Buck Owens (1929-2006), legendary singer, guitarist and country music entertainer, has never really gotten his due as an influence on rock & roll. For a brief window of time, before the Beatles turned the record industry on its head, the sounds of Fender Telecasters, surf and hot rod instrumentals and twang carried the day, and Buck Owens (and his band, the Buckaroos) were the link between the renegade Bakersfield (Calif.) Sound and the pop hit makers of Southern California, such as the Ventures. Bob Pomeroy explores that musical terrain for PKM.
On January 28, 1964, country singer Buck Owens entered Capitol Recording Studios in Hollywood much as he had numerous times previously. Under contract with Capitol, with his band the Buckaroos in tow, plus a couple of extra hired-gun session musicians, he looked to cut another hit record.
That session did indeed produce two big singles, the mid-tempo stepper “My Heart Skips a Beat” and the tear-jerk masterpiece “Together Again.” In fact, the two songs would compete with each other, the former getting knocked from the top spot by the latter before they switched places again, for a total of nine weeks at number one on the Billboard country chart in the summer of 1964. With its signature vocal harmonies by Owens and Don Rich, twangy guitars and driving rhythm, “My Heart Skips a Beat” has all of the classic elements of the Bakersfield Sound, that style of California country music which, after simmering in Central Valley honky-tonks since the Depression, was then entering its peak commercial and creative phase. The song also marks a convergence of three West Coast musical institutions, each experiencing their respective heydays—that aforementioned Bakersfield Sound; the Capitol Records country division, West Coast wing, headed by producer Ken Nelson; and the Fullerton-based Fender Electric Instruments Company.
“My Heart Skips A Beat”-Buck Owens, 1964 single:
A closer look at the personnel records for the session also reveals a fascinating connection between Bakersfield country and instrumental surf music (and its sub-genre hot-rod) during an era when many name players dappled in both of these distinctly Californian styles.
Owens elaborated on this connection somewhat during 1989 interview with James “The Hound” Marshall that aired on Marshall’s WFMU radio show that year. About “My Heart Skips a Beat,” he said, “On this thing I used a drummer. Mel Chive [sic] I believe his name was. Used to play with The Ventures.”
Actually, the drummer in question, according to session records, was the great Mel Taylor, indeed of the mighty Ventures.
“Now the drums,” Owens continued. “It’s got a little pause.”
To demonstrate, he sang the first part of the song’s hook/chorus.
“‘Oh my heart…’”
He then stopped and made a quick sort of farting sound to the imitate the drum roll, dropped there before the chorus resumes.
“A little thing on the tom-tom,” Owens added. “Now, that was my suggestion.”
That quickest of drum rolls, contained on a single beat, was, in many respects just another novelty gag, a simulation of the skipping heart, an extra bit of finesse to make the hook a little more catchy. But it’s also a truncated version of the same trick heard in countless classic surf instrumentals. And while prominent drums were the norm in surf music, they were, at the time, still a source of controversy in country.
“This guy, a fan from New York, wrote me a letter about too much drums on my records,” Owens recalled. “And I’m thinkin’ ‘What in the Hell is he talkin’ about? In 1963?’”
At the time of the “My Heart Skips a Beat” session, Buck Owens and The Buckaroos operated without a full-time drummer, Owens having released his previous skin-beater, the Bakersfield musician Mel King, after a disagreement at a gig in Albuquerque earlier that month. King was eventually replaced by 17-year-old Texan, Willie Cantu, whose playing the Buckaroos had witnessed at a strip joint in Corpus Christi two months prior. Cantu’s speed and his finesse at accenting the strippers’ bump-and-grind impressed the band members such that, on their recommendation, Owens hired the kid via phone call shortly after firing King. However, Cantu initially worked as the Buckaroo road drummer, while Mel Taylor played on most of their studio sessions for the remainder of 1964.
