There are a lot of country artists I came to know and love while sitting and drinking coffee with my grandma in her kitchen, listening to her tell stories of how she grew up, how she fell in love, built her house from the ground up with her husband, how they tamed their little corner of the world, how he died tragically, and how she managed to carry on. Those artists, and their subject matter, and their style of playing—roots country, honky-tonk and folk—all became intertwined, the tales of romantic entanglement, heartbreak and loss and religious redemption merging with my grandma’s own stories to provide the soundtrack for my vivid imagining of her life story. Buck Owens was one of those artists, and he died this past Saturday at the age of 76. Here are the first five reasons why I’ll miss him.
1) “(I’ve Got a) TIGER BY THE TAIL” (1964; Harlan Howard, Buck Owens) from the album I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail
A classic Bakersfield stomp. My grandma and I used to dance to this one in her living room-- one time we jumped up and down so hard that we loosened the stovepipe from the wall fitting.
I've got a tiger by the tail, it's plain to see
I won't be much when you get through with me
Well, I'm a-losin’ weight and I'm turnin’ mighty pale
Looks like I've got a tiger by the tail
Well, I thought the day I met you, you were meek as a lamb
Just the kind to fit my dreams and plans
Now the pace we're livin' takes the wind from my sails
And it looks like I've got a tiger by the tail
Well, every night you drag me where the bright lights are found
There ain't no way to slow you down
I'm about as helpless as a leaf in a gale, and it looks like I've got a tiger by the tail
2) “PHFFT! YOU WERE GONE” (1966; Susan Heather) from the album Too Old to Cut the Mustard, Buck Owens and Buddy Alan
Buck and Buddy cut this one in 1966, but it went on to greater fame when it was adopted as the signature tune for one of the most enduring comedy bits on Buck’s extremely popular country variety show Hee Haw.
I know that you loved me, here's my way of knowin’
The proofs hangin’ out right there on the line
When I see the snow and feel the wind blowin’
Your nighties huggin’ them long-johns of mine
The noises you made at our supper table
Your habits, my dear, were surely absurd
But how many times do I have to tell you
Soup is a dish to be seen and not heard
Where, oh, where are you tonight?
Why did you leave me here all alone?
I searched the world over and I thought I'd found true love
You met another and—Phfft! You were gone
3) “TALL DARK STRANGER” (1969; Buck Owens) from the album Tall Dark Stranger
Its imagery possibly influenced by the films of Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood seemingly returned the favor with the tall, dark stranger of his own film, High Plains Drifter. And I don’t remember if Stephen King made specific mention of this song in his novel The Stand, but it’s hard to believe he didn’t at least have Owens’ song rattling in the back of his mind somewhere when he conceived of the terrifying Randall Flagg.
They say a tall dark stranger is a demon
And that a devil rides closely by his side
With no warning he can strike like the thief in the night
Then jump up on his pony and ride, ride, ride
So beware of a tall dark stranger...
So don't let no stranger hang around
4) “CRYIN’ TIME” (1964; Buck Owens) (from the album I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail
Another classic weeper that my grandma used to spin for me. She used to tell me that she thought Buck Owens looked kind of goofy, but his voice told a different story. I like to think this is one of the songs she was thinking of when she said that.
Oh, it's cryin’ time again
You're gonna leave me
I can see that far-away look in your eyes
I can tell by the way you hold me, darlin’
That it won't be long before it's cryin’ time
5) “ETERNAL VACATION” (1965; Buck Owens) from the album Dust On Mother’s Bible
Buck, like many a great country artist, knew about old-time religion, and it’s hard for me not to hear this one on the wind these days…
Some people are taking vacation traveling both far and near
Never stop and think about Jesus, never say him to have a care
It seems that I cannot be like them while on Earth life's burdens I bear
And I prepare to meet Jesus and rest eternally there
Yes, someday I'll take a vacation one that never will end
And now, thanks to the good folks at YouTube.com, Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, featuring Don Rich on guitar and harmony, Doyle Holly, Willie Cantu and Tom Brumley on the steel, from 1966— a live version of “(I’ve Got a) Tiger by the Tail,” just because.
R.I.P., Mr. Owens.