It's a bit surprising to read the liner notes to a reissue - especially a pricey, deluxe package like those offered by Rhino Handmade - and find not only their author (in this case, veteran country music journalist Rich Keinzle), but the artist as well, more or less suggesting that the music contained therein is second-rate, but that's certainly the impression a reader is left with here.
Buck Owens' move in from Capitol - the label with which he'd spent almost all of his musical life - to Warner in 1975 was a direct result of the death of his musical right hand man, Don Rich, the year before. Reeling, personally and professionally, from that loss, Owens looked for a new approach. That meant not simply a new label, but going Nashville: using studio musicians instead of The Buckaroos, and doing material chosen by a producer, who, Keinzle suggests, "redefin(ed) him in the context of country pop." That is, Buck went pop, and it didn't suit him ("jeez," Keinzle quotes him saying, "can you imagine Buck Owens singin' a country-pop record?").
Two LPs, a handful of singles and songs recorded for an intended but never released third album (heard here for the first time) were the result. And it's certainly true that some of this material - "When I Need You," and "Do You Wanna Make Love" are star witnesses - have that quintessential '70s country-pop sound. (This was not an entirely unprecedented turn for Owens, however; he had gone in a poppier direction on recent Capitol releases - 1971's "Bridge Over Troubled Water," for example).
But that's not the whole story; as much, if not more of his Warner material qualifies as unalloyed country. Some of it does bring to mind the classic Buckaroos sound - "Texas Tornado," "He Don't Deserve You Anymore" and "John Law" (which is straight, countrified Chuck Berry), for example. And some of it sounds nothing like '60s Buck, but is still country as can be. A handful of songs even evoke nothing so much as vintage '70s George Jones; just listen to the 1979 single, "Hangin' In and Hangin' On," a killer duet with Bonnie Owens.
Owens' approach to making these recordings clearly wasn't intended to reproduce his classic Bakersfield sound, and because of the towering achievement that that sound represents in the history of country music, it's probably inevitable that his Warner output will be viewed as lacking in comparison. But for all that, the Warner Buck Owens is not only different than what went before, but interesting and still vital.