Sunday, February 9, 2014

Buck Owens Brunch: The Tragic Story of Don Rich

Most would agree that Mick Jagger would have been nothing without Keith Richards. The same could be said about  Buck Owens, regarding his musical relationship with Don Rich. Both men were instrumental in developing what has become known as The Bakersfield Sound. Don learned how to play the fiddle and the guitar from an early age, and was playing in bars by the time he was 16 in his hometown of Olympia, Washington. 

Don and Buck having a good time during the early days. 
His band, a three piece rock and roll outfit eventually landed a regular gig in South Tacoma at a place called Steve's Restaurant. It was there that Buck Owens, who also lived in Washington during this time, happened to catch him playing fiddle one night. Buck became so enthralled by this young musician that he asked Don to join him at local venues. The two formed an immediate friendship and a budding musical bond. With Buck on guitar and Don playing fiddle, the two became regulars on BAR-K Jamboree, a local music show that was featured on KTNT-TV 13. 

Buck's career had already started to take off. With Don, it seemed to be accelerate. But after "Under Your Spell Again" reached No. 24 on the Country Charts in 1959, Capitol Record executives asked Buck to return to Bakersfield.*

Buck didn't hesitate, and asked Don to join him. Don had other plans however. He enrolled at Centrailia Community College in Centrailia, Washington where he began studies to become a music teacher. Meanwhile he tutored other students in music and continued to play local gigs. After about a year - in late 1960, Don decided to move to Bakersfield to resume playing with Buck.

The first single he played on was "Excuse Me (I Think I've Got a Heartache)" which peaked at No. 2. Don and Buck played seedy bars up and down the west coast. Most of the time they would play with a house band, but sometimes it would just be the two of them together on stage. Meanwhile they continued to record singles in Bakersfield. Don, now employed by Buck, earned $75 a week.

Buck Owens and the Buckaroos circa 1963 (Don Rich is on the fiddle)
In 1961 "Foolin' Around" spent 8 weeks at the No. 2 spot. Over the next year the two had begun to refine (and define) their sound. Up to that point, Buck had stuck to playing in a Texas Shuffle style, with Don predominately playing the fiddle. That all changed in 1962 with the release of Buck's "You're For Me," a song he had written several years prior. The shuffle on the snare drum became a tightly closed high-hat. The off beat was accented by a quick half-rimshot half-click on the snare drum. This churning, upbeat 2/4 rhythm made every Buck Owens single immediately identifiable. Don compared it to a "runaway locomotive." Buck described it as sounding like a "Freight Train."

Now, it's known as The Bakersfield Sound.

In 1963, for the sake of touring and recording, Buck decided to employ a full time band to back him up. Naturally, Don was chosen as the band leader, and in the early days, the band resembled a revolving door with members coming and going. One such member was Merle Haggard, who had christened the band "The Buckaroos." While Haggard left after just a short time, the name stuck.

Early on after forming this new band, Johnny Russell's "Act Naturally" was pitched to Buck. Buck rejected it at first, but Don latched on to it. Eventually, Buck came around to it and the Buckaroos recorded it on February 12, 1963. That summer it went on to become Buck's first No. 1 hit, spending (non-consecutive) weeks at the top.

"Act Naturally" also marked the first single on which Don played lead guitar. Over the years Buck had taught Don his signature guitar style and by 1963, Don was ready to set down his fiddle and pick up Buck's Telecaster. Buck was more than happy to relinquish it, knowing that he could concentrate on his songwriting and honing his skills as the frontman of the Buckaroos.

Buck, Don and the rest of the Buckaroos in promo photo at Carnegie Hall
Things began to really take off for Buck, Don and the Buckaroos. Every single that they recorded seemed to shoot straight to the top of the charts. "My Heart (Skips A Beat)." "Together Again," "I've Got A Tiger By The Tail," and "Before You Go," are a few of the songs that went to No.1. "Buckaroo" did too - becoming the first country music instrumental to do so. Don's guitar style, while incorporated from the teachings of Buck, became his own. That telecaster twang became the signature of the Bakersfield Sound.

