Archives for category: Buck Owens

Justin Townes Earle mixes up the JTE sound, yet again, remaking his trademark with the help of Jason Isbell on this tribute to New York with “Harlem River Blues” and the metaphoric lines “Lord, I’m goin’ up town to the Harlem River to drown, Dirty water going to cover me over and I’m not going to make a sound,…troubled days are behind me now and I know they are going to let me in.” In a gospel sing a long Justin starts a song cycle about his other hometown.

New York now has its own album full of Country blues flavored Americana. It continues with true JTE style on the second track “One More Night in Brooklyn” similar to the breakdown of slower material from “The Good Life”.

Before continuing the ode to New York, “Move over Mama” with its straight up Rockabilly is my personal favorite.  The driving upright Bass of Bryn Davies and “Get Back-Billy Preston” style electric piano, paces at the same rate as the classic “Move it on Over” with the change up of “Mama you been sleepin’ in the middle of the bed too long”, it is a great response to that old Hank Williams classic, “Move it on over, cause this big old dog is moving in”. Clocking in at two minutes, “Move over Mama” would be a great 45 vinyl in the jukebox alongside some classic Sun Records.

“Workin’ for the MTA” is a train song for a “its cold in them tunnels today” Subway Train worker. I don’t know if there ever has been a train song about the subway, but, this is a story of a second generation “son of a railroad man from south Louisiann’”. He is able to make the connection between his Dad and the trains but “this ain’t my Daddy’s train, I ain’t seen the sun for days.” It references the current hard times but he is working and “banking on the MTA”.

It could have been easy to find a muse in Tennessee or Mississippi, but, this is New York City. He is now a full time resident of the Big Apple along with other artists such as Punch Brothers. I haven’t been up there lately, but, maybe there is kind of a folk resurgence going on like in the days of early Bob Dylan that followed through with songwriters like Simon and Garfunkel.

There is enough Blues; Muscle Shoals horns with Jason Isbell’s stand out guitar track “Slippin’ and Slidin’” followed by the next stand out track “Christchurch Woman”.  “Christchurch Woman” is a great lead in from the previous album “Midnight at The Movies”, in fact it could be a B-side “when I feel this blue, I just need somebody laughin’ at my jokes”. I guess a Christchurch Woman is easy going. In the end he says he will probably get sick of her.

The Good Life

If you are looking for a mix that sits either like “The Good Life” or “Midnight at The Movies” forget it. While the instrumentation sounds similar with the addition of some distorted licks  by Jason Isbell, he even goes to mixing his voice a little thinner on the frequencies with a little delay or echo like early sixties Nashville West-Bakersfield out of Capitol Records ala Buck Owens.

The Yuma Era

 It is interesting there are fans who only swear by his self-released “Yuma” waiting for Justin to do that one again. Okay, I admit I am with the ones that stand by “The Good Life” as the best yet, but, there is enough “Good Life” such as “Ain’t Waitin’” in this album to keep me happy, without needing to return to that masterpiece. Justin has developed his own sound, style and presentation that draws just enough on the past masters such as evoking Jackson Browne on “Rogers Park” to show a strong songwriter lineage.

He is a workaholic with a string of four records in four years. It looks like Jack White has met his equal for not only amount of output in a short period but creative ability. In much the same way as Songwriters and Recording Artists worked in the Fifties and Sixties before the advent of Fleetwood Mac “Rumours” and Def Leppard “Hysteria”, it is going back to being about the music and not bombastic production.

In a comparison, The White Stripes as a two piece band were able to keep moving, keep the production overhead low while spreading the show around the country and Justin was able to travel light with just a notebook full of songs and a sideman when he travelled opening up for Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit last year in support of “Midnight at The Movies”. He could have been out with a full band, but it kept him from eating bologna sandwiches every night as an opening act.

