The Buckaroos were best known as Buck Owens' band, but they were a force to be reckoned with in their own right. The group started out with Buck in Bakersfield, CA, and had a bit of a revolving door in the beginning. As a matter of fact, Merle Haggard was a Buckaroo before he went solo. As it turns out though, while the billing was always Buck Owens and The Buckaroos, the real leader of The Buckaroos was Don Rich.
Rich was a fine guitarist, but as a fiddler, he was incredible. Omnivore Records has just released Rich's extremely rare 1971 album That Fiddlin' Man on CD. With enough bonus tracks to effectively turn the original into a double, this is the unadorned Bakersfield sound as heard through the fiddle. For a fan such as myself, it is like hearing the Sermon on the Mount firsthand.
In the '60s, the idea in the music business was to strike while the iron was hot. For artists of all persuasions, the pressure was on to release at least one album a year, if not two or three. Even The Beatles had to deal with this, for a while at least. While the Fabs were big enough Buck Owens fans to cover his "Act Naturally," he still had to deal with the insatiable appetite of the record label. This meant that he and The Buckaroos spent a lot of time recording. For example, in 1966 they released four albums; three studio sets, plus a live LP.
A happy by-product of all of this was the inclusion of tracks highlighting the fiddle playing of Don Rich. The ten songs that made up the original That Fiddlin' Man were all pulled from previously released Buck Owens and The Buckaroos albums. So yes, most of this material has been available on CD before now, but you would have had to have bought all eight discs, then made your Don Rich mixtape to have it.
I never did that, actually I never even thought of it. When you listen to Buck's On the Bandstand (1963), Rich's shining version of "Orange Blossom Special" falls between "I Can't Stop My Lovin' You," and "Cotton Fields." For me, this is where it belongs. I know that album really well, as it was one that my Dad played a lot when I was a kid. And that was the case with the Rich tunes, they were always sprinkled in among the other, more straightforward country tunes.
"Orange Blossom Special" is the opening track of That Fiddlin' Man, and I have to say, it sounds better than ever. It is really something special to hear these songs, and this man playing the way he does, all together in one place. It is a whole new context, and I found myself even more impressed with him. As mentioned earlier, the original album held ten tracks. Omnivore has doubled down by adding another ten songs, all hailing from the same period, and from many of the same records.
I understand that a whole CD of fiddle tunes may not be everybody's first choice, but this music is not the acquired taste one might think it would be. There is nothing "old-timey" about the music, at least not to my ears. And I should clarify that these are not solo-fiddle tracks either. This is credited to Don Rich and The Buckaroos, and they back him up as strongly as they ever did with Buck. It's just that the fiddle is up-front. To me, this is "real" country, and it is fantastic.
Don Rich was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1974, at the age of 33. He had been with Buck Owens since 1958, which was just about half of his short life. It is another tragic musician's tale, but his music sure stands the test of time. In listening to That Fiddlin' Man you hear a world class fiddler, at the peak of his powers. If you dig old-school country, like Buck and Merle, then you can't miss with Don Rich. That Fiddlin' Man is a tribute to an amazing talent, and one that I am very happy to have.