Bourbon Cowboy

The adventures of an urbane bar-hopping transplant to New York.

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Location: New York, New York, United States

I'm a storyteller in the New York area who is a regular on NPR's "This American Life" and at shows around the city. Moved to New York in 2006 and am working on selling a memoir of my years as a greeting card writer, and (as a personal, noncommercial obsession) a nonfiction book called "How to Love God Without Being a Jerk." My agent is Adam Chromy at Artists and Artisans. If you came here after hearing about my book on "This American Life" and Googling my name, the "How to Love God" book itself isn't in print yet, and may not even see print in its current form (I'm focusing on humorous memoir), but here's a sample I've posted in case you're curious anyway: Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 1 of 3. Or just look through the archives for September 18, 2007.) The book you should be expecting is the greeting card book, about which more information is pending. Keep checking back!

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Who's Gonna Mow My Grass?

On top of the other depressing news in my life, Buck Owens died yesterday. It's not exactly unexpected that he should die, of course---the brother was 76, after all. But it really IS sad that he died without the mainstream respect that accompanied Johnny Cash. The most recent insult I recall was in the movie Remember the Titans, where black and white high school teammates in the 60s are trying to get along with each other. The white guy---the lone country boy, even among the whites---plays Owen's "Tiger By The Tail" on his radio, and, rocking his head and clapping along, asks his black roomie, "Isn't this cool?" And the black guy says, "Do the words 'cruel and unusual punishment' mean anything to you?" Everyone in the audience laughed, just as they were no doubt supposed to. That's the joke---no one's supposed to like country music! Ha ha!

As one of the people in that theater who was thrilled to hear Buck Owens---only to realize I was being set up as the butt of a joke, dammit!---may I just drop some history on the entire country? Buck Owens and Merle Haggard were the representatives of the "Bakersfield sound" that later morphed into both "outlaw country" (Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings) and "country rock" (Gram Parsons, The Eagles). [Side note: And before you laugh and say, "What does country music have to do with California?" remember that California---specifically Hollywood, of all places---was also the home of the best of the country swing bands from the late forties to mid fifties, because it was the only place with deep enough pockets to support large orchestras on a wide scale.] And unlike the outlaw countrymen or the relatively gloomy country rockers who followed, Buck Owen's work was very similar to the spirit of country swing in that he sounds like he's having a great time even when he's getting his heart destroyed. And, like the best country musicians from Hank Williams on up, he adapted country to other modern musical idioms without losing the basic elements of country---not only musical (the Hammond organ, the slide guitar), but lyrical (accent and honky-tonk obsessions intact).

This country's remaining good country musicians are the ones who remember that---people like the Dixie Chicks and, God bless him, Dwight Yoakam, who seems to have tried to include Buck Owens on every album he wrote in the last ten years. Mainstream country has long since abandoned every traditional country theme except the one of class anxiety. Even the honky tonks on modern country radio sound family-friendly. Far too much country these days hammers on the themes of a.) I love my parents, b.) I love my lover, or c.) generic preachments about living life for today, standing up for what you believe in, etc. . . . always in generic, movie-friendly, Diane Warren-and-VH1 style, with the "real" country coding relegated to execrable novelty songs like "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy."

Before Nashville went off that particular cliff, Buck Owens was country's alchemist, weaving '60s rock idioms into traditional country and always coming out with both the artistic and country side up. If you're unfamiliar with his work, I promise you you've never heard a country song quite like "Who's Gonna Mow Your Grass?" or "Tall Dark Stranger"---the latter even has a little surfabilly in there. And yet as fresh as they sound, you'd never mistake it for anything but country---due in large part to Owens' own voice, which is a pure Hollywood cowboy drawl as distinctive as Andy Devine's.

Unlike Johnny Cash or Emmylou Harris, however, Buck Owens eventually stopped writing new material, stopped producing new albums, and never quite stopped being on Hee-Haw even after that form of country wasn't cool anymore. (Every picture I ever saw him has him in the traditional Golden-Age rhinestone-studded country suit favored by everyone from Webb Pierce to Porter Wagoner, but by nobody who's actually hip these days.) Last I heard he was running a little restaurant in Cali where he would personally perform for you while you were eating. I'd always dreamed of swinging by some time when I had a real job with enough money to make the trip. Alas, that won't happen now.

Find some Buck Owens today and give him a listen. (His biggest hits were "Act Naturally" and "Tiger By the Tail," but anything on his Best Of album is a whole lot of fun.) He deserves to be better known and better loved, and anyone who treats him as a punchline just wasn't listening.


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