Album Reviews

Don Rich & The Buckaroos: Guitar Pickin’ Man (Omnivore Recordings)

guitar-pickin-man

Don Rich & The Buckaroos
Guitar Pickin’ Man
Omnivore Recordings

Guitarist Don Rich is an unsung guitar hero, a brilliant country musician in his own right, and a tragic example of “what might have been.” As a teenager living in Oregon, he met local musician Buck Owens, who was subsequently impressed by the young guitar slinger. In 1960 Rich joined his band The Buckaroos, and debuted on the hit single, “Excuse Me (I Think I’ve Got a Heartache),” in 1961. Rich and Owens soon became close creative partners and friends, and quickly the two developed a like-mindedness that would prove to be successful. When a publishing company pitched Owns the song “Act Naturally,” he initially turned it down; Rich, however, loved it, and convinced his partner that they should record it. They did, and it became Owens’ first number one single, which not only provided deserved success, but kicked off an amazing run of consecutive number one singles.

What made Rich such a valuable commodity was more than his versatility as a musician; Rich had the amazing ability to sound like his partner. When listening to Guitar Pickin’ Man, it’s not hard to envision Owens singing “Down At The Local Bar,” “Wham Bam,” and “Sally Was A Good Ol’ Gal;” a casual listener to any of Owens’ albums from the era might not notice the difference. This vocal mirroring was a boon for Owens in more ways than one, though; this allowed for Buck, as much a businessman an entertainer, to develop an impressively prolific and consistent release of material—and hit material to boot.

This seemingly constant flow of material would benefit Rich as well, allowing him to come into his own. A handful of the tracks featured on Guitar Pickin’ Man are instrumental, and highlight Rich’s impressive range. Here, he could explore traditional Country guitar (“Chaparral,” “Aw Heck”), Brazilian (“Bossa Nova Buckaroo Style”), Spanish (“Ensaenada,” “Meanwhile Back At The Ranch”) and Country Rock (“Chicken Pickin”). Vocally, he was impressive as well; he could handle a country weeper like “Number One Heel” and then turn around and sing a lighthearted number such as “Hello California” or a funky, Ray Charles-style Gospel number like “One More Time.”

With the success of Owens’ variety show Hee Haw, RIch’s profile was suddenly boosted, and his performances soon became a special treat for viewers. One wonders where Rich’s career might have gone had he not died in a tragic motorcycle accident on July 17, 1974—an accident that so thoroughly shook Owens’ world that he seriously considered an almost immediate retirement, as he would admit in his autobiography Buck ‘Em. Rich’s passing hit him particularly hard, Owens would state, as not only did it come fast on the heels of the murder of one of Hee Haw’s most beloved cast members, David “Stringbean” Ackeman, but also because he’d had a handful of prophetic visions of Rich dying on his motorcycle, including one the night before it happened.

It is, of course, impossible to know what might have happened had he lived. While it’s understandable to lament the fact he only released one proper solo album in his lifetime, Guitar Pickin’ Man shows that Don Rich left one helluva legacy as a Buckaroo. This compilation provides eighteen examples of why he’s so widely regarded, and knowing that there could be subsequent volumes of his contributions to Buck Owens’ music with zero overlap assures this listener that Don Rich’s star will never be dimmed.

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