Imagine going into a country music karaoke bar and rather than singing to a machine, you get The Buckaroos to provide your musical accompaniment. That was sort of the idea behind The Buck Owens Songbook by The Buckaroos, when it was initially released in 1965. The album marked the first time the group had recorded without Buck, and featured 12 instrumental versions of his songs. Fans really were encouraged to sing along with the record too, as this quote from the original liner notes indicates: "Just in case you're not sure of all the words, we are enclosing a sheet with lyrics to every song arranged for easy reading."
Six years later, The Buckaroos decided to honor another brilliant songwriter in this fashion. The album was titled The Songs of Merle Haggard, and featured instrumental versions of ten of his tunes. Recording an LP of Haggard's songs made a lot of sense, as he had actually been a Buckaroo himself once. In fact, he even came up with the band's great name. For some reason, Capitol Records did not include a lyric sheet with The Songs of Merle Haggard, but that oversight has been rectified now.
Omnivore Recordings have combined The Buck Owens Songbook and The Songs of Merle Haggard into the 22 track, single CD The Buckaroos Play Buck & Merle. All of the original liner notes have been preserved, plus the lyrics to all songs, and there is also "A Chat With The Buckaroos Today," included in the booklet. This is a huge treat for fans, as these recordings have been out of print for decades.
The Buckaroos were led by Don Rich, who played guitar and fiddle. His arrangements of these songs are unlike anything I have ever heard. Somehow The Buckaroos managed to retain the honky-tonk edge of both Buck and Merle, while adding a high-gloss, radio-friendly sheen. In Nashville at the time, Billy Sherrill and other producers were forging a highly commercial style that came to be called "countrypolitan." It was country-lite, and while the records sold well, guys like Buck and Merle were the exact opposite of it. The "outlaw" movement, led by Waylon and Willie later took up the cause.
So it was a real challenge for The Buckaroos to make music in this vein without compromising their integrity. I cannot think of anyone besides them who successfully walked this line, and that is what makes this disc so great.
In 1975, Willie Nelson would weave a similar musical magic with his landmark Red Headed Stranger album. I know he was a fan of The Buckaroos, but by the time Stranger was released, Don Rich was gone. In 1974, Rich lost his life in a motorcycle accident. He was just 33 years old.
In conjunction with Buck & Merle, Omnivore have also just issued That Fiddlin' Man, by Don Rich and The Buckaroos. Together, the two discs present a wonderful look at Buck's backing band. I think they were the best in the business, and their music just gets better with age. I love both of them, and actually find it a little hard to choose one over the other. Both are great. If pressed though, I would have to give the nod to Buck & Merle. That is mostly because of the 1971 Merle Haggard material. I believe The Buckaroos were growing every year, and had reached a peak in 1971.
I say get 'em both though, because nobody makes records like these anymore. Actually, nobody but The Buckaroos ever made them in the first place. Fantastic stuff, without a doubt.