Two years after the first installment comes Buck 'Em!: The Music of Buck Owens, Vol. 2, a double-disc set chronicling the eight years when Buck Owens was a crossover superstar thanks to his prominent role as a co-host of Hee Haw. Buck started to slide into a rut toward the end of this run -- a process accelerated by the tragic death of his right-hand man Don Rich in 1974, a loss from which Owens never fully recovered -- but producer Patrick Milligan slyly disguises this trend by nestling deep cuts, live tracks, and outtakes among the best of his hits, thereby painting a portrait of Buck Owens as a musician nearly as adventurous as he was during the purple patch of the '50s and early '60s. Rarities per se aren't the focus of the collection -- most of the rare items were originally dredged up on other archival releases, often the big Bear Family boxes of Buck & His Buckaroos -- but by not diligently marching through nothing the singles, Buck 'Em! highlights how much ground Buck covered during these nine years. Some of the wild sounds can be heard on the singles -- with its fuzz guitars and harpsichords, the country-fried psychedelia of "Who's Gonna Mow Your Grass" still startles. This collection, however, serves up the long-unreleased duet with soul singer Bettye Swann on Merle Haggard's "Today I Started Loving You Again," a performance that emphasizes Owens' often-underappreciated flair for R&B. And the collection contains more than one driving live performance with the Buckaroos that would be rock & roll by any other name, a few forays into both crossover MOR ("Bridge Over Troubled Water") and bluegrass (the storming "Ruby [Are You Mad]"), a handful of novelties, and a bunch of straight-up Bakersfield country that sounds as vital as the groundbreaking sides from the first volume. Because that collection contains the pioneering singles, this might seem to pale in comparison, but the opposite is true: by presenting the best of an at-times-uneven era for Owens, Buck 'Em!: The Music of Buck Owens, Vol. 2 shines, illustrating the full range of Buck's talents. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine
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