I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail : Buck Owens and His Buckeroos (#47)

Buck Owens and His Buckeroos | I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail (March 1965)
Capitol (USA)
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

Headphones

Jukebox Jury : A look back at 1960 to 1964

“I have that love for music, when you are finding either old gems that you never heard or newer stuff that perks your ear. It keeps you trying to look for new stuff to write about it.”

It seems that we live in an age when there is too much choice. There is a flavour for whatever style suits you best; from pop to dance or from rock to jazz, there are genres and sub-genres and sub-sub-genres, each playing to a narrower and narrower niche. You can’t simply like rock – or even soft or hard rock. You can run the gauntlet from the likes of Bandana Thrash (an extreme form of thrashcore) to shoegazing (a sub-genre of indie rock) and everything in-between. Wikipedia lists dozens of different styles in this one genre alone. It’s easy, when faced with so many choices, to look back to the time when popular music seemed so much simpler. Surely a trip to the 1960s would present us with just one or two distinct styles of music in the hit parade.

In reality, as my journey through the first few years of the decade has shown, there have always been a myriad of musical genres vying for our aural attention. And while it would be easy to sigh at the variety, wondering where it will ever stop, instead I have enjoyed immersing myself into the numerous genres. Partly, it has been a case of expanding my musical knowledge as I dip my toes into the world of artists I would never have dared or even cared to listen to. Yet, more than that, there has been a joy discovering musicians who I either barely knew or had never even come across. It is these hidden gems which spurs me on (albeit sporadically) to continue with this task I have set myself and keep wading through the 1001 Albums book. Without it, I would never have found some real masterpieces; and for this, I am thankful.

True, there are still styles which allude me; genres which fail to get me excited, no matter how acclaimed the album or artist may be. Yet, I have begun to find myself at least starting to appreciate the work of musicians with a background in jazz or even county. Partly this is down to the experimentation that some of them are willing to undertake; Ray Price’s Night Life, for example, pushes back some of the Country and Western boundaries to make a much more mainstream album. But I like to think that this is also down to my own musical tastes adapting as I begin to hear more and more great albums.

It has also opened up my knowledge of world artists – the brilliant African beats of Miriam Makeba or the Latin American wonders of Stan Getz. I admit that my following of world music has been sorely lacking in the past; beyond Gracelands by Paul Simon, I barely venture away from British and American bands. Even the ones I do listen to from further afield have been so heavily influenced by the music I already hear, that it makes little difference that it is from elsewhere. It may not always be easy to hear what is being sung (step forward Jacques Brel) but it hasn’t marred my enjoyment and has made me realise that my boundaries have been far too narrow.

Of course, there has been the discovery of some true gems, and selecting a top three from the various albums I have heard for this period has proved incredibly difficult. Just missing out from my choices – but truly worth a listen again – is A Christmas Gift for You. Filled with joyous moments from an incredible selection of singers, this has now become the definitive soundtrack to my Christmas. In fact, it is the seasonal nature of the album which stopped it from making it as one of my final three; the fact it can only really be played for one month of the year means it can’t ever become a regular soundtrack to an evening in the same way that the others can.

Perhaps the obvious omissions from my final list are the two biggest artists not just of the decade but probably from the last 50-odd years of music. But I made a conscious decision not to include either Bob Dylan’s Freewheelin’… or the two albums by The Beatles for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they really were nothing new to me; I had heard all three of the albums on numerous times over the years and, while it was interesting going back to them in this context, I could easily hum along to every song. Part of me wanted this to be a chance to highlight albums which I had not had the pleasure of enjoying before. The other reason (and I appreciate this may be one which could lead to fierce arguments among aficionados of both) is that they simply aren’t their best albums. Both Dylan and The Beatles would go on to produce much, much better works in the years to come. If I’m going to include them, then it will be for stronger material than they produced in the first part of the 1960s. So instead, if you’re looking for something to listen to tonight, may I suggest one of the following…

Recommended listening for 1960 to 1964:

  • Jimmy Smith – Back at the Chicken Shack
  • Sam Cooke – Live at the Harlem Club
  • Dusty Springfield – A Girl Called Dusty

Next time: I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail by Buck Owens