In 1966, the band went to New York City to record a live album at Carnegie Hall. Many have called it the greatest live country album ever recorded. Buck later revealed that The Buckaroos played so tightly at Carnegie that there wasn't a need for the band to go to post-production to fix mistakes. There were none to be found. 

Buck, with Don and the other Buckaroos had become the hottest country band in the world.

Buck and the Buckaroos. Notice Don's fiddle next to the drum set. 

In 1969 Buck Owens and the Buckaroos released "Tall Dark Stranger" and "Who's Gonna Mow Your Grass." Don recorded the latter using a heavy fuzz tone, that until that point had generally been used by '60s garage bands. Traditional Country music fans were shocked, and even became irate at Buck for defacing country music with such a blatant rock and roll sound. Buck essentially shrugged off this criticism. He never confined himself to the status quo, and anybody who knew Buck would know that his entire career was a musical evolution. 

"Purists never like any sort of progress." Said Buck years later. "I'm a purist, and I don't usually like progress in anyone except myself. A real purist wants everyone else to stay the same, but he himself wants to change." 

Regardless, "Who's Gonna Mow Your Grass," shot up the charts and reached No.1, where it sat for two weeks in 1969. It's become a cult-style classic among Buck Owens fans, and today it is regarded as an innovative cog in the development of the Bakersfield Sound.

In a twist of irony, the next song that went to the top of the country charts was a live cover of Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode, from the Buck Owens in London "Live" Lp. Buck always seemed to be one step ahead of his audience, and he always seemed to have the last laugh.

The last No. 1 song the two recorded together was "Made in Japan," which hit the top of the charts in 1972.

On July 17, 1974 Don finished work at Buck's Bakersfield studio and left on his motorcycle to meet his family for a vacation in Morro Bay, California. Earlier in the day Buck had suggested to Don not to take his bike, but instead drive a car. Maybe it was premonition, but Buck had pleaded with Don for years to quit riding, as it was something that worried him deeply. Don shrugged it off, and said goodbye to his friend. Later, at some point in the night Don hit a center divider on northbound Highway 1. He was thrown from his motorcycle and suffered heavy damage to his head and body. An ambulance rushed him to a hospital, but he died before he arrived.   

Later, police investigating the scene said that there were no skid marks and that in probability, he hit the divider at a high rate of speed. Other than that it was unclear what caused the accident.

Buck was absolutely devastated. He not only lost his creative partner, but also his best friend. In an interview in the late '90s Buck said of Don, "He was like a brother, a son, and a best friend. Something I never said before, maybe I couldn't, but I think my music life ended when he died."

Buck continued, "I carried on and existed, but the real joy and love, the real lightening and thunder is gone forever."

Don was buried in Hillcrest Memorial Park Cemetery in Bakersfield.
His gravestone commemorates him as "Always Smiling."

Don Rich was just 32 years old. His musical influence has been felt throughout the world in rock and roll, country and other genres. He is considered by many to be the most innovative country guitar player that ever lived. 

*"Under Your Spell Again" would eventually peak at No. 4.


missbigshot said...

That's why you must love and appreciate people while they are here on earth. You never know how much time we have. They seemed to have been soulmates.

missbigshot said...

That's why you must love and appreciate people while they are here on earth. You never know how much time we have. They seemed to have been soulmates.

oklahoma chet said...

don had such a profound influence on so many musicians including me. i miss that pure sound from that famous telecaster.

Unknown said...

I saw Buck and Don live at the CNE at Toronto in the 60s.They were brilliant.I still listen to them often. Sad they are gone

Unknown said...

I remember Don he also work as a butcher in Lamont, California at the County Fair Market. He was one heck of a guy.I had a dog and he would give me scrap bones.

Unknown said...

I remember Don he also work as a butcher in Lamont, California at the County Fair Market. He was one heck of a guy.I had a dog and he would give me scrap bones.

Mary Archer said...