Live at The State Room, Salt Lake City, UT, spring 2009

Jason’s music is strong enough that he can do it with a full band or as a Troubadour like when I saw him at The State Room in Salt Lake City in mid 2009. Enough people showed up for his opening slot and crowded the front of the stage to catch the vibe and check out his unique finger style on the guitar.

I don’t think he will be able to go out much more by himself unless it is an in-store appearance at Grimey’s or something similar.  Justin has three Bloodshot albums in three years, enough material where some fans are going to be upset because he didn’t play the song they wanted to hear. The closest thing I have seen to a full band was about the time of the release of “The Good Life” at The Basement when he had a couple of others playing fiddle and mandolin.


I did get a chance to meet him back in the beginning of 2008. I just thought it was great that something like “The Good Life” was out there and Nashville had gotten behind him.  A lot of music has been recorded since then. For some, that would be a careers worth, for others, like The Ramones, he is just getting started.

– Brad Hardisty, Nashville, TN


Don Rich on Tele with The Buckaroos

Eileen Sisk, in her recent biography of Buck Owens disclosed a good amount of information on how much The Buckaroos made working for the King of Bakersfield. It gave a lot of insight into the sacrifices that were made to be a Buckaroo.

Don Rich made $75 per week when he started to play with Buck. In addition to that, he was to turn over any money he made from outside jobs. Don and the other Buckaroos could make extra money by making a commission on concession sales. Don won many awards as a guitarist; in fact he won awards before Buck was recognized by Country Music associations. Don could have played on many sessions but opted to stay by Buck’s side even though the money was not that great. Buck and Don were a team much like  Tom Petty and Mike Campbell, but, only Buck saw the real money. He was really an employer. 

1960's Merle

In 1963, Merle Haggard was persuaded to take a cut in pay and play bass for Buck. Merle was making $150 per week playing Bakersfield Honky Tonks. Buck hired him to play Bass in his band for $75 per week.  Merle only lasted 2-3 weeks depending on who you talk to before quitting Buck’s band. During those three weeks Merle nicknamed the band The Buckaroos. Merle came up with the name for Buck’s band.

Even though the money was not that good, it was hard to turn down a chance to play in Buck’s band who at the time were considered probably the best in Country Music. Many sidemen today only earn about $200-$400 per week for dates at fairs or other steady venues.

It can be worse for an Indie Rock band. I recently went to a show at The Nick in Birmingham where a band I knew had traveled playing several Southern clubs got their share for the night, $34 after splitting the door with three other bands and the club Sound Engineer.

Early Ozzy, Black Sabbath Days

Ozzy, in his recent autobiography, tells how he never really saw money during his days in Black Sabbath. Black Sabbath was selling records and selling out shows yet rarely saw money. He learned from other members of the band that he could contact management and request a car like a Rolls Royce or something and it would be at the front door the next day. The car could then be sold and converted to cash in his pocket to use as he wished. Essentially, he was living as many bands did back then and that was on the management credit card, both literally and figuratively.

Even Elvis, who commanded big money, was at the mercy of his Manager Col. Tom Parker. At times, he would discuss getting out of his contract or not wanting to do certain concert dates or whatever only to be reminded how deeply in debt he was. In the early days, accounting and taxes were known to be above the heads of many artists and the business knowledge had by Management and Label Executives enabled them to use scare tactics to keep their roster in line.

Semisonic  drummer, Jacob Slichter, wrote a great autobiography from the journals that he kept during his fifteen minutes of fame called “So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star”. He not only went through how the music business worked in the 90’s but talked about how much money it took to have a number one record.  It took close to a million dollars when all was said and done in promotion to get the song “Closing Time” to number one. All the money it takes in promoting a band as well as the cost of touring including a bus that costs several thousand dollars each week eat into profits. In the end, most bands don’t see much unless things really hit big.

During the early days of  Van Halen things were kept lean to put money back into their show and work on becoming headliners. Eddie Van Halen was still living at home with his parents when he married Valerie Bertinelli according to her own book, “Losing It: and Gaining my Life Back One Pound at a Time”.  Even though he could have probably bought a house by the third album when he was dating Valerie it made life easier to keep a room at home with the parents.

