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, just as there's usually a reason to record another take — it's because the music is usually lousy. But I'm a little bit obsessed with a new collection of Buck Owens performances from the years before he became a star. It's a period when he tackled an impressive range of styles, and he was fitfully terrific in trying out these poses until he found the one that made him a commercial success in the 1960s, when he had the bulk of his 21 No. 1 hit singles, including 1963's "Love's Gonna Live Here."
Now, let's go back to the 1950s. Owens is in his mid-20s. He's in Bakersfield, Calif., which had a lively music scene, but was nowhere close to being a music company town like Nashville. Bakersfield was a place in which Owens could play his Telecaster guitar in various bands and begin to take lead vocals.
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 Owens used a different name for his rockabilly move: "Hot Dog" was released under the name Corky Jones.
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.
But Owens was growing by leaps and bounds with, it can sometimes seem, every take of a song. You can hear the difference in the opening moments of two versions of one 1955 tune, one he wrote called "Right After the Dance." In the first, Owens sounds like an eager young buck, jaunty and anxious to get on with the lovemaking — and, by extension, his career.
In the finished version, a piano has been brought up front, the tempo is slightly slowed to allow for Owens to sing with more tantalizing longing. He's taken a leap in confidence, singing with 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.
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, his voice rises up to meet the challenge of the sadness he wants to convey.
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. We're lucky to have this documentation of what happened before that: of his diligent work habits and the restless ambition that would eventually yield a sound as distinctive as any in country music history.
Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.