m a Beatles fan?’ I used to get criticized for that.”
When Owens covered Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee” on I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail, country doctrinaires began questioning his authenticity, again, in an echo of the attacks Dylan would soon endure for playing rock. But Owens took the opposite tack of the defiant Dylan. In March he bought an ad in the Nashville paper Music City News that read, “I shall sing no song that is not a country song. I shall make no record that is not a country record. I refuse to be known as anything but a country singer. I am proud to be associated with country music. Country music and country music fans made me what I am today. And I shall not forget it.”
But like a skilled lawyer, he later clarified, “I see [the song] ‘Memphis’ as bein’ rockabilly. I didn’t say I wasn’t gonna do rockabilly. I just said I ain’t gonna sing no song that ain’t a country song. I won’t be known as anything but a country singer. I meant that, I still mean that. Listen to the lyrics. If they’re not country lyrics . . . the melody . . . if that ain’t a country melody. The only thing was, a black man was singin’ it, a black man who I was a big fan of. So, my famous saying for my little pledge—I didn’t date it. I really meant it at the time. I don’t mean for it to be taken lightly.”
4. Dana Spiardi, “Happy Birthday, Buck Owens: A Natural Class Act,” No Depression (blog), August 12, 2012, http://www.nodepression.com/profiles/blogs/happy-birthday- buck-owens-a-natural-class-act.
5. Sisk, Buck Owens, 97.
6. Cackett, “Buck Owens Biography.”