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A jaunty little number about the bright side of romantic rejection, “Act Naturally” finds Owens adopting the persona of a put-upon little guy in order to argue, in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, that he’d be perfect to play a man who’s “sad and lonely” because all he would have to do is “act naturally.” It was an instant classic later covered by The Beatles, but it betrays an ignorance about Method acting; sure it’s important to be able to draw upon real-life experiences while preparing for a role, but it’s no substitute for classical training or experience.Owens never missed an opportunity to make a fast buck, so he scored a hit with “Act Naturally” twice, first as a solo number and later as a duet with Ringo Starr.He was a reluctant frontman: He was self-conscious about his homely looks and possessed more confidence in his guitar playing than his singing.But he was also an inveterate ham and a savvy businessman who knew the guy with his name in lights made a whole lot more than the anonymous folks in the background. The result: Nashville Or Bust, a series of essays about seminal country artists. Club head writer and hip-hop specialist Nathan Rabin decided to spend a year or two immersing himself in the canon of country music, a genre he knew little about, but was keen to explore.Owens didn’t think much of the clamorous ditty, but Rich liked it, so Owens decided to record the song—but only on the condition that he maintain all the publishing rights for it, and with those, the lion’s share of its profits.Owens had already recorded it, but he made Russell (and Morrison, who didn’t work on the song but was credited as a songwriter thanks to an agreement she had with Russell) sign away the rights all the same.
The song was written by Johnny Russell, who gave it to his friend and collaborator Voni Morrison to give to Owens.Sure, Owens was a funny and charismatic high-school dropout; but he was also a brooding man of infinite darkness and terrifying mood swings who presided over a musical and business empire so vast that his admirers called him The Baron Of Bakersfield (his adopted hometown and base of operations) while his detractors called him The Robber Baron Of Bakersfield, and with good reason.Owens made an awful lot of money through hard work and talent, but he made even more from other people’s hard work and talent.The two men embarked on one of the most fruitful and productive partnerships in the history of country music.Owens and Rich had stumbled upon a winning formula: simple, direct songs of longing and heartbreak delivered with a wink that doesn’t quite mask the hurt underneath.