Pete Johnson’s Blast from My Past: Buck Owens and the Buckaroos “Live at Carnegie Hall”

What can a person say about one of the greatest artists, one of the greatest bands ever put together, one of the greatest live albums ever recorded at one of the greatest venues in the world? This person says, “I am gonna say a lot”.

My love and admiration of Buck Owens dates back to my earliest childhood and the “Hee-Haw” television show. My Italian Grandfather loved “Hee-Haw”. There was nothing better when my “Opa” ( I know) looked over at me and smiled during a funny joke or sketch, or during a great piece of music. It was if to say, ”Isn’t this fun, my boy ?”. Buck Owens, in many ways, was a victim of his own success. He gets dismissed today by some and I find that to be a tragic misunderstanding of one of the towering musicians and artists America ever produced. Buck Owens was forged in poverty. It was adversity and poverty that gave him his ambition and drive. This man worked everyday to be great, or at leas,t to be never poor again. When you work everyday to be great you usually end up pretty good at things in life.

I find this record to be the epitome of Buck Owens greatness. The show here is one of the few real live albums from an actual concert. This concert was only the second time a country act had ever played Carnegie Hall. It was recorded by Buck’s longtime genius produce, Ken Nelson. I love how Buck mentions his name and gives him props. He knew what a special night this was. He knew the opportunity and what it meant to his own career. It speaks to the age old country mouse/city mouse dynamic in America, where big city people get all arrogant and look down at the supposed “rubes”. In this case, Buck was the smart mouse.

The great thing about Buck and his band (especially Don Rich) was that they had a tight, funny and entertaining show that was developed the hard way; through thousands of gigs. I am listening to this record right now and it is still funny. But even when the band had fun with the audience, they played like the masters they are. People do not do it at this level today. They do not do it to this degree of success. The audience roars with laughter and appreciation. Some people may mock the country corn pone aspect of this time period, but I find it to be a lovely example of America, and the respect the audience and acts had for each other and the boundaries of propriety.

There is a great moment that I love on this record. The first song they perform is “Act Naturally”. It is a small moment. Obviously, the fact the Beatles had recorded this song fairly recently, plays a part in the reaction. Buck sings the first line, and then paused singing while the band vamps for a moment, to allow the audience to acknowledge that they recognized the song. The smoothness of the transition reveals the tightness and focus of the band and shows the respect they had for their audience. After the song, Buck half jokes, “We never got the chance too play NY. We are gonna pick and sing for ya, and we are gonna do it to ya, I mean do it for ya tonight”. This band did the audience, and did them with a vengeance. The supreme confidence is evident in the easy, loose manner they performed. The band was like an elite army ranger unit going behind enemy lines. They knew the success of their NY mission was going to be predicated on executing their plan well. This album highlights the flawless execution. You can listen to any live album and hear the human elements of people making mistakes. Charlie Watt’s late snare drum on the live intro, on the “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out” album, is one clear example. This is one album where I have listened to it over and over and I hear no mistakes at all. Even the faux imitation Don Rich does of Luther Perkins being sloppy, is perfectly executed. It is quite a feat that is not equaled anywhere in music that I can think of off hand.

I am going to digress a bit here and tell you of my magical pilgrimage to Bakersfield to see Buck Owens live. I have family in CA. and I love them dearly. Hanging out with my cousins and my aunt and uncle there is one of the joys in my life. My cousin Michael is a character. He has character and is one at the same time. He comes from an acting family and has done some professionally. I loved him in the old Steven Bochco show Cop Rock. I will bet you had no idea that Sheryl Crow played a singing detective or something in that show did ya? Well she did. When Mick and I get together we can have some serious, serious fun. He is the kind of guy where you can go out for the day, to say an event like the San Gennaro festival, and the next thing you know you are in a mob speakeasy bar and Mick is standing on the on the table making mobsters and waitress’s cry when he sings old Sinatra songs. “Drinks for all my friends, especially Mick”, seems to be a mantra for people when they meet him. So there was no better man to accompany me on my journey to Bakersfield.

We set off Hunter Thompson style in the early afternoon from Los Angeles and began the journey. One of our first stops in Bakersfield (a kind of rough and scary place by the way) was by accident, the bar of country singer/trucker legend Red Simpson. We started drinking and the adventures began. After a few hours we staggered out into the brutal Bakersfield heat and found a Mexican joint and ate. Great Mexican food in Bakersfield! Then we wandered over to Buck’s Crystal Palace to wait for the show. One of the wonderful things about hanging with Mickey is that girls love him and swarm like flies. He charmed the female bartender at the Palace and she made sure we had a great time. Now, Buck was in the last years of his life at this point, but you could tell he loved playing music for his fans. The set up there was amazing. He played Friday’s and Saturday night. His band would play some and then Buck would come out and sing some. It was so cool that anyone in the audience could write a request on paper, fold it over and give it to the bass player and Buck would do it. I requested the song “Truck Driving Man” and Buck whipped out with a smile. The thing that blew my mind is that he got requests for other artists’ songs. He mentioned a request that night for George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today”. Buck said, “Well this ain’t my hit, but I love ol’ George, so I will sing it anyway”, and he did the song. Amazing!

Buck had already had cancer at this point and had about half of his tongue removed. This clearly affected him, but the resilience and grace that man showed as a high level performance machine, makes me tear up today. He was a gazillionaire at this stage and did not have to do anything he did not want to do. He wanted to be there. That fact makes me well up in tears when I really think about this man’s life. I also tear up with laughter thinking about the ride back to Los Angeles with Michael. It was a late night. One of the funniest, greatest musical and family times I ever had in my life. That is how I can sum up the recording of Buck Owens, “Live at Carnegie Hall” too. If you do not own this record, go out and buy it. It is the best, and you can thank me later. ;o)

Leave a Comment