All Buck Owens Has To Do Is Act Naturally

Appeal of country twang and rockabilly swagger spans generations.

SAN FRANCISCO -- There was the contingent of elder, hard-core

Country & Western fans in attendance, the sort of folks who go to see Buck

Owens at his Crystal Palace nightclub in Bakersfield, Calif., where he plays every weekend.

Then there was the more usual Bimbo's crowd, composed of young swing kids

working the post-modern, retro vibe.

And, of course, there was Owens, no stranger to either.

When country legend Buck Owens and the Buckaroos played Bimbo's 365 Club

on Wednesday night, they showed how talent and charm can bridge

generational differences.

They opened with the giddy


aturally.ram">"Act Naturally" (RealAudio excerpt), Owens' first big hit

and a song that Beatles' fans know as the flip side of "Yesterday." The

Buckaroos, dressed in matching red Western shirts and black jeans, knew just

how to handle the crotchety, borderline tyrannical Owens. Keyboardist Jim

Shaw has been with Owens for 27 years, bassist Doyle Curtsinger for 28.

Buck controlled the show with a managerial style, giving commands to

bandmembers, roadies and any other miscellaneous handlers between songs,

during songs, during solos -- whenever he deemed it necessary. He moved

around the stage like a construction-site foreman checking workers' progress.

And if anyone doubted who was in charge, Buck's bandleader status was made

clear by the added flair of a black vintage coat and, of course, the requisite

black cowboy hat.

And while the years have taken their toll on Owens -- he had part of his tongue

removed five years ago after a bout with throat cancer -- his voice was still in

fine form, honey-thick and high. And his sense of humor was as seriously corny

as it ever was.

"We have a local rule," Owens told the crowd. "If you like a song, and if you

applaud really loud, the drinks get cheaper. If you don't, they get higher. Hell, I

was going to buy everyone a drink, but they told me that's illegal."

At Owens' urging, the crowd passed their requests, scrawled on napkins,

receipts and slips of paper, to the front of the stage. Kim McAbee, Buck's

backing vocalist (referred to by Owens as "my latest ... uh, I go through 'em

pretty fast"), spent a good portion of the show just keeping all the requests

straight, pitching 'em to the boss. Some he did, some he laughed off and some

he straight-out refused to do. But Owens' ornery, cantankerous manner had

some in the audience wondering what goes on behind the scenes.

"He was crass and crazy! That poor woman is [like] his secretary!" said Kurt

Wolff, a freelance writer and country fan.

Owens and the Buckaroos delivered plenty of classics, including "Together Again," "Who's Gonna Mow Your Grass," "Foolin' Around," "Cryin' Time" and, naturally, his 1965 Top 40 crossover hit, "I've Got A Tiger By The Tail."

It was clear that an effort was being made to take it easy on Buck's voice.

McAbee sang a couple of her own songs, including "Make Believin'," a slow,

languid country tune. Curtsinger crooned a pleasant, Hawaiian-flavored ballad

(which Buck referred to as "Lakkanukkinow" -- say it out loud). Mostly, it was

instrumental numbers such as the Buckaroos' classic "Buck's Polka" and

"Buckaroo" that kept the crowd rolling, while Owens gulped bottled water and

the occasional Scotch.

On "Dueling Banjos," the instrumental hoedown made famous in John

Boorman's film "Deliverance," Owens aimed his Telecaster at each Buckaroo,

challenging them with the familiar licks from the hootenanny favorite. At the end

of the tune, he headed straight for drummer Jim McCarty, leading him to a

thankfully short drum solo. Then he brought the entire band back into the main

"Banjos" theme.

It was fast, thumping and loud.

If anything was clear by the end of the night, it was that Owens owes a debt to

rock 'n' roll, and vice versa. This was classic country of the Bakersfield variety --

Owens was one of the primary architects of that famous sound, along with Merle

Haggard and Wynn Stewart. But there was enough rockabilly swagger to make

it obvious why the Beatles loved him, and why generations since have followed


A particularly fine version of


y_B._Goode.ram">"Johnny B. Goode" (RealAudio excerpt) capped the

evening, Owens howling and drawling and generally having a blast. It's not

often that you see a 70-year-old man captivated by the energy and power of

rock, but here he was, sweating and loving it.

Kevin Lynch, a vintage-record dealer, had issues with the hipster kids there to

see his hero. "Frankly, as good a show as this is, Milli Vanilli could have gotten

[the same] encore." Working up a head of steam, Lynch seemed ready to launch

himself at the next Stray Cat wannabe who wandered by. "Look, the guy's 72

years old. The guy's great on the Telecaster. And these people are fucking

wimps. The crowd is weak. The show is fantastic."

Nostalgia was clearly the evening's central motif. Watching openers Ray Condo

and the Ricochets, one couldn't help but think of an old-time barn dance, or a

dime-a-dance USO show. Nouveau swingers kicked and flew on the dance

floor, or quietly sipped martinis and cosmopolitans at the tables. Tall brunettes

with Barbara Stanwyck haircuts wandered throughout the room, their eyebrows

seemingly applied with Sharpie markers.

Po-mo, yes, but they cheered and stomped their feet for Buck.

The elder country-fanboy set may have been unhappy about the young, hipster

crowd, but Owens straddled the line between them, a living legend having a

hell of a lot of fun.