Taylor, by then a full-time member of the instrumental group The Ventures, also had a fairly lengthy country music resume by the time he worked with Buck Owens. Born in Brooklyn in 1933, but raised in Johnson City, Tennessee, Taylor began singing and playing country and bluegrass guitar with family members while also learning to play drums in his high school band. By his teens he was playing weekend dances and working on local radio and television with various local groups in both Johnson City and nearby Bristol, Virginia. The latter city is now widely accepted as the birthplace of modern country music, the scene of the proverbial Big Bang where talent scout and producer Ralph Peer, of Victor Records, made the earliest recordings of both Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family within days of each other in 1927. Taylor got the country music mojo, so to speak, on this hallowed ground.
Eventually, touring with country acts led him to relocate to Los Angeles in 1958. There he initially split time working as a meat cutter and picking up gigs as house drummer at country music venues, starting at the Lariat Club in L.A. and then at the fabled North Hollywood Palomino Club. Taylor’s flamboyance and finesse behind the drum kit caught the attention of various producers and independent record labels and he soon found himself working as a session player, contributing to a range of material, with much emphasis on the guitar-driven, drum roll-heavy instrumental records that were taking off at the time. His own instrumental single, “That’s It” b/w “Drum Fever”, by Mel Taylor and The Darts, recorded for the small, independent Toppa label in 1961, features a snare roll that’s nearly identical to the one he played on “My Heart Skips a Beat”.
“Drum Fever”-Mel Taylor:
Taylor’s instrumental session drum work put him in friendly competition with the likes of the great Sandy Nelson and Wrecking Crew legend Hal Blaine, and eventually led him to join The Ventures, replacing their original drummer, Howie Johnson, in 1962.
It’s unclear exactly how Buck Owens came to hire Mel Taylor for the “My Heart Skips a Beat” session, whether the choice was made by Owens or producer Ken Nelson. However, the fact that Owens and other Bakersfield luminaries had previously worked with members of The Ventures is well documented.
“The guitar player, Nokie Edwards, we used to work together,” Owens confirmed in that WFMU interview. “In fact, he used to work for me before I had a name band and I just used local bands.”
The locality in question would be Tacoma, Washington, where Owens briefly owned a share in radio station KAYE and, in 1959, hosted a weekly live country music TV show and radio simulcast called The Bar K Jamboree. Owens’ backup band for the show, The Bar K Gang, included Nokie Edwards, whom, according to Eileen Sisk’s Buck Owens: The Biography, Owens hailed as “a great thumbpicker” in the Chet Atkins vein. The Bark K Gang also included future Ventures drummer Howie Johnson, future Buckaroo band leader Don Rich, then only 17 years old, future member of Merle Haggard’s Strangers, Don Markham, steel player Dusty Rhodes, and others. Owens also claimed to have helped Edwards land side gigs backing big-name country stars like Lefty Frizzell and others when the Grand Ole Opry tour came through the area.
At the same time that he played in the Bar K Gang, Edwards began forming his longtime friendship with Ventures founders Don Wilson and Bob Bogle, who were then actively gigging around Tacoma as The Versatones. Meanwhile, Owens, by then under contract with Capitol Records, increasingly split his time between playing TV, radio, and clubs in Tacoma and recording in Hollywood. Eventually he sold his share in KAYE and returned to Bakersfield after the release, in 1960, of “Under Your Spell,” his first single to chart. By which point Edwards had joined The Ventures, initially playing, not Chet Atkins-style guitar, but bass, and they soon scored with their massive hit, the instrumental “Walk Don’t Run,” also in 1960. To add more intricacy to the web of Bakersfield/Tacoma cross-breeding going on at the time, Edwards also struck up another longtime friendship and ongoing collaboration with Gene Moles, the Bakersfield guitarist who would later play for Red Simpson and define the twang-heavy sound of trucker country. Moles played on numerous surf and hotrod instrumentals in the early ‘60’s, even using the moniker Gene “Draggin’ King” Moles, several with Mel Taylor on drums. One of the most notable of these releases was “Scratch” b/w “Night Run” by the Marksmen, a short-lived outfit that Moles formed with Edwards, their name borrowed from an earlier band by Bar K Gang member Don Markham!
