Buck Owens and His Buckeroos | I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail (March 1965)
Country – 31:59
“I found a sound that people really liked – I found this basic concept and all I did was change the lyrics and the melody a little bit. My songs, if you listen to them, they’re quite a lot alike, like Chuck Berry.”
How much would it take for you to sell out? It’s something which I have often wondered – that hypothetical moment when I’m offered a lot of money in exchange for my personal creative freedom. Do I struggle through to have my own voice heard in the medium I have chosen – be it the written word, the moving image, or my musical stylings – or do I accept a wad of cold, hard cash and opt for an easy life churning out mediocrity for the masses? I’d like to think that I would try to retain some form of artistic integrity and suffer. But I know, deep in my heart, that should that moment ever happen, I would grab the money in exchange for my creative soul. After all, it is a lot easier to ride out those accusations of betraying your roots if you’re doing it from behind the security fence of your 10-room mansion.
Part of the problem lies in a belief we sometimes have that our artists must make sacrifices for their work. We find it difficult to accept that, just possibly, they are trying to earn a living and so are more likely to accept the offer of a large pay day every time. Perhaps we worry that, in seeing others exchange integrity for money, should we ever be in their shoes, we would do exactly the same. It was something that Buck Owens came across in his own career. In the late 1950s he had been at the forefront of a new style of country and western music, known as the Bakersfield Sound. Named after the area in California that it originated from, it was to country what punk was to rock two decades later – rejecting the big production numbers for a more earthy, natural sound. But as the 1960s progressed, the acclaim that Owens had achieved for his music became tainted. He faced criticism for liking music outside the genre (he was a big supporter of The Beatles who clearly reciprocated the love by recording one of his biggest hits, Act Naturally). But even worse than this, he began presenting a television show in 1969 called Hee Haw which, despite starting off well, soon began to eat into his credibility as a musician. He stayed with the show until 1986, by which time he freely admitted it was more about the money than anything else: “I thought, hell, it’s an easy job and it pays wonderful. I kinda just prostituted myself for their money.”
It’s a shame when somebody’s artistic career becomes overshadowed simply because they want a regular income and a better quality of life for themselves. And while the quality of Owens’ work may have declined for a long period (before he was rediscovered in the late 1980s and saw a fresh surge), it is fair to say that – if I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail is anything to go by – his earlier work is rather wonderful. True, it is never anything particularly ground-breaking but it is still worth a listen.
Owens was heavily influenced as much by rock and roll as he was by country, and this is evident throughout his 1965 album. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that The Beatles were happy to cover him, given that the music was closer to a slightly countrified rock than a full one country and western album. There is always a twang of the hillbilly sound underlying his work, but Owens is smart enough to blur the lines between the two genres. A Tiger by the Tail is one of those moments when it would be safe to say fans of both styles should be happy. Things begin with the title track, a fun romp about a man who suddenly discovers he has bitten off more than he can chew with the woman in his life. A combination of witty lyrics and a great piece of guitar work helps to make this a number which gets the album off to a good start. There is a strong feel of country – an aspect which remains for much of the album – but it never feels overpowering. I’m not sure how Owens has managed it but it never feels like anything overtly of that genre. Trouble and Me, the second track, is of a similar ilk – easily defined as country and western, and yet sounding soft enough that it never becomes off-putting.
Slowing things down with the third track, Let the Sad Times Roll, the style is suddenly at the forefront. Fortunately it has a wonderful hook in terms of a chorus – short though it might be – which keeps you listening. The distinctly inappropriateness of Wham Bam brings with it a wry smile; the subject matter may be country but there is enough humour in its short run time to keep it bubbling along. Perhaps this is one of the beauties of the album; no track on I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail is more than a couple of minutes long (in fact, this one is two minutes exactly). The songs roll along at a dizzying speed, never leaving time for you to get bored. Even duller songs – such as If You Fall Out of Love with Me – a gone in the blink of an eye (thankfully, in this case). Fallin’ for You and We’re Gonna Let the Good Times Roll are both wonderful numbers – the latter has much more of a rock and roll vibe to it; you can even imagine it being covered by a group such as The Band (albeit as a minor track).
Skipping past the decidedly below-average The Band Keeps Playin’ On, and the album reaches the classic country song Streets of Laredo. Sounding like the theme to a John Wayne movie, this is considered to be one of the standards of the genre. And this is where problems arise for me; when Owens is moving away from country, his music is bearable. This song, however, is so steeped in the traditions of the style, that it becomes a rather dull and insipid affair. It’s not helped that Owens sounds as if he is falling asleep himself as he sings the number. It is a shame that, towards the tail end of the album, the songs are not quite as good – Cryin’ Time never really takes off and, while A Maiden’s Prayer is an interesting instrumental number, it never manages to be anything than an oddity. Only final track, Memphis, saves it – another rocking number with a fantastic guitar rhythm. At least the album ends on a strong number, even if it is a little too late to completely save it (and ends rather abruptly for the final track).
A mixed bag, then, for I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail. It’s easy to see why Owens divided so and fell out of flavour – he never really appeals enough to those on either side of the rock and country line. However, when it works, this is a great album with some fun numbers; they just about outweigh the weaker tracks. Worth a look but don’t expect to be blown away. If nothing else, it’s worth digging out to hear a more mainstream attempt at country and western – a step in the right direction even if it is never going to convert me.
If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to A Tiger by the Tail here:
Next time: Live at the Star Club, Hamburg by Jerry Lee Lewis