Bear Family's final Buck Owens box set Tall Dark Stranger covers his last stint at Capitol Records -- the years 1969 through 1975, an era where his star shone brighter than ever thanks to his role as the co-host of the cornpone country variety show Hee Haw
. Buck signed to Hee Haw
in 1969 and the ramifications of television stardom were soon apparent: shelves needed to be filled with product and Buck & His Buckaroos were expected to be predictable, to give the people what they wanted...and to give a lot of it, to boot. Owens never was good at playing to people's expectations but he always was keen to make a buck, so the music on this generous box -- covering all of his solo recordings, sessions he had with Susan Raye, a vaguely embarrassing vaudevillian country comedy set with his son Buddy, and all the albums the Buckaroos recorded on their own -- is wildly inconsistent, finding Owens ready to push the boundaries of Buck music while being eager to satisfy the demand of the marketplace. Listening to these eight discs, the arc of his career is immediately apparent. At the outset, Owens is ready to experiment, to add all manners of sonic colors -- strings, sweetened backing vocals, anything that would have distracted from his driving freight train sound of the '60s -- and ready to tackle new songwriters like Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, eager to steer the Buckaroos toward a roaring bluegrass album called Ruby. He still was taking risks -- some of which never saw the light of day, like a revelatory duet with soul singer Bettye Swann -- and it was paying off, commercially and artistically, with the Buckaroos taking over the pandering through their albums which were either admirable genre exercises (a good collection of Merle Haggard covers) or bordering on easy listening. Then, Hee Haw
happened. Soon, Buck was dialing back the adventure and adhering to his Bakersfield blueprint, cutting covers and novelties, shucking and jiving with Buddy, singing with Susan Raye, staying toward the middle of the road for the first time in his career. And then, his guitarist and lieutenant Don Rich died in a motorcycle accident and everything hit the skids. Buck kept up with Hee Haw
-- he stayed there until the '80s, way past the point his songs actually hit the charts -- but he effectively checked out in the studio, never seeking out new sounds or songs, just riding out his contract. And all of this is evident on Tall Dark Stranger, a box that starts out strong and then gets bumpy, alternating between inspiration and pure product. Years have made the latter enjoyable if not necessarily compelling, particularly where the Buckaroos are concerned; their LPs are nothing more than professional shelf-filler, delivered by what arguably was the best band in the business. And the business that his music leaves the greatest impression on is this, the final act of Buck Owens' glorious peak: he made his name as a maverick but even he was ground down by the demands of the machine, who did not care for creativity or tragedy. It is a testament to his talent that even in the face of considerable commercial demands and personal tragedy, Owens continued to give the people what they wanted: perhaps it wasn't as brilliant as his best, but it was certainly enjoyable, as each of these eight discs prove to some extent.