Monday, January 26, 2009

Song of the Week: "The Streets of Bakersfield", Buck Owens & the Buckeroos

A couple of years ago I found myself bar-hopping on Broadway in Nashville, Tennessee with a friend of mine named Jeff. It's a pretty cool experience as bar after bar has a band playing and rarely is there ever a cover. Truth be told, however, most of the music is pretty bland. It quickly became difficult to distinguish one Wrangler Jeans wearing, nasally-voiced, soft edged country singer from the next. Then, somewhere around the 8th bar we entered that night, we found a band that was a little different. Inside Robert's Western, Ike Johnson and the Roadhouse Rangers were tearing through a set of honky tonk numbers that proved a twangy guitar and pedal steel still had a place in Nashville. Five dollars in their tip jar will get you pretty much any song you want to hear. I had $5 and I had a hankering to hear a little something from Buck Owens and the Buckeroos as Buck had just died a few weeks earlier. Without hesitation the band broke into a Buck number. Two Bud Light Swilling cowboys began booing and yelled out "that ain't country" as the song was finished. Ike Johnson retorted with a, and I paraphrase, "if Buck ain't country, then nothing is."

Buck Owens and the Buckeroos were very much country. But, as my story illustrates, they weren't ever part of the Nashville machine that produced increasingly clinically clean music. The Buckeroos were the leaders of a very different sound. A honky tonk sound that brought in rock-n-roll and pop elements with flawless two-part harmonies, stunningly catchy melodies, and jaw-dropping Telecaster work. The country sound they created became known as the Bakersfield Sound, so named for the dirty California town the Buckeroos called home. And that sound (also preached by fellow Bakersfield musician, Merle Haggard) would become wildly popular despite it's arm's-length distance from Nashville. Starting in 1963, the Buckeroos  reached the #1 spot on the country charts with Act Naturally, (do click on that link just to see the heavy lady eating chicken during the song!) a song The Beatles would cover just the next year. Before it was all done, the band would go on to have an impressive 20 #1 hits on the country charts. Buck's clean and  compelling voice had a lot to do with that success. But the band had a lot to do with it as well. Buck Owens and the Buckeroos were a singular cohesive unit until 1971, when bassist and vocalist Doyle Holly departed. Tom Brumley laid down some juicy pedal steel. And no real music fan, or guitarist, would forget to mention the powerful work of Buckeroo guitarist Don Rich. Rich was just important to the Buckeroos as was Buck. Rich's guitar work is nothing less than groundbreaking with deep, fast, melodic Telecaster work that would come to signify the Bakersfield sound more than anything else. And his vocal ability rivaled Buck's and complimented Buck's as this video of him taking the lead on Wham Bam demonstrates. In fact the two built a musical synergy that made each other greater. The brilliant guitarist, Buck Owens often demurring to the guitar work of Don Rich and the more than capable vocalist, Rich, complimenting Owens' lead vocals with his own falsetto vocals. To point, the two musicians were so integral to the total sound that the two shared center stage at all time, often sharing the same microphone. All this can be seen in this great live performance of My Heart Skips A Beat as introduced by Jimmy Dean.

Don Rich passed away in 1974 in an auto accident and the Buckeroos were never the same. Our Song of the Week is one of the last song's Rich ever recorded with the Buckeroos. The song, written by Homer Joy in 1972 is about life in the dirty cattle and oil town of Bakersfield California. The Song is The Streets of Bakersfield.  In it Rich beautifully compliments Owens' vocals with pitch-perfect harmonies. The pianist lays down a great bass-heavy backbone to the song (listen at 1:27 as the piano moves to the fore) and Brumley decorates the song with beautiful fills. But the real beauty of the song is Rich's Spanish influenced guitar riff (doubled by Brumley) which gives the song it's distinctive, south of the border feel. I hope you enjoy Buck Owens and the Buckeroo's Streets of Bakersfield. If you like it, there are about 50 more of their songs that you will like just as much.


  1. This is a sweet tune accented by that sweet guitar fill. What do you think's going on there? Sounds like a nylon stringed guitar recorded twice, one for each channel?

    Let me get this straight. I can't judge you and your fancy leather outfits until after I haul myself over to I-99 and drive for an eternity to your sweaty, dusty, run-down Bakersfield? Well I ask only one thing in return. Come on over to Davisville, California and check out my old stomping grounds before you even think about looking at me!

  2. one of the guitars is definitely a slide. I assume it is the pedal steel. The other sounds like an acoustic...perhaps a nylon. The two are mixed together and pumped out of both channels.

    There are various stories about the origin of the song, but one compelling story is that Homer Joy believed to have a contract to write songs for Buck and would get to use the Buckeroos to record his own stuff in return. After being told the Buckeroos wouldn't be his house band, he walked back to his motel room (in Bakersfield) feeling alone and let down and wrote this song about the patch of dirt town.

    I would love to have one of those leather suits the band is wearing!