For most country music fans, the term "The Bakersfield Sound" conjures memories of two California-born acts: Merle Haggard and Buck Owens and The Buckaroos. The latter would've sounded way different to the masses were it not for the musical contributions of longtime Buckaroos guitarist and fiddler Don Rich.
Born Donald Eugene Ulrich on Aug. 15, 1941, the Olympia, Wash. native proved to be a child prodigy. By age 16, he opened for Elvis Presley at the Tacoma Lincoln Bowl. Owens happened to work at a Tacoma radio station at the time, placing him in the perfect position to land a top-notch fiddle player for his backing band.
By 1960, Rich and his young family relocated to Bakersfield so he could become a full-time Buckaroo. Soon, Owens' not-so-secret weapon worked with a changing cast of influential country musicians, including bassist Doyle Holly, pedal steel guitar player Tom Brumley, drummer Willie Cantu and others.
Life with Owens and his Buckaroos allowed Rich to see the world, from New York's Carnegie Hall to Kosei Nenkin Hall in Tokyo, Japan. More importantly, he played his Fender telecaster on Owens' best treble-heavy sides for Capitol Records, including "Together Again," "Love's Gonna Live Here" and "Act Naturally." He also regularly appeared with Owens on TV shows, most notably the Buck Owens Ranch Show and, more famously, Hee Haw. On the latter, Rich stood out in the more serious segments, for both his striking appearance in Western wear and his clear status as one of the greatest American side musicians at a time when the Wrecking Crew made Los Angeles a recording hotbed.
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At times, Rich proved to be a solid country singer and band leader in his own right, as heard when he and Owens' son Buddy Alan cracked the country charts with 1970's "Cowboy Convention" and 1971's "I'm on the Road to Memphis." He sometimes fronted the Buckaroos, as well, as commemorated on the 1971 album That Fiddlin' Man. Rich later cut an obscure solo album of George Jones covers.
On July 17, 1974, Rich lost his life in a motorcycle accident in San Luis Obispo, Cal. Rich's motorcycle struck a center divider on northbound Highway 1 at Yerba Buena Road in Morro Bay.
Without the "Guitar Pickin' Man" at the heart of his sound, Owens' career halted after 1974 until his working relationship with Dwight Yoakam hit full-stride in 1988. To understand how important Rich remains to the legacy of Bakersfield, consider this quote from Owens' autobiography, Buck Em'!: "I've said it many times, but I'll say it again: Don Rich was as much a part of the Buck Owens Sound as I was. I was already signed to Capitol when I met Don, so I might've become a success on my own--but when Don came into the picture, he changed everything for the better. I don't think there's any way I can articulate how important he was to me, or to my music, because I don't think the words exist."