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CD Review

They got - and gave - more bang for their Buck

Dwight Yoakam, Derailers release tributes to Owens

The roots of California country-rock run through the desert town of Bakersfield, where Buck Owens helped craft the "Bakersfield sound" back in the 1960s. His music was characterized by raw electric guitar and hard-hitting drums that served as a punchy alternative to the slick "countrypolitan" sound sweeping Nashville at the time.

Owens, a rhinestone cowboy who also co-hosted the long-running TV series "Hee Haw," died last year at 76. He recorded more than 20 No. 1 country hits, many in the '60s when he influenced groups as far ranging as the Beatles (who covered his hit "Act Naturally") to the Byrds, Eagles, Gram Parsons, and Creedence Clearwater Revival.

"Buck was absolutely well-known by everyone from the Beatles to the Byrds," says disciple Dwight Yoakam. "He really affected pop culture the way we know it."

Owens's legacy has been marked by two new tribute discs: Yoakam's "Dwight Sings Buck" and the Derailers' "Under the Influence of Buck." Yoakam had revived Owens's career in 1988 by singing with him on a rerelease of the honky-tonking "Streets of Bakersfield," which went to No. 1. And the Derailers are an Austin, Texas, group that first met Owens 12 years ago and became the house band for his 70th birthday party, where it also backed Yoakam.

"Obviously, Dwight has a bigger name than us, but we both love Buck," says Derailers singer Brian Hofeldt.

Owens is best known to some people for his comedic role on "Hee Haw." He wore overalls and acted like a hick - some musicologists regret that he's often stereotyped that way - but in real life, he was a smart businessman. He made a fortune through "Hee Haw" (he was reportedly paid $400,000 a year back then) and also owned several radio stations that did well, as well as the Crystal Palace in Bakersfield, a must-stop club for many entertainers. He also controlled his own music publishing rights.

But artists will remember him best for the Bakersfield sound, a rockin' revival of traditional country music also espoused by Merle Haggard. Its influence is felt in both of these exemplary new tributes from Yoakam and the Derailers, which are fitting memorials.

In a typically bizarre music-biz story, neither Yoakam nor the Derailers knew the other was making a tribute album until each was almost finished. Regardless, the discs complement each other beautifully. Yoakam takes more liberty with the songs - improvising and injecting a lot of personal emotion - while the Derailers stick with more faithful, but clearly loving, treatments. And nearly 50 percent of the Derailers's album has songs that are different from those on Yoakam's CD, so listeners get an added bonus.

Yoakam performs eight of Owens's No. 1 hits, from the joyfulness of "My Heart Skips a Beat" and "Love's Gonna Live Here," to the ebullient twang of "Act Naturally." But the excitement comes when he diverges from any cloning to bring a fresh rhythmic spin to "Under the Spell Again" (featuring Motown session percussionist Bobbye Hall) and an otherworldly vocal to famed ballad "Together Again." (I still prefer Emmylou Harris's version, but Yoakam brings a more haunting angle to it.)

The Derailers also cover many of Owens's '60s hits but add some curiosities such as his country version of Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" to the snappy honky tonk of "Sam's Place" and the campy "Who's Gonna Mow Your Grass," which Hofeldt describes as a "psychedelic waltz."

As for his band's more faithful approach, Hofeldt says, "We thought the arrangements and production style were so cool that we wanted that to come across. There was a little hubris on our part. We felt as a band that we were good enough to record them that way. We felt a little cocky, I suppose."

The Derailers even recorded the songs in the same chronological order that Owens did. Adds Hofeldt: "We're just unabashed Buck fans."

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