“Night Run”-The Marksmen:
Apparently, the surest way to straighten the strands of entanglement between these parties was for everyone to pack up and, like the Beverly Hillbillies, move to Californy. By the end of 1960, pretty much everyone involved had relocated either to Bakersfield or Los Angeles, where Mel Taylor was already beating out the country shuffle at the Palomino Club and looking for more action.
Regarding all of these honky tonkers moonlighting on surf/hotrod instrumentals, musician and music historian Deke Dickerson, remarked “It was just a thing for a year or two.” Dickerson, who led the band for the grand opening concert for the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum’s 2013 exhibit The Bakersfield Sound: Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and California Country, added “Surf records were selling big and they figured they could make a quick buck.”
That surf/hotrod instrumental “thing,” however brief, held a lot in common with that other “thing” that happened roughly five or six years earlier when Elvis Presley’s seismic impact on the musical landscape briefly eclipsed country music, forcing many country singers to try their hands at rock’n’roll and rockabilly in an effort to stay relevant. The career of Buck Owens, whose musical heroes included Elvis, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard, benefitted from both trends. As early as the mid-Fifties he played Bakersfield’s Blackboard Café as a member of Bill Woods’ Orange Blossom Playboys. Woods, now regarded as one of the founders of the Bakersfield Sound (Merle Haggard wrote “Bill Woods from Bakersfield” in his honor) in that period cut a string of hybrid country and rock’n’roll, sax-honkin’ boppers for various small labels. According to a 2007 article by Rich Kienzle for Vintage Guitar Magazine entitled “Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, A Bunch of Twangy Guitars,” the Orange Blossom Playboys’ business card at the time read “Country music, rhythm and blues, rhumbas, pop, and polkas.” There Buck Owens explained, “If you was gonna make a living out in the West, you had to play dance music.”
For those less familiar with the Bakersfield Sound and its origins, it’s crucial to note that the audiences at the Blackboard Café, in Bakersfield, where Buck Owens played with Bill Woods, plus countless other Central Valley honky tonks, would have been, in the 1950’s, Okies and their offspring. They were descendants of Steinbeck’s Joad family and Dorothea Lange’s portrait subjects, once displaced from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri during the great Dust Bowl migration twenty years earlier, a migration that continued well into the World War II period as agricultural and industrial work boomed. Many of these folks grew up hearing and dancing to the Western swing music of Bob Wills, who, after leaving Tulsa, Oklahoma himself, settled on a ranch outside of Fresno. In the 1940’s, Wills enjoyed his period of peak popularity and commercial success playing large dances all around California. Wills was a star among Okies, at least to those who enjoyed leisure and money enough to indulge a love for music. As far back as the 1930’s, Wills’ band The Texas Playboys had incorporated amplification and drums, and cut the song “Ida Red” which became the basis for Chuck Berry’s rock’n’roll classic “Maybelline.”
“Ida Red”-Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys:
Wills’ use of electric guitars and drums stands as an early example of a performer’s need to boost volume sufficiently to be heard amid large, loud, and rowdy audiences. Such was the scene at the Blackboard Café in the mid-1950’s, to the extent that when Joe “King of the Strings” Maphis, session super-picker and bandleader for Southern California’s biggest live country music television show, The Town Hall Party, first arrived in Bakersfield and took in a set by Orange Blossom Playboys, it moved him to write what became the honky tonk standard “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music)”.
During this period Buck Owens had also established himself as an able and reliable guitarist with Capitol’s Ken Nelson, who booked Owens for many country and rock’n’roll sessions by the likes of Tommy Collins, Wanda Jackson, hillbilly rockers The Farmer Boys, and, as he told Rich Kienzle, “On a lot of Gene Vincent’s stuff.”
He even cut a few of his own rockabilly sides, including the blistering classic “Rhythm & Booze,” using the name Corky Jones order to avoid detection by the anti-rock ’n’ roll country music fans of the time.
