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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

These days Buck Owens is best known as the smiling country singer who co-hosted the TV show "Hee Haw" for more than a decade. Starting in the 1960s, he had a string of hit singles on Capitol Records, including "Act Naturally," which was covered by the Beatles. But a new collection, "Buck Owens: Bound for Bakersfield," goes back to the '50s, when Owens was trying out different styles before settling into stardom. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "DOWN ON THE CORNER OF LOVE")

BUCK OWENS: (Singing) You'll find me hanging around. It's there I'll be found, down on the corner of Love. 'Neath the stars and skies and the neon signs, I'll be down on the corner of Love.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: I'm not much for collections of alternate takes and the early music of people who went on to have hits. There's usually a reason a song doesn't become a hit, or to record another take. It's because the music is usually lousy. But I'm a little bit obsessed with this collection of Buck Owens performances from the years before he became a star, because of the range of styles he tackled, and how he was fitfully terrific he was in trying out these poses until he found the one that made him a commercial success. First, to remind you of the sound of that success, here's a little bit from one of his 21 number one hit singles, the mature Capitol Records Buck on 1963's "Love's Gonna Live Here."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE'S GONNA LIVE HERE")

OWENS: (Singing) Oh, the sun's going to shine in my life once more. Love's gonna live here again. Things are gonna be the way they were before. Love's gonna live here again.

TUCKER: Okay. Now, let's go back to the 1950s. Owens is in his mid-20s. He's in Bakersfield, California, which had a lively music scene. It was nowhere close to being a music company town like Nashville. Bakersfield was a place in which Buck could play his Telecaster guitar in various bands and begin to take lead vocals. He sounded like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOUSE DOWN THE BLOCK")

OWENS: (Singing) The house my family lives in just down the block, many times I've passed there but I never stop. I go on all alone wishing I could be in that house down the block with my family.

TUCKER: On this album, the carefully but exhaustively titled "Bound for Bakersfield 1953-1956: The Complete Pre-Capitol Collection," Owens is trying out different voices, different genres. He's influenced by Hank Williams, of course, but also the honky-tonk dance music of Bob Wills, and the rockabilly of Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins.

You can hear this latter influence on a jumping little number like "Hot Dog." Oh, and Buck used a different name for his rockabilly move . This one was released under the name Corky Jones.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOT DOG")

OWENS: (Singing) My baby works in a hot dog stand, making them hot dogs as fast as she can. Up steps a cat and yells don't be slow. Give me two hot dogs ready to go. Hot dog. She's my baby. Hot dog. Drives me crazy. Hot dog. Don't mean maybe. You ought to see my baby at the hot dog stand.

TUCKER: Sometimes the experiments failed, as experiments will. Owens was straining for a bluesy Elvis wail his vocal instrument just wouldn't allow him to achieve in a lovable bummer called "I'm Gonna Blow." Indeed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC "I'M GONNA BLOW")

OWENS: (Singing) Well, now, (unintelligible) my baby. Oh, won't you (unintelligible)? There yonder comes my baby. Hello, she's a queen. She's a (unintelligible). Oh, daddy, drive so low, low, low. Low, low, low. I'm gonna pack my things and this old town I'm a gonna blow.

TUCKER: But Buck was growing by leaps and bounds with, it can sometimes seem here, every take of a song. I'm going to play the opening moments of two versions of one 1955 tune, one he wrote called "Right After the Dance." On the first, Owens sounds like an eager young buck, jaunty and anxious to get on with the lovemaking, and by extension, his career.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIGHT AFTER THE DANCE")

OWENS: (Singing) Well, I would if I could and if I got the chance, make love to you right after the dance. We'll park by the river underneath the moon. On my old guitar I'll play you a tune. Things will be...

TUCKER: Now listen to the finished version. A piano has been brought up front, the tempo is slightly slowed to allow for Buck to sing with more tantalizing longing. He's taken a leap in confidence, singing with an open-throated assertiveness. What goes on after this dance is probably going to make his partner happier than she might have been with the anxious guy from the previous version.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIGHT AFTER THE DANCE")

OWENS: (Singing) Well, I would if I could and if I got the chance, make love to you right after the dance. We'll park by the river underneath the moon. On my old guitar I'll play you a tune. Things will be right...

TUCKER: For me the high point of this collection is a song called "There Goes My Love." Released on Pep Records to resounding indifference, "There Goes My Love" is a wonderfully simple yet emotionally complex song. A lamentation of regret for the one that got away, it's Buck Owens glimpsing on the street the first girl he fell in love with.

Rather than indulge in youthful arrogance and dismiss her as someone who doesn't know what she missed, he spends the brief length of the song listing the specific things he misses most: the arms that held him tight, the lips he used to kiss goodnight. With a pedal-steel guitar keening behind him, Buck's voice rises up to meet the challenge of the sadness he wants to convey.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THERE GOES MY LOVE")

OWENS: (Singing) There goes the girl I used to know. There goes the girl that I loved so. There goes the arms that used to hold me tight. There goes the reason that I sighed. There goes the reason that I cried. There goes the lips I used to kiss goodnight. There goes my love.

TUCKER: Soon enough, Buck Owens would become the sensation of California country music, moving back and forth between Bakersfield and Hollywood to record hit after hit after hit. But before that happened, we're lucky to have this documentation of his diligent work habits, the restless ambition that would eventually yield a sound as distinctive as any in country music history.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Buck Owens' "Bound for Bakersfield."

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