New goodies from the vaults of Bakersfield country legend Buck Owens

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Four music-biz vets formed Omnivore Recordings in 2010, and since then they've released a steady stream of interesting-looking reissues. It took me a while to take note, though last year I reviewed an Alex Chilton collection on the imprint called Free Again: The "1970" Sessions. That anthology brings together tracks the pop genius cut as his first band, the Box Tops, was disintegrating, capturing a raw pop glow that presaged the emergence of Big Star. Still, it wasn't until last fall, when the label announced a slew of vintage country reissues, that I started paying close attention.

Of late, they've released Heartbreak, a 1982 album by the great English folk guitarist Bert Jansch cut in Los Angeles, and on February 5 comes Sunshine Boy, a two-CD collection of demos and unreleased studio material from Townes Van Zandt. But what really caught my eye was a couple of titles with music culled from the vaults of Bakersfield country icon Buck Owens.

Owens, of course, was one of country music's most prolific and successful singers, a hard-core honky-tonk master whose band the Buckaroos forged a lean trademark sound distinguished by the superbly economic, effortlessly melodic lead guitar playing of Don Rich, who was only 19 when he joined the band in 1960. (The occasional presence of pedal-steel master Tom Brumley also jacked up the twang quotient on many of the best songs.) Owens scored 20 number one hits on the country charts for Capitol during the '60s, and in 1969 his massive popularity and easy charisma made him a natural host for a new television show called Hee Haw, a kind of down-home, rural answer to Laugh-In. Owens would perform hundreds of popular country songs on the show through 1986, when he left the program. The standard practice was for the Buckaroos to cut the backing tracks in advance, with Owens adding a scratch vocal, but it turns out he didn't fart his way through the sessions.

Honky Tonk Man: Buck Sings Country Classics collects 18 performances from the vaults with those scratch vocals, and while I'd say these songs don't really achieve the heights of Buck's studio albums, the collection is a blast, and it's an awful nice surprise to hear new tunes from the singer, who died in 2006. The song selection spans country history, with prewar standards like "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It" (a song recorded by both protocountry singers and jazz artists), the Jimmy Rodgers classic "In the Jailhouse Now" (although the Owens version veers closer to the honky-tonk rendition made famous by Webb Pierce), and the Woody Guthrie tune "Oklahoma Hills." There are also a couple of Hank Williams tunes, the giddy Bob Wills nugget "Stay a Little Longer," and the Faron Young masterpiece "Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young." But the album also includes songs that were hits at the time the record was cut: the Johnny Russell number "Rednecks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer" and Charlie Pride's "Is Anybody Goin' to San Antone." The collection opens with a version of Johnny Horton's immortal "Honky Tonk Man," the same song one of Owens's greatest disciples, Dwight Yoakam, would launch his career with in 1986. You can check it out below.

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During the heyday of the Buckaroos, Capitol Records gave the band its own deal, and between 1966 and '71 they released a dozen albums consisting mostly of scorching instrumentals, but peppered with some vocal tracks by various members, including Don Rich. In 1969 Owens opened his own recording studio in Bakersfield, eliminating the need to travel to his label's Hollywood studios, where efficiency was demanded. A year later Rich made his own album with the Buckaroos featuring ten George Jones songs, but the album was never issued, and it was only recently uncovered in the Owens vaults by Buckaroos keyboardist Jim Shaw.

Don Rich Sings George Jones is decidedly raw and stripped-down (the studio had 16-track capabilities, but only eight were used for this recording), and naturally, the band kills it. Rich, who died in a motorcycle accident in 1974 at the age of 32, was a simpatico backing vocalist for Owens, nailing the high harmonies as easily as he drew breath. On his own Rich can't match the charisma of his boss, and he doesn't come close to matching the brilliance of Jones—but who does? It's still a terrific find, and while it's not for everyone, any hard-core fan of vintage honky-tonk will want to check it out. The CD release adds four tracks by Owens singing Jones tunes—from the same Hee Haw sessions that produced the material on Honky Tonk Man. Below you can hear Rich's take on "The Race Is On."

Today's playlist:

Carlos Bica & Azul, Things About (Clean Feed)
Otomo Yoshihide's New Jazz Trio +, Lonely Woman (Doubt Music)
True West, Hollywood Holiday Revisited (Atavistic)
Richard Carrick, The Flow Cycle for Strings (New World)
George Garzone, Jacek Kochan, Dominik Wania, and Andrzej Swies, Filing the Profile (Intuition)

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