“Rhythm & Booze”-Buck Owens:
All of this action served to expand Buck Owens’ musical repertoire and laid the foundation for the signature sound of his first hit records. The key elements of that sound were its driving rhythm and bright, trebly, electric guitars, characteristics it shared with those surf/hotrod instrumentals which ultimately became something like the tonal brothers from another mother to the Bakersfield Sound.
“I always equated it with the twangy guitar relatability,” Deke Dickerson explained. “The same way that Junior Brown can switch between ‘Sugarfoot Rag’ and ‘Pipeline/Walk Don’t Run’ in the same song. It’s like two DNA strands that are 90% similar. That can be some cross-breeding!”
We have the Fender Electric Instrument Company to thank for all of that twang. At the time of the “My Heart Skips a Beat” session, the guitar company was still owned by its namesake Leo Fender, and still based in Fullerton, California. Fender would sell his company to CBS one year later, on January 1, 1965, thus ending its now much revered “Pre-CBS” period when it was known for guitar necks hand shaped by Tadeo Gomez and amplifiers hand wired by Lupe Lopez, among other master craftspeople. Fender’s main contribution to the tone of both the Bakersfield Sound and instrumental surf/hotrod music of the early ‘60s, however, came from the development, in the preceding decade, of the solid body electric guitar.
Historians and collectors still debate the question of just who first invented the solid body, but most credit now goes to Merle Travis for vision and Paul Bigsby for execution. Bigsby’s handmade masterpieces from the 1940s and 1950s had a distinct cowboy guitar look to them and were favored by a handful of country pickers. These guitars are now probably more rare than Bigfoot sightings, and in the unlikely event that one might change hands among collectors, they can easily fetch six figures. But it was Fender that perfected the instrument for mass production in the form of the Fender Telecaster, one of the simplest and most enduring of all electric guitar designs. The Telecaster, more than probably anything else, is what gave Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, and countless other country twang-meisters of the era, their signature sound. (The same is true for the Fender Jazzmaster guitar in combination with their Showman model amplifiers and reverb units with respect to surf/hotrod instrumentals.) Rich Kienzle quotes Buckaroo steel guitarist Tom Brumley, “You couldn’t beat a Telecaster. They couldn’t afford not to use Telecasters. It was their sound.”
Buck Owens himself, in his interview with James Marshall, said, “Nothing played as good and nothing sounded as good as the ‘Tele’. All of the guitar players used to make fun of it. They used to call it a two-by-four. ‘Aw he’s got one o’ them Fender two-by-fours, man. It don’t make but one sound and that goes right through your eyes.’ But I see a lot of ‘em around today. A lot more than anything else.”
No stranger to Fender twang was producer and head of Capitol Records’ country division Ken Nelson. According to his 2008 Los Angeles Times obituary, Nelson had since the early ‘50s been “recording California country singers who were enthusiastically adopting Leo Fender’s then-new electric guitars to get a vibrant and twangy rock-influenced sound.” Nelson’s roster of country artists included Tex Williams, Hank Thompson, Ferlin Husky, Faron Young, Tommy Collins, Wynn Stewart, Jean Shepard, and many others. But Nelson also recognized early on the potential of rock ’n’ roll and encouraged Capitol executive and producer Nick Venet, then reluctant to sign many rock’n’roll acts, to embrace Gene Vincent, Wanda Jackson, and even Esquerita, Capitol’s wild and flamboyant answer to Little Richard.
Nelson gained a reputation for a hands-off working style in the studio booth, an almost zen production as no production approach that stood in direct contrast to that of the big Nashville country producers of the day, Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley. To hear Nelson tell it, much of the work occurred in his selection of artists, preferring those who already knew what they wanted to do in the studio and showed up fully rehearsed and prepared. He once summed it up by saying, “My theory has always been if you have to tell an artist what to do, if you have to show them how to sing, then they’re not real artists.” Many describe Nelson as the amiable guy in the booth who spent much of the session doodling on a note pad, occasionally chiming in when a take was good, or if a bum note was played, in other words, only when he could help.
