“Don Rich was the quintessential driving force behind Buck Owens. His lead guitar, fiddle playing, and soulful tenor made the Buckaroos the premier band in country music in the ’60s and early ’70s. When a guy loses his best friend/sidekick, life is never the same.”
While working on my Clarence White: 1972 piece, it occurred to me that Don Rich, Buck Owens’ right-hand man for 14 years (1960-74), died in a motorcycle accident almost a year to the day after White was killed by a drunk driver. Clarence died July 15, 1973 and Don died July 17, 1974. Had he lived, Rich’s 69th birthday would’ve been next week (he was born August 15, 1941). Since everyday is a good day to be reminded of “Dangerous” Don’s genius, let’s get our twang on.
Don Rich was as important as Buck Owens in creating the Bakersfield Sound, one of the few sustained commercial alternatives to Nashville. If California country music had a tipping point, it was Buck and Don throwing down hit after hit in the 1960s. Rich was one of country music’s most distinctive guitar players and tenor harmony singers, and a solid fiddler to boot.
I think harmony is the key word in explaining the Don Rich magic. I’m not just talking about vocal harmonies, but harmony on multiple levels: vocals, guitar, songwriting, temperament, you name it. For example, Rich was a decent enough singer on his own, but his own songs could veer cornball. In harmony with Owens, though, Rich’s voice was pure gold. Dig it.
Buck Owens & The Buckaroos – Don’t Let Her Know
The Buck Owens Ranch Show
March 15, 1966
This harmony extended to guitar. People forget (or didn’t know) that Buck was a hotshot guitar badass throughout the 1950s and that Don joined him mainly as a singer/fiddler. Once Don heard those sweet Tele licks, though, there was a change of plans.
“He was younger than I was by a few years. He was learning to play the guitar in an odd way; he was sweating Ray Charles. He was learning chords that were normally not played on guitar; they came off the keyboard of Ray Charles. He worked hard at it in the camper in between dates. He was only 17 at the time and his drive, and his awareness of the fact that he had a lot of learn, was there. He was, I think, the most important person in Buck Owens’ life.”
He willed himself to become the Telesattva, taking over lead guitar duties from Buck, and subsequently inspiring thousands of budding twangologists. Many guitar players have been faster, but I’ll put Don Rich’s sweet tone and sense of economy against any of them. Put it this way … do you know anyone who doesn’t like Rich, given even the slightest exposure? I can see Buck Owens not being in a country fan’s all-time Top 5. Barely, but an argument can be made. But not liking Don Rich??? Not an option. In fact, I’ll put the classic 1964-66 Buckaroos lineup — Owens: vocals, guitar; Rich: guitar, vocals, fiddle; Tom Brumley: steel guitar; Doyle Holly: bass; Willie Cantu: drums — against any country band ever and I think they’d do all right.
Buck Owens & The Buckaroos – My Heart Skips A Beat + Band Intros
The Jimmy Dean Show
Buck Owens & The Buckaroos – Love’s Gonna Live Here Again
The Jimmy Dean Show
These clips from The Jimmy Dean Show are primary evidence of Buck Owens and The Buckaroos at their apex. Perfect harmonies, great guitar sound, badass rhythm section, Brumley really steps up on steel, but Rich is the glue. I love that beat-up Tele with the “Don Rich” sticker. I wonder if it still exists? Please say yes. By the way, did you know that Jim Henson got his first real break on the Jimmy Dean Show? True story. Rowlf the Dog wanted you to know that.
Buck Owens – Second Fiddle
“I don’t know whether (Don) was ever appreciated as he should have been as a fiddle player. We’d do ‘Second Fiddle’ on the show, and boy, tears would just come to my eyes as he played. And they would (come to) his eyes, too! He just played with such feeling, heart and soul.”
“I honestly believe (Don) was a better fiddle player than he was a guitarist, and he was a GREAT guitarist. But he played FANTASTIC fiddle. He didn’t like to play fiddle, because his mother and father made him take lessons from the time he was five or six years old, and all he did in his formative years was play fiddle! Don could hold his (own against) the top fiddlers in the country. I’m talking about a lot of the old guys, even the Bob Wills-style fiddlers.”
Buck Owens & Don Rich – Above And Beyond
The Buck Owens Ranch Show
August 17, 1970
As with any tragic death, it’s easy to caught up in the what ifs. But, the musical loss represented by Rich’s death was deceptive. It wasn’t just that his career was over. Buck’s career, for all intents and purposes, also ended in July 1974. The twin architects of the Bakersfield Sound, effectively silenced. Sure, in the years to follow Buck would trot out the hits every now and then and there were television, radio, Crystal Palace, and other responsibilities. But, that was business. The love and passion that drove Buck Owens to become the best guitarist, singer, songwriter, bandleader, and the undisputed King of Bakersfield … aka Buckersfield … died with Don Rich.
“What can I share with you about Don Rich? There was only one and I doubt there will ever be another. He was a one-of-a-kind musician and as great as he was, he was even better as a human being. Something I never said before, maybe I couldn’t, but I think my music life ended when his did. Oh yeah, I carried on and I existed, but the real joy and love, the real lightning and thunder, was gone forever. But … I’ll see him over there.”
–Buck Owens, who joined Don in the sweet hereafter on March 25, 2006