Joe Nichols headlines annual Owens party
Joe Nichols has been given some career-enhancing advice over the years, but none has stuck with him quite as much as the pearl of wisdom he got from Buck Owens during a promotional stop in Bakersfield early in his career.
Fresh faced, bushy-haired and eager to strut his stuff, Nichols said he was confident he had made an impression on Owens, who didn’t always have the time to visit with artists stopping by his KUZZ radio studio or Crystal Palace.
“At one point he told me, ‘Boy, I sure like ya kid, but you gotta cut that dang hair.’ And of course, on my next album, I had short hair,” laughed Nichols, 35, during a phone interview.
“He later wrote me this long letter that said, ‘A lot of people have taken my advice and gone a lot of places in this business, and thank you for cuttin’ that hair.’ That album happened to be one of the bigger ones, too. He was just a great, fun guy who sure knew a lot about the business of country music.”
Nichols will be savoring that and other memories of his mentor when he returns to the Crystal Palace on Aug. 16 to headline Buck’s Birthday Bash. Aug. 12 is the 83nd anniversary of Owens’ birth.
Nichols also performed during the 2005 outdoor concert for the unveiling of life-size bronze statues of country legends like Owens, Merle Haggard and George Jones that now stand inside the Crystal Palace (though the highlight of the occasion, arguably, was when Garth Brooks got down on one knee and popped the question to then-girlfriend Trisha Yearwood).
“That was one of the most amazing evenings of my life. It’s an honor to come back and headline another special occasion.”
Though he has nine best-selling CDs under his belt and a string of hit singles like “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off,” “Brokenheartsville” and “What's a Guy Gotta Do,” Nichols has had a career of mixed blessings. After a public meltdown in 2005 that he said was the result of substance abuse, Nichols admitted himself to a treatment facility. Following his stay, he returned to work, recommitted to his family, work and a healthy lifestyle.
It’s a journey reflected on his latest CD, “It’s All Good.”
“I’ve found that even good days aren’t so bad and how truly blessed I am after all these years. I’ve got a beautiful new baby girl and beautiful, tolerant, loving wife. Well, moderately tolerant,” he said with a laugh.
“I’ve tried to stay on a path of getting into the gym regularly, and trying to keep fair food from killing me. I don’t wanna look like one of those guys who looks like they’ve been eating corn dogs for seven years solid.”
His resilient attitude has allowed him to reflect on the changes happening in the industry. No longer the new kid on the block, he’s been able to listen much more objectively to what’s going on around him.
“Country radio right now sure seems directionless. It’s more of a pop format now more than ever. I don’t think country music is in trouble, because it sells. I think it’s become more of a brand-less genre. To me, it feels like top-40, adult contemporary, and all similar genres. They’re all kind of merging together. One of the coolest things about country music to me was always the identifiable nature of it. Years ago you knew when you were listening to a country music radio station. That’s why on soundtracks and movies they use a classic country song, they never use anything that’s currently being played. It has nothing to do with how good the music is; the problem is, it’s just hard to put a label on it now.”
And that’s why Nichols continues to draw inspiration from Owens and other groundbreakers.
“There are a lot of good young voices out there. The big mistake a lot of us make is: Go for radio and play what radio will play. That is a very middle-of-the-pack-following mentality. Be a leader and do something unique; people will remember that about you and respect that about you.
“The music of Buck Owens will live on forever because of that. He’s one of the biggest figures in the history of country music, and he did it his way all the way from California.”
Bakersfield may have been Buck’s home, but it’s not the only city that still reveres his music. Chicago, Phoenix and Nashville are among cities in the country that host their own annual Buck Bashes. But apart from the Crystal Palace, no venue throws a bigger celebration than Austin’s Continental Club, whose annual celebration of Owens predates even the Bakersfield shindig. This year marks the 21st annual event, which will be held on Aug. 12, Owens’ birthday.
“I can’t remember what year it was, but Buck and I once chartered a jet with guitarist Jim Lauderdale, and surprised them in Austin one year at the Continental Club,” recalled Buckaroo keyboardist and band leader Jim Shaw. “The looks on the crowd when we walked in was really something. Austin is just chock-full of musicians. Everyone shows up, does one Buck song onstage and just keep going.”
For Bakersfield’s Aug. 16 celebration, Shaw will be joined onstage at the Crystal Palace by Owens’ sons Buddy and John, guitarists Monty Byrom and Chuck Seaton, drummer Dave Wulfekuehler, vocalists Kim McAbee and Jennifer Keel, and bassist Billy Haynes.
Performing together and in different variations, they’ll kick off the evening with many of Owens’ most beloved tunes.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel; everyone comes out to hear the classics and enjoy themselves, then we hand it over to our special guests,” Shaw said.
Noticeably absent will be the signature steel guitar sound of Buckaroo Terry Christoffersen, who left the group last year. Shaw, who stays in touch with Christoffersen, said the group has never been able to find a full-time replacement.
“Terry’s doing all right. We’ve been friends since we were teenagers. The last time we played was the Jim Burke Ford picnic a few months ago. The steel guitar is a very complex and difficult instrument, and as far as I know there isn’t anyone in Bakersfield that can play it the way we need it.”
Meanwhile, Shaw said there’s been talk of expanding the Owens celebration from a concert into a daylong community event, but once the reality check of summer heat sets in, they’d much rather stay inside.
“We’ve always thought about having another parking lot event like we did when we unveiled the statues, but it is in August and really hot. It could be a killer day. For now, we’ll probably keep it in the club, where Buck always held court for his birthday.”
Guitarist Byrom is looking forward to carrying on the tradition with Shaw and the Owens family with some added twists brought to the stage by Haynes, who’s also well-versed in funk and jazz bass style. Together with Seaton’s unique guitar sound, Byrom anticipates a tribute unlike no other.
“It’s gonna be a little crazier this year, because I’m pushing the boundaries of this group. I do miss Doyle (Curtsinger on bass) and Terry Christoffersen, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard Jim sound better. Those guys are his friends for life, but a little new blood and kick in the butt is good for you. Buck just didn’t listen to country. He was into The Beatles, Ray Charles, Creedence Clearwater Revival. He influenced not just country music, but all kinds of rock and roll artists.”
Also appearing will be country newcomer Jon Pardi.
Buck’s Birthday Bash with Joe Nichols
When: 7 p.m. Aug. 16, 2012
Where: Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace, 2800 Buck Owens Blvd.
Admission: $87 to $112
Information: 661-328-7560 or buckowens.com
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Also printed in the 8-2-12 issue of The Bakersfield Californian