“If I’m going to put my two cents into every record, it’ll be a Ken Nelson record. I didn’t want that. I wanted Merle Haggard. I wanted Buck Owens. I wanted Hank Thompson.”
While plenty of West Coast country stars of the day signed with his main major competitor, Columbia Records, Nelson managed to steer the two biggest stars of ‘60s West Coast country, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, onto the Capitol roster, and essentially established the label as the home of the Bakersfield Sound with the production of the compilation LP Country Music Hootenanny. Recorded live at the Bakersfield Civic Auditorium in 1963, Country Music Hootenanny showcases a who’s who line up that included Buck Owens, Merle Travis, Joe & Rose Lee Maphis, Johnny Bond, Tommy Collins, Rose Maddox, Jean Shepherd, Roy Clark, and more, gathered to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the broadcast of influential Bakersfield country music television show, Cousin Herb Henson’s Trading Post.
Buck Owens & the Buckaroos were already stars by this point —to hear the crowd’s response to their flawless rendition of “Act Naturally” you’d think they were something like a hillbilly Beatles (who, by the way, also cut a version of the song)—but Merle Haggard was still a relative unknown.
“Act Naturally”-Buck Owens & the Buckaroos, TV appearance, Feb. 1963:
It was at the Bakersfield Civic Auditorium that Nelson first heard Haggard perform, and approached Hag, offering a record deal that night, an offer that Haggard initially declined in loyalty to his small, independent label at the time. It wouldn’t be long, however, before Nelson bought Haggard’s contract and masters and brought him to the same Capitol Studios in Hollywood where Buck Owens, and all of those aforementioned country music names, not to mention Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and eventually even the Beach Boys, also recorded. In Merle Haggard’s case, in a twist uncharacteristic of Nelson, his first two LPs did not feature his regular guitar player, the legendary Roy Nichols. Instead, Nelson used hired guns Phil Baugh, James Burton, and Glen Campbell, the latter being a member of the famous Wrecking Crew group of session musicians. Campbell, prior to becoming a star himself, also briefly replaced Brian Wilson as bass player in the most quintessentially Californian band of all time, The Beach Boys. This during the Beach Boys’ last moment of their reverb-heavy, Fender-twangin’ “Surfin USA” phase before they abandoned the waves for the lush orchestral pop of Pet Sounds, rendering quaint any of the studio innovations at work on a Buck Owens record.
But the idea a honky tonk song featuring a surf instrumental styled drum-roll in the hook? In the case of “My Heart Skips a Beat”, whose chart success detracts not from the fact that it’s also a great, catchy, twangy tune, from a long-gone era when musical greatness and chart success were not mutually exclusive, it was an idea that was crazy enough to work.
Responding the charge that at various time he’d been called eccentric, Buck Owens commented “Different times people had written about me and they said that I’m eccentric. And I got to thinking ‘I’m gonna look that up in the dictionary. And, you know… ‘off center’. And for the first few years I was real offended when people would say I’m eccentric. But y’know, in reality, I am off-center. I certainly don’t come from the center. But by the same token, I offer no apology. And another thing, being eccentric could mean being out in front. When you’re out in front, that’s where the flak is.”
In that innovative drum-roll in “My Heart Skips a Beat”, as simple and gimmicky as it may be, we hear a deeper convergence—hard honky tonk meets surf music, the exchange between them caught on tape in the hallowed Capitol studios. Those involved probably didn’t intend to capture some great, golden moment in California music, but only of working that hook to score another AM radio hit. But capture a moment they did, however fleeting. In less than five years, as US engagement in Vietnam intensified, The Beatles, LSD, and multi-track recording would change the musical landscape forever.
Owens would, in 1968, even trade in his Fender twang to try his hand at the psychedelic country fuzz of “Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass?”. By then, California had entered another musical moment entirely.
“Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass?”-Buck Owens, 1969:
But listen to “My Heart Skips a Beat,” and other prime Buck Owens material, and hear what now sounds undeniably pure: the moment when the Bakersfield Sound truly arrived after coming a long way down many hard roads, and this just when the sun, always at the heart of any California dream, began to set in the West.