Sharps & Flats

Two Buck Owens reissues imagine Christmas as a mostly secular holiday.

Published December 16, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Christmas was the best thing to happen to songwriters since they named a month to rhyme with moon. What a rich subject, and an easy one. It's its own shorthand. There's no scene-setting required, no explaining to do. Everybody knows what you mean when you talk about Christmastime. A couple of quick brush strokes -- chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose -- and you're there. Merle Haggard's classic "If We Make It Through December" starts with the lines "Got laid off down at the factory/And their timing's not the greatest in the world." Why's that? Well, duh.

And if music's mostly about feelings -- and country music is certainly so -- Christmas makes the perfect backdrop because feelings are heightened. Think you're missing your baby at the Labor Day picnic? Wait three months, pal.

Buck Owens, like most major recording artists before the '70s, churned out a couple of Christmas albums, which have been re-released separately by Sundazed, a New York label that's previously re-released 15 of his records. "Christmas With Buck Owens and His Buckaroos" (1967) and "Christmas Shopping" (1968) offer "Merry Christmas country style," 12 songs each, nearly all of them written or co-written by Owens.

They're both pleasant enough, and there's almost none of the syrupy sentimentality that often drags these things down, but there are no classics. Owens and his boys are seasoned pros here, and were dominating the country charts at the time. All of the elements of a fine Owens record are present on both discs: the razor-sharp sound, the lively guitar playing (by Owens and sidekick Don Rich), the lightweight, often clever lyrics and Owens' plain but distinctive phrasing and voice, with harmonies provided by Owens himself as well as Rich. But Owens never reaches back to deliver a Christmas song for the ages, although he clearly gives it a shot: Nearly half the songs are straightforward scene-setters, with trees trimmed, Santa coming, bells ringing, presents wrapped, children excited and titles like "Christmas Time's a Comin'." And there are several attempts ("Blue Christmas Lights," "Blue Christmas Tree") to capture the magic of "Blue Christmas," the '40s chestnut perfected by Elvis.

Christmas is a pretty secular holiday in Owens' songs. Jesus doesn't even poke his head in the door, and there's almost none of that "peace on Earth, goodwill toward men" stuff. It's mostly about presents, decorating, missing somebody or being with your family. Only once does he skirt the mawkish -- on "It's Not What You Give," from "Christmas Shopping," in which the singer's little son and daughter wrap up their favorite presents from last year and give them back to daddy, and I swear I can't figure out why.

There's not enough of Owens' sly humor for my taste here, and you can have fun matching up some of these songs with the Owens hits they sound like. (On "Christmas With ...," for example, "It's Christmas Time for Everyone But Me" = "It's Crying Time Again" and "Here Comes Santa Claus Again" = "You, You, Only You.")

But if it's not Buck Owens at his best (it's not), it's competent Buck Owens, and it's Christmas. It's kind of like watching a spring training baseball game: You're still watching big leaguers, but they're not really sweating it.

By Gary Kaufman

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