November 25, 1964
“I Don’t Care (Just as Long as You Love Me)” by Buck Owens
#1 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart, October 17 – November 27, 1964
“I Guess I’m Crazy,” the first posthumous #1 hit for Jim Reeves (previously featured in this column), exemplified the polished, pop-friendly style of country music known as the Nashville Sound. By buffing out the genre’s rougher edges and toning down the hillbilly twang, Reeves became the first singer to turn country music into a global phenomenon. The artist who replaced him at the top of the charts, however, had a very different take on what constituted proper country music.
Buck Owens and his Buckaroos’ no-frills, proudly country style — old-school honky tonk with a hint of rock ‘n’ roll and Mexican influence — was christened the Bakersfield Sound, after his adopted Southern California hometown. Owens scored his first hit, “Second Fiddle,” in 1959, and his first #1 single, “Act Naturally,” in 1963, establishing himself as the scrappy, rough-hewn counterpart to the orchestral, mainstream-courting style dominating country music.
“I Don’t Care (Just as Long as You Love Me)” is a fairly straightforward list song with a mid-tempo honky tonk shuffle. Owens names a bunch of hypothetical catastrophes — “if the sun don’t shine,” “if the birds don’t sing,” “if the world don’t turn” — and waves them away as irrelevant, “just as long as you love me.” There’s nothing revolutionary about the song; it’s just a terrific example of Owens’s affable charm and sense of humor (“I don’t care if the tops don’t spin / I don’t care if the gins don’t gin”) and the Buckaroos’ crackerjack musicianship. Owens and his band may lack the cosmopolitan polish of Reeves, but they seems a hell of a lot more fun.
“I Don’t Care” became the fourth in an astonishing run of 14 consecutive #1 country hits for Owen. The string would remain unbroken until 1967, when “It Takes People Like You (To Make People Like Me)” “only” made #2 on the charts. Owens became one of the most familiar names (and voices) in country music, and his rock-inflected sound attracted fans beyond the country faithful. No less than the Beatles would record a version of “Act Naturally” in 1965 — the last cover they’d release until Let It Be five years later.
After a red hot decade, however, Owens himself would find himself a bit lost in the ’70s. His most important collaborator, guitarist Don Rich, died in a motorcycle accident in 1974. Meanwhile, Owens’s sideline on the hillbilly-themed TV variety show Hee Haw, where he featured from 1969 to 1986, turned him into somewhat of a novelty figure in the public eye. Thankfully, a 1988 duet with Dwight Yoakam, on a remake of his own 1972 song “Streets of Bakersfield,” would give Owens his first country #1 in 16 years and help restore his reputation as an influential innovator.
The ’60s would see the country charts regularly battling between the Nashville and Bakersfield sounds. The former city would become the capital of the country music establishment. The Bakersfield Sound, on the other hand, would evolve into the Outlaw Country of the ’70s, exemplified by Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Owens’s onetime bassist Merle Haggard. The divide between the two strains of country music — one embracing pop trends, the other favoring the genre’s unique attributes — continues to this day. Nashville may have gotten the money, but Bakersfield got the respect.
It Was 50 Years Ago Today examines a song, album, movie, or book that was #1 on the charts exactly half a century ago.