New Brunswick

From headbanger to honky-tonk: Ryan Cook was won over by classic country

Ryan Cook says his recent rediscovery of the music of country legend Buck Owens inspired his latest tribute tour to the man who invented the Bakersfield Sound.

For Cook, who performs in Saint John on Friday, country music was a 'lark' at first, but now it's his career

Ryan Cook and Sunny Acres will perform the music of country legend Buck Owens on their New Brunswick concert tour. (Submitted by NJ Young)

A conversation with singer-songwriter Ryan Cook quickly shows how immersed he is in country music. 

He clearly loves the music. And he can pinpoint the decade in country music history that appeals to him most: 1952 to 1962. 

"In 1952, you had the last year of Hank Williams's life, so he was still alive for the full year touring, even though he was in rough shape," Cook said in an interview this week on the eve of a New Brunswick tour. 

"And in 1962 is right around then when Patsy Cline passed, so you have a really nice sweet spot in there, with Roger Miller, Willie Nelson showing up in Nashville and, of course, Buck Owens, too. His first big hit was 1959."

Started with heavy metal

Growing up in Yarmouth, N.S., the 38-year-old Cook was more interested in power chords than finger-pickin'.

"I didn't really ever mean to start playing country music seriously," Cook said. "It was really just sort of a lark at first, to just amuse my friends … as a side project to one of the heavy metal bands I was in." 

Cook now has four well-regarded country albums of original material to his credit, and a regular touring show that pays tribute to country legend Hank Williams. 

His latest project, the one he's bringing to New Brunswick starting Friday night, has him exploring the genius of Buck Owens.

The idea arose recently after Cook listened to a podcast about the man who helped reinvent traditional country music in the 1950s and '60s.

"Buck Owens was one artist that I never really listened to," Cook said.

"I had a greatest hits CD of him, and I knew his material, but after listening to the story of his life and his career in country music … and the nuances of it, that's when I had a real appreciation for the Bakersfield Sound and for Buck Owens himself."  

Buck Owens is credited with developing the Bakersfield Sound in the late 1950s and early 1960s. His pure country sound came at a time when Nashville was experimenting with string arrangements and choirs, in an effort to get hit singles on the pop charts. (Copyright 1968 Camera-Craft, Seattle)

The Bakersfield Sound is West Coast country from the 1960s. It developed in and around the California city, 180 kilometres north of Los Angeles, at a time when Nashville was going through an identity crisis. 

To compete with rock 'n' roll, Nashville producers stripped away the traditional fiddles and guitars and replaced them with the syrupy string arrangements and choral background singers like those found in pop music.  

Stars like Jim Reeves, Patsy Cline and Eddy Arnold scored big hits. But the music was as much Hank Mancini as Hank Williams.

That's not what Buck Owens was doing in Bakersfield.

'Perfect blood harmony'

Buck Owens was developing a pure country style, and Cook said he put the final piece of the puzzle in place, when he met guitarist and singer Don Rich.

"Don Rich was, it seems, born to play with Buck Owens," said Cook.

"Buck discovered him and immediately hired him to be his right-hand man, so to speak, because Don could play fiddle and lead guitar — and, as Buck soon found out, could sing a perfect blood harmony to anything that Buck would sing."   

A poster from the 1960s, with Buck Owens headlining a show with Nashville stars as supporting acts. (Submitted by Bryce Martin)

Cook has come to know the Owens formula well enough to chime the ingredients off quickly.. 

"Simple story lines, with infectious choruses, a twangy electric lead guitar, an insistent rhythm, especially on the high-hats and the drums, and the high, two-part harmonies." 

Those high harmonies allegedly developed out of necessity, when Buck Owens and the Buckaroos became the house band at the Blackboard Cafe.

"People were packed in there and were so loud that they decided to capo up all the songs and have Buck sing higher so his voice would pierce through the sound of the audience," Cook said, "It would have been small speakers at that time,  and the band could only get so loud."

A few challenges

It leaves Cook to marvel at the talent of both men.

"Buck had a tenor voice anyway and sang very high … but for Don to get on top, to get above him is really remarkable," he said. "And Don has sort of like a baritone voice. So, he must have had, like, a Roy Orbison or Brian Wilson-type range to him."

And what's it like for Cook and his band to try to recreate those harmonies live onstage?

"It's presented more than a few challenges," Cook said. "And I even have on some of the concerts, like the concerts I'm doing in New Brunswick, I have a female singer in the show singing harmony … and it's even a stretch for her, the female voice, to go up and grab some of those high harmonies."

Ryan Cook says as long as pop-country is around, people will always be looking for a traditional alternative. (Credit: Gig & Groove)

Cook has no illusions that his traditional style will compete with the pop-country that is so popular today. But he sees a silver lining in that.

"Well, it only secures and cements a job for me for the rest of my life," he said, with a chuckle. "Because people will always long for an alternative to that."

You can catch Ryan Cook and Sunny Acres performing the music of Buck Owens at the Imperial Theatre in Saint John on Oct. 11, the Vogue Theatre in Miramichi on Oct. 12 and Shepody House in Dorchester on Oct. 13.  

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