The Great (Live) Albums is a bimonthly look at some of the best—or at least most interesting—live recordings in pop music history. How do these odd documents fit in with an artist’s overall discography? What do they teach us about the history of rock? Let’s find out!
Carnegie Hall Concert, Buck Owens and his Buckaroos (1966, Capitol)
As far as revolutionary “firsts” go, Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk and Robert Peary’s conquest of the North Pole are undoubtedly top of the heap. But just a little further down the list—maybe somewhere in the top 20 or 30—there’s this amazing feat: the first-ever country music concert to be performed at New York’s storied cultural mecca Carnegie Hall, performed by Kern County cowboy icon Buck Owens and his backing group, The Buckaroos, on March 25, 1966. And thankfully, this landmark bit of country music history was captured for posterity and released as Carnegie Hall Concert, on Owens’ label Capitol, that very July.
But unless you’re old enough to have a living memory of Jack Parr’s Tonight Show or are an explicitly self-identified old-school country music nerd, chances are you know only know of Buck Owens’ greatness either A) vaguely, or B) as the longtime co-host of the hicksploitation TV relic Hee Haw, from 1969 to 1986.
But! Owens is also famous for basically inventing an entire subgenre of country music, landing in rural California by way of Texas and generally considered the architect of the “Bakersfield Sound”—which, if you’re the kind of person who only likes “some” country music, this is probably the country music you’re talking about: amped-up rhythm sections layered over with sparse, electric instrumentation; lots and lots of bright, twang-y telecasters doubled-up to a saucy jangle. Plus plenty of hot fiddle and woozy pedal steel practically dripping off of the record like mercury out of a broken thermometer; an almost psychedelic sound, not so far removed from the backwards-masking guitar of contemporaneous “Incense and Peppermint”-era swinging London.
It’s key that Carnegie Hall Concert is credited to both Buck Owens and “his Buckaroos”—bassist Doyle Holly, pedal steel player Tom Brumley, drummer Willie Cantu and, last but not least, Buck’s much-beloved “right hand” and guitar-god genius Don Rich. And if Don was Buck’s right hand, the other Buckeroos, too, together like different parts of the same ambient body, moving together in a telepathic airborne wave like a of flock of birds sailing by overhead.
And then there’s the band’s sense of humor, very soon to be commoditized in the form of Hee Haw, starting in 1969. But here in Manhattan, the Buckaroos are born vaudevillians, weaving jokes and goofs and minor comedy routines in-between and even within, songs. Owens and Rich’s rapport is especially easy, the two needling and bouncing off each other during band intros section like a longtime comedy duo. And while humor (and especially vintage humor) can be highly subjective, the Buckaroos’ joking around here at least as entertaining as anything ever vomited up on stage by The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
Comedy is especially pronounced on the second half of the album, as the Buckaroos start to get a little loopy, including the extended “Fun ‘N Games with Don and Doyle”—10 long minutes of two musicians going in hardcore roast-mode, performing parodies of Tex Ritter, Ernest Tubbs, and Johnny Cash, plus a country-fried take on the Beatles’ “Twist ‘N Shout” that ends with a (literal) bang when Rich “shoots” a Beatles wig onstage with a blank-loaded pistol onstage.
But let’s get back to the music. The Buckaroos kick things off with the wonderful “Act Naturally,” immediately encapsulating everything a great fast-tempo country song should be: aurally jaunty, lyrically morose, tinged with humor and clever use of metaphor and allegory. Arguably second only to hip-hop and light opera, country music is one of the most wit-based forms of songwriting. If Oscar Wilde had been alive in Bakersfield in the 1950s, he would be a country singer, and he wouldn’t even have had to adjust his flamboyant fashion palette that much—just look at The Buckaroos’ stage suits on Carnegie’s album cover.
“Act Naturally” is followed by the steel-drenched weepie “Together Again” and the optimistic “Love’s Going to Live here”—painting an extremely manic lyrical portrait of our protagonist’s tortured psyche: love is lost, love is found, love is lost again, found again, kept, refused, and wanted again. That’s country.
By 1966, Owens had so many hits, it took not one, not two, but three whole medleys to expediently bundle together a whopping 13 different songs just to be able to cram everything an audience might want to record’s 50-minute run time. My favorite of this trio is the final one, which crams six amazing Buckaroos tracks—“Under Your Spell Again,” “Above and Beyond,” “Excuse Me,” “Foolin’ Around,” “Hello Trouble,” and “Truck Drivin’ Man”—into the greatest country-fried, multi-suite prog epic ever recorded (sorry, The Decemberists.)
Carnegie Hall Concert in as important record of a momentous event in the history of American popular music. But more than that, it’s fun as hell. You’ll love this album. But even more than loving it, you’ll want this album to be your friend.
-Matt Warren (@mpmwarren)