When I was 16 I had the opportunity to meet Thin Lizzy on the “Johnny the Fox” tour. The song “The Boys are Back in Town” was a hit on the radio and they were out on tour opening for Queen who had a big album with “A Night at The Opera”. By the time they came to Fresno, California, Freddie Mercury was sick and Queen cancelled. Thin Lizzy became the headliner with Sammy Hagar brought in to open the show.

Hey Scott, so how much you make?

I was at sound check at Selland Arena and had the chance to hang and talk to guitarist, Scott Gorham. We talked about guitarists that he knew such as Ritchie Blackmore and how I was surprised he was from L.A. when I had expected an Irish or British accent. I had one big question since I was a guitar player that wanted to be in a twin lead rock band like Thin Lizzy, but, only played the occasional dances or talent shows with my garage band. How much did he make probably for the year? You know, he knew I was sincere and he was honest with me. He estimated about $24,000 per year. Back in 1976, that would be about $50,000 or so in today’s dollars. It was okay, but, I was expecting $100,000 or something.

In reality, the big payoff for some well-known names in the business did not happen until after years of solid work and paying lots of taxes.

Alex Chilton, Big Star days

What does that mean today especially for an indie act where you don’t want to look too big or be a sell out in the music business? It may mean adjusting one’s lifestyle in order to accommodate the need to create. At one time,   Alex Chilton , the cult hero behind The Box Tops and Big Star  was living in a tent on a friend’s property outside Memphis. He did find a home in New Orleans, but, after a lifetime worth of work he made enough to keep a modest lifestyle.

The music business may be whatever you are able to do yourself. The big labels don’t touch anything that doesn’t want to be developed by a Manager for the masses such as Kesha or Katy Perry. It’s entertainment, but, is it talent? Is it originality or is it a play developed for the artist to walk into? Most musician/songwriters don’t want to even go there as they write and record their music.

It remains to be seen how many musicians will be able to consider what they do as a career after free downloading has taken much of their livelihood. It is estimated that Nashville has lost about 60% of its songwriters due to illegal downloading. The Music Industry has lost jobs in the tens of thousands.

In a way, the clock has turned back to where a new “ Sun” records or other regional could end up making a big impression with innovation. A band, a cooperative or an entrepreneur with deep pockets and web know how could end up being the next big player. Ultimately, the music has to be interesting enough to get the listener to go look for it on the web.

– Brad Hardisty, Nashville, TN

John Russell - Voni Morrison

The flip side of “Yesterday”

Walking into the Family Room at Dennis Morrison’s house in Fresno, California to practice a little guitar, I saw gold records on the wall.  Not just any gold records.  These were records by The Beatles and Buck Owens. It was 1975 and people didn’t have gold records on their wall unless they earned them.

Beatles-singles-yesterdayI asked why he had gold records on his wall? Dennis just replied by pointing to the little print of the songwriters below the title “Act Naturally” on the orange and yellow Capitol label. It read John Russell and Voni Morrison. He told me that Voni Morrison was his mother.

At that age I could only stare for probably 5 – 10 minutes. I knew it was Buck Owen’s first number one single. It was also the only country song The Beatles covered. Ringo Starr sang and it was featured as the A side wile the flip side was “Yesterday.” The song was  also featured on The Beatles album Yesterday and Today.

Ringo singing "Act naturally" at Shea Stadium

Ringo singing “Act naturally” at Shea Stadium

Many record collectors know about the infamous “baby butcher” cover that was replaced by The Beatles standing around with some vintage trunks. The album was never released on CD . The songs that were featured on that album were listed on the Past Masters CD since the band opted to use the English releases as the CD releases of the band.

