On March 26th, 1966, Buck Owens’ tour bus rolled into Manhattan. This was foreign territory for Owens and his Buckaroos — guitarist/singer Don Rich, bassist/singer Doyle Holly, pedal steel guitarist Tom Brumley and drummer Willie Cantu. They’d achieved stardom through performances and radio broadcasts all across the Southern states, from their home base in Bakersfield, California, out east to Nashville and beyond. But they hadn’t yet taken a bite out of the Big Apple.
In those days, a wall separated country and pop: The British Invasion and the first wave of hippie counter-culturalists massed on one side. And on the other stood the Nudie-suited champions of homespun values. Owens was one of the most prominent exponents of this tradition. But a community of country music enthusiasts was already rooted and expanding in Babylon. WJRZ, based in Hackensack, New Jersey, had agitated so aggressively for the band’s appearance that by the time they arrived, they’d already sold out their two shows.
That was big news in itself. What made their March 26th, 1966 concerts historic was that they took place in the high culture holy of holies, Carnegie Hall. Capitol Records further enhanced the event’s significance by recording and releasing the best performances in a collection titled Carnegie Hall Concert With Buck Owens and His Buckaroos.
The album hit Number One on the country charts and, more significantly, it proved that interest in country music was growing beyond its traditional listenership. While the Carnegie crowd didn’t hoot and holler like Grand Ole Opry regulars, it did applaud, cheer and even laugh at the band’s comedy interludes.
“They did tone down their act for New York,” notes Eileen Sisk, author of Buck Owens: The Biography. “Buck liked to shock and awe people, so he had a raunchier show for country audiences. But Kay Adams, one of the opening acts, said that people showed up wearing furs and fancy gowns, so he toned it down for Carnegie Hall, although he did tart up their comedy routine about Tex Ritter’s horse.”
That bit and their other shtick sound painfully strained in retrospect. But the New Yorkers ate it up. And when playing Owens’ hits — either in full versions or medleys designed to cram as much content into their 45-minute set as possible — the band achieved a balance of restraint and stretching out, of instrumental backup and powerfully expressive vocals, that sparkles even now.
On April 2nd, 2014, the Library of Congress added Carnegie Hall Concert to its National Recording Registry. Its true legacy, though, is the ongoing border-shattering ascendance of country music. The fact that the genre now knows no boundaries, that its stars can sell out stadiums in every municipality in the United States and abroad, was forecast 49 years ago in this uniquely elite venue.