Bakersfield Roundup

Buckaroos Merle

Don Rich and The Buckeroos
That Fiddlin Man
Omnivore Recordings
Rating: 3 ½ out of 5 stars

The Buckeroos Play Buck & Merle
Omnivore Recordings
Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

Vince Gill and Paul Franklin
Bakersfield
MCA Recordings
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

If you were to make a map of country music, Nashville, Austin and Bakersfield would rank as hub cities. Each of these locations has served, and continue to serve, to be important musical breeding grounds. The hard-edged honky tonk of the Bakersfield Sound blossomed in the 1950s and 1960s with Buck Owens and Merle Haggard being its best-known ambassadors. Three new Bakersfield-centric CDs are tied to these two music giants, although in a different ways.

Two of the discs – That Fiddlin’ Man and The Buckeroos Play Buck And Merle – contain vintage material by Don Rich, who was Buck Owens’ guitarist and right-hand man. Although under-recognized today (he died tragically young in a motorcycle accident in 1974), Rich and his distinctive staccato picking was a key element of the Bakersfield sound. During Owens’ heyday, Rich did a number of instrumental albums with the Buckeroos; however, his records never the recognition that his boss’ did.

Of the two CDs, That Fiddlin’ Man ranks as the more significant release. The 20-song set includes 10 tracks from the out-of-print 1971 album along with another 10 additional cuts drawn from 13 other albums made between 1963-1970. This collection serves as an excellent reminder that Rich was a talented fiddler as well as a world-class guitarist. Whether it’s the classic “Orange Blossom Special” or the original “Kern County Breakdown,” Rich and the Buckeroos deliver lively performances. While occasionally the tracks come across like standard barn-dance performances, the CD holds a number of memorable moments. The highly entertaining, up-tempo dance tunes “Bile ‘Em Cabbage Down,” “Catfish Capers” and “Buckersfield Breakdown” are particular highlights. Some standout guitar/fiddle interplay marks “Pretty Girl Hoe Down” while the pedal steel and fiddle work wonderfully together on “Faded Love” and “Dublin Waltz.”

Plays Buck And Merle plays more like a curio.  Its 22 tracks merge two Buckeroos albums: 1965’s The Buck Owens Songbook and 1971 The Songs of Merle Haggard. The Owens material are pure instrumentals and the playing, not surprisingly, is first-rate. Too often, however, the straight-forward renditions feel like karaoke versions of the originals. The Owens covers do feature several highpoints, such as the sweeping pedal steel in “Together Again” or the energetic renditions of “My Heart Skips A Beat” and “Act Naturally.”

The Buckeroos are in a more adventurous mood on the Haggard tracks. A fuzzy guitar adds color to “Today I Started Loving You Again” and keyboards brings a freshness to cuts like “Mama Tried” and “The Fightin’ Side Of Me.” Rich’s expressive guitar work really stands out “Silver Wings,” providing a fine substitute for actual vocals. One dated quality with the Haggard material is the Countrypolitian-like vocals that surface in some songs; it sounds kitschy today, resulting in something like “honky tonk bachelor pad music.”

Bakersfield, the new Vince Gill/Paul Franklin collaboration, is stocked with old Owens and Haggard tunes, but it also is most contemporary sounding of the three releases. Gill and the pedal steel master Franklin don’t do anything fancy on this 10-tune set (which alternates between Owens and Haggard songs) and that is what makes this tribute works – they let these songs be the focus.

Initially, these new versions suffer slightly compared to the originals. Gill’s smooth vocals on the opening track “Foolin’ Around” don’t fully equally Owens’ twangy singing, while Haggard was more believable as a “Branded Man” than Gill is here. Gill does catch stride on “Together Again,” where his singing projects a real poignancy. The song also has a great pedal steel solo around halfway through that demonstrates Franklin’s genius. Franklin and Gill’s playing bring some sting to “The Bottle Let Me Down,” where Gill’s singing is nice but goes down a bit too easily.

Gill handles heartache more convincingly on “He Don’t Deserve You Anymore” and the divorce melodrama “Holding Things Together.”  Two other terrific efforts come on the up-tempo tunes, “Nobody’s Fool But Yours” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” with the latter serving as another fine showcase for Franklin and Gill’s musicianship.

Gill and Franklin’s salute to two of their idols, which clocks in at under 38 minutes, might not rate as a masterwork, but the disc is full of affection and expertly played music, which makes it a joy to listen to.

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