The-Beatles-Yesterday-And-TodI was astonished, here was the best guitarist in my Junior High School in Fresno, California, Dennis Morrison, and his Mother was a famous songwriter. I couldn’t play very well at that point but I managed to be around the best and learned what I could. Dennis had mastered a lot of Jimi Hendrix among other things and he was an inspiration in the ninth and tenth grade.

Voni wasn’t around that much. She enjoyed being around friends and her favorite hang out was The Lounge at Blackstone Bowl. Dennis and I would ditch school and eat some food on her tab at The Blackstone Bowl plotting how we were going to make it in the music business.   

If she did come home while we were practicing she would stop in the den and offer words of encouragement. Dennis would encourage her to sing with us and we would play while she sang “Kansas City”, “Route 66” or “Act Naturally”. She had a great voice and a warm personality.

Buck owens act naturallyI couldn’t help but notice the BMI royalty checks coming in every month. It was my first introduction to songwriting royalties.  Hee Haw was a huge success and every time Buck Owens sang that song or it was played on the radio or another record was printed by The Beatles or Buck Owens with “Act Naturally”, Voni’s check would get bigger for that month.

We lived in a typical middle class neighborhood in Fresno, California. Voni’s lifestyle was different though. The songwriting royalties allowed her to determine her own hours and they drove a Cadillac which was a big deal then.

Voni would introduce us to her friends when they dropped by. We went to tapings of “Nashville West” which was a radio show taped in Fresno that went out on country music stations all over the United States. I remember being introduced to “Red”. Everybody called him “Red” but I later found out he was Red Simpson that was part of the Buck Owens circle.

When Terry Bradshaw decided to do a country album, Voni had a couple of cuts on the album. Voni gave me a thick 45 radio station  single on the Warner Brothers label with her song to give to my parents. I was really proud to give that to my Uncle Clyde who raised me. He was from Kentucky and enjoyed Country Music. He was a little concerned about their freewheeling lifestyle. He knew I spent a lot of time over there. He knew there was drinking and some cigarettes involved but it wasn’t me. He knew I enjoyed going over there and telling him the tales of going to the recording studio and such.

Dennis quit High School mid way through tenth grade and I lost track of him. I always wondered if he would be a great guitarist in a rock band or with a Country act with his Mom’s connections. The couple of years I was around Dennis and his family would stick with me on my quest to play guitar and write music for the rest of my life.

When I moved to Nashville, I found that the songwriting community had given full ownership to Johnny Russell for that song and that he had basically written it himself. I figured if that were true and she was given songwriting credit, it was because she could plug the song to Buck Owens since she was in the Nashville West-Bakersfield Sound circle that was so popular in the early sixties.

buck-owens bioA recent biography written by Eileen Sisk about Buck Owens kind of cleared the air. They were listed as songwriting partners whether or not most of the song was written by one or the other. That was no different then some other partnerships at the time. One in particular, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. They were a songwriting team and always listed as partners although many times the songs were fully finished by one or the other when they were brought to record by The Beatles.

Voni Morrison's own single release

Voni Morrison’s own single release

Voni had a big impact on me at the time. I wanted to be a great guitarist but more than anything I aspired to be a songwriter. It helped me to realize that you don’t have to be in some building in L.A. or New York working for a conglomerate to be a songwriter. If  a great songwriter could live  two blocks away from where I grew up, I could be one too.

I would recommend Buck Owens: The Biography by Eileen Sisk. It would have been more appropriately titled “The Tale of The Buckaroos” because it goes into great detail from interviews what The Buckaroos made for wages, what their lifestyle was like and more than anything gave a feel what it would have been like to work Buck Owens. One of the great finds for me was not only her thorough take on the story of how “Act Naturally” came about ending up on vinyl with Buck Owens, but also a picture of a beautiful Voni Morrison standing between the wives of Don Rich and Buck Owens in front of The Fresno Barn in 1962 when it was the venue for Country music in Fresno, California.

Last but not least, Dennis, if you are out there, I would sure love to hear from you.

– Brad Hardisty, Nashville, TN