I knew Don before he met Buck Owens in Olympia, WA. He lived with his grandparents behind his grandpas barber shop in Tumwater. One block from our restaurant. We used to put his records on our jukebox. His real name was Don Ulrich. I saw him and Buck Owens together at the Evergreen Ballroom when they first started out. Don was a wonderful guy.

Bob said...

I like the inscription on his gravestone, because that's the way I always remember him, picking and smiling on the TV, stepping up next to Buck to take a solo.

VU said...

I am Don's son. First of all, thanks for the great article. We are so grateful for all the kind comments from the fans. It would surprise him that so many people are still talking about him...
One correction that is not widely known (or known at all). We learned a couple of years ago from a neighbor and friend who actually went and picked up the motorcycle that the front wheel of his Harley Davidson chopper had split apart. He thought we knew about this but because of the loss and the trauma we never really saw the bike after the crash.. This is likely why he crashed. Dad was a careful rider (as much as you can be), and had a fair amount of experience.
Thanks again from the family.

DixieDarling said...

I am so glad I found this blog, when I did a search on Don Rich. I've always loved The Buckaroos, but, recently, I really wanted to know more about that wild man on the Telecaster! When I watch a video with Don and Buck, or I've seen reruns of old Country shows on TV and see him play, I am always amazed. His playing seemed effortless and what a sound!

So sorry that his life ended so young, but Don Rich ushered in the Bakersfield Sound like nobody else, and, damn, what a player! That's all I can keep saying. Oddly, I looked him up, as I had no idea that he passed in 1974. I had wondered if he was still around. Anyway, thank you for posting the most in-depth look at Don Rich. Incredible musician. said...

We need don in Alexandria Virginia he lived with the Rogers family down the block from on Saint asaph street down the block from my aunt Jenny he's a wonderful person and so talented and fabulous I never brag on himself and just a wonderful person and he just play ball with us just like anybody else

Unknown said...

Hi I play guitar and never gave a violin a second glance or listen to one! then one day don came on the radio playin cayjun fiddle ,I went out got a fiddle ,got some lessons, and I have been playin in bands for 40 years havin a ball playin my fiddle! thanks don for my life playing the fiddle

Eva Marie said...

Don gave my family so much joy. I lost my mother many years ago, but I can still see her watching Don. She would always comment on his smile, but when she watched him, she was always smiling as big as he was. I am thankful for YouTube, where I can still listen to his music and see his smile.

Ken Balsley said...

Don Ulrich was my neighbor growing up in Tumwater Washington. He was a musical prodigy before they had such a term. Our houses were next door to each other and he graduated from Olympia High School two years before me. I can remember watching Don perform at high school functions and later went to Tacoma to watch Don and Buck perform at Steve's Gay 90's. Don also got my family and I a backstage pass one time so we could take in their television show from the studio audience. Like many who knew Don, we were happy to see his success and were proud of our local boy. When I visited the Country Music Hall of Fame a couple of years ago, I was so pleased to see the display they had about Don and his impact on country music. Ken Balsley

Anonymous said...

In 1969 Buck Owens came to Bismarck ND for a concert. Many went forward to take pictures, including me. Don surprised and delighted us by pulling out his camera and took a picture of us and I have a picture of him taking a picture of us. What a sense of humor he had.

Unknown said...

The podcast “Cocaine & Rhinestones” brought me to appreciate Buck Owens & Don Rich. What incredible artist & musicians. Don as it seems was taken way to soon. But, his legacy is undeniable.

CC-2 said...

Some sailor buddies and I saw the buckaroos at the old dome center (?) in Virginia Beach in 1967 0r '68. Best concert I've ever seen and have been a Buck, Don, Buckaroos fan ever since. Tragic news about Don and I agree Buck was never the same after Don's death,

Unknown said...

We're in 2019 and I want to say that I truly enjoy all the music Don and Buck left for us to enjoy. Two wonderful musicians that left a smile in my heart. xoxo

Unknown said...

When Buck died, he, Don, Doyle, and Tom were truly Together Again

Unknown said...


Unknown said...

So tragically taken in 1974..An awesome musician ,great singer and the smiliest muso I ever saw on TV..Loved and forever missed.RIP Don