Bonnie Owens: 1929 to 2006
On the live performance that makes Merle Haggard’s 1970 Fightin’ Side Of Me album, he introduces then-wife and harmony singer Bonnie Owens. She momentarily fumbles the lyrics of Woody Guthrie’s “Philadelphia Lawyer”, but recovers beautifully at the end. Haggard, seeing she’s clearly upset and mortified, reassures her, “That’s all right! Ain’t nobody gonna crucify ya!” as a supportive audience applauds.
That incident exemplified Bonnie’s unease with the spotlight and her conscious choice to remain in the shadow of two formidably talented ex-husbands: Haggard and Buck Owens. She died of Alzheimer’s on April 24, one day short of a month after Buck’s death. Her ashes were interred in the Owens family mausoleum in Bakersfield.
Bonnie was born in Oklahoma City to sharecroppers in 1929 only six weeks after Buck (some bios drop three years from her age). They met at a Mesa, Arizona, skating rink in 1945. Buck was unaware of her musical aspirations until she showed up wanting to sing on his “Buck and Britt” radio show. In 1947 they joined another part-time local band, Mac’s Skillet Lickers; they married in 1948. When they and their two sons moved to Bakersfield in 1951, they’d already separated, though they waited until 1953 to divorce.
A waitress at Bakersfield’s Clover Club, Bonnie sang informally with bandleader Fuzzy Owen. The two became an item and recorded “A Dear John Letter” for the tiny Mar-vel label in 1953, only to see another local, Capitol artist Ferlin Husky, who covered the song with Jean Shepard, have one of 1953’s biggest hits.
As a cast regular on Cousin Herb Henson’s “Trading Post”, Bakersfield’s first local country TV show, Bonnie got to know Haggard, a guest on the program. Both Bonnie and Merle, then managed by Fuzzy, recorded for Bakersfield-based Tally Records in the early 1960s. Her single “Why Don’t Daddy Live Here Anymore” broke the Top 30 in 1963, followed by “Just Between The Two Of Us”, a 1964 duet with Haggard, whom she married in 1965. She also recorded six solo albums for Capitol.
Divorces notwithstanding, both Buck and Merle considered her a friend and confidant. Backstage in Indianapolis on a 1963 tour, when Buck sang her a new original he said he wasn’t sure about recording, she responded if he didn’t record “Love’s Gonna Live Here”, she would.
She and Haggard separated in the mid-1970s and divorced in 1978. But in 1994 she returned to his band and, though remarried, remained until illness forced her retirement. She may have chosen to avoid stardom, but Bonnie Owens was present at the creation nonetheless.