Buck Owens Sings Harlan Howard
Harlan Howard's 1960s songs are the country-radio equivalent of postgraduate work in Interpersonal Dynamics. A student of the cruelties and comforts of love, Howard writes in dramatic fashion about how romances unravel, the little ways healthy couples affirm their devotion to each other, and (of course) the woeful state of the lover who finds himself left behind. Many in the Nashville song factory have famously covered this territory, but Howard's detail-rich tunes simply ring differently—his characters are real folks suddenly unafraid to be sensitive.
When it was issued in 1961, Buck Owens Sings Harlan Howard was the first full-length exploration of Howard, who struggled for much of the 1950s before placing songs with Owens, Kitty Wells, and others. Though there have been several "songbooks" of Howard classics since, this one remains the best, in large part thanks to Owens. The singer and guitarist (and future star of TV's Hee Haw) intuits that the best way to sing Howard is to be forthright, if not brutally honest, about heartache. He's hurting, but in a stoic, big-screen-cowboy way, and he finds an injured tone that makes "Foolin' Around" and the almost too chipper "Heartaches for a Dime" and others supremely riveting.
Along with Merle Haggard, Owens helped establish the rough-hewn honky-tonkin' "Bakersfield" sound. Though he's widely revered for that more animated music, his treatments of these Howard ballads deserve equal respect. Not many singers can make a seemingly innocent offhand phrase from a lover (or an ex) resonate with such a mighty sting.
Released: 1961, Capitol
Key Tracks: "Foolin' Around," "Let's Agree to Disagree," "Keys in the Mailbox."
Catalog Choice: I've Got a Tiger by the Tail.
Next Stop: Harlan Howard: All-Time Favorite Country Songwriter.
Book Page: 570