Buck Owens: 1929 to 2006
To the country intelligentsia, Buck Owens’ joyous iconoclasm made him a pivotal figure. His twangy, streamlined Bakersfield honky-tonk gave him 26 top-10 hits on the Billboard country chart; 21 of them went to #1, including 15 between 1963 and 1967. Not surprisingly, the masses viewed him mainly as a denizen of the fictional Kornfield County on “Hee Haw”, where he picked, grinned and swapped cornball jokes with co-host Roy Clark, cast and guests. As such, it was miraculous that when Owens died March 25 of a heart attack at age 76, obituaries gave his musical legacy as much or more play than the TV show. But, then, given his origins, Buck’s triumphs — predicated on hard work, shrewd business sense and talent — were themselves miraculous.
Alvis Edgar Owens Jr. developed in an atmosphere part Horatio Alger, part Grapes Of Wrath. Born in rural Sherman, Texas, the son of sharecroppers, he began packaging himself as a toddler when he nicknamed himself “Buck” in honor of the family mule. Joining the hundreds of thousands of rural prairie dwellers whose livelihoods shriveled and blew away in the Depression-era Dust Bowl, the extended Owens family crammed into a 1933 Ford pulling a trailer, headed west, and settled in Arizona in 1937. Like many Dust Bowl refugees, they hired out as migrant farm laborers, working in California’s San Joaquin Valley and around Bakersfield. The poverty, hunger, and physical and emotional privations ignited Buck’s determination to achieve a better life.
When he quit school in the eighth grade, his real education started, as he tried various jobs and began playing guitar. In 1945 he sang in a Phoenix area duo, then joined Mac’s Skillet Lickers, a larger group, and married their singer, Bonnie Campbell, in 1948. The couple and their two sons moved to Bakersfield, where Buck’s parents already resided, in 1951. He ramped up his apprenticeship there with a steady job at Bakersfield’s most famous honky-tonk, the Blackboard.
As lead guitarist and singer for the popular Bill Woods & the Orange Blossom Playboys, Buck learned to project his voice over crappy sound systems and to keep the dance floor filled by playing music ranging from mambos to polkas, boogies to waltzes. A used Fender Telecaster replaced his Gibson hollowbody electric, and people began to notice his picking.
In 1953, the year Buck and Bonnie amicably divorced (she married Merle Haggard in 1965), Tommy Collins, one of the earliest Bakersfield acts to record for Capitol, took Buck to Los Angeles to play on the Capitol session that yielded Collins’ first hit, “You Better Not Do That”. Buck’s incisive, rhythmic picking impressed legendary Capitol producer Ken Nelson, who summoned him from Bakersfield to play on other Capitol sessions, giving him invaluable studio experience.
While rock ‘n’ roll petrified much of Nashville in 1956, Buck admired Little Richard and Chuck Berry as much as he did Bob Wills and Hank Williams. While recording his first country singles for Pep Records that year, he laid down the pulsing rocker “Hot Dog”, issued under the name “Corky Jones” and promptly forgotten. His songwriting blossomed, enhanced by time spent writing with a good friend, future Nashville songwriting icon Harlan Howard.
Nelson signed him to Capitol in 1957, but his first session proved disastrous as the producer miscast Buck as a pop crooner, backed by an ineffectual vocal group — “tryin’ to make the biggest hillbilly in Bakersfield into something he wasn’t,” Buck recalled 35 years later. Both singles died and Buck moved to Puyallup, Washington, to continue his education. He bought an interest in a 250-watt AM radio station, learned broadcasting as a disc jockey, and played clubs. Within a year he hosted a local country TV show in Tacoma.
He convinced Nelson to let him record honky-tonk. “Second Fiddle”, his first hit, was a pure Ray Price shuffle, Buck’s vocals reflecting a bit of George Jones. After “Under Your Spell Again” and “Foolin’ Around” charted in 1959-60, he returned to Bakersfield, followed by his 19-year-old Washington fiddler Don Ulrich, who became Don Rich. They toured clubs nationwide, performing with house bands. Hit duets with Rose Maddox followed. When he expanded the band in 1962, Haggard, an early bass player, suggested the name “Buckaroos”.
That year brought “You’re For Me”, a hit single with a driving beat that launched the famous Buck Owens “freight train” rhythm, and the Bakersfield sound as we know it. An aggressive, danceable driving 4/4 beat inspired by Bob Wills, it came into its own in 1963 on Buck’s first #1: “Act Naturally”, followed later that year by the monumental “Love’s Gonna Live Here”, which stayed at #1 for sixteen weeks. His surge continued in early 1964 when his single “Together Again” b/w “My Heart Skips A Beat” was so popular that each side spent time at #1.
Buck’s successes allowed the west coast, after nearly twenty years of dormancy, to reassert itself as a hotbed of progressive country, paving the way for Haggard and Wynn Stewart. That has to be viewed in the context of that era. Since the late ’50s, Nashville producers Chet Atkins, Owen Bradley and others created country records neutral enough to appeal to pop fans by stripping away fiddles and steel, adding vocal choruses and occasional strings. Known as the “Nashville Sound”, it produced landmark classics by, among others, Patsy Cline, Don Gibson, Jim Reeves and Marty Robbins. But by 1963, what had seemed fresh now began sounding formulaic and, at times, contrived.
Buck’s records, by contrast, sounded fresh and contemporary, his lead vocals and harmonies with Don Rich proudly hillbilly. Twin Telecasters, with Rich now playing lead (taught by Buck himself), twanged away, as did the pedal steel (by Jay McDonald, then Tom Brumley). Beneath, the freight train carried more than a little rock ‘n’ roll backbeat.
The sessions ran like clockwork. With Nelson overseeing, Buck and the band arrived at the Capitol building thoroughly rehearsed. His broadcast experience helped him aurally tailor his singles to give them a clarity untrammeled by the mediocre fidelity of mid-’60s AM radio speakers. His albums had an egalitarian bent, mixing in instrumentals and a vocal or two by other Buckaroos.
If the Nashville Sound attracted adult pop fans, Buck found that younger rock fans and musicians appreciated his music much as they did Johnny Cash’s. Unlike many Nashville singers who mocked the Beatles, Owens and Rich were outspoken fans of the group, and were moved when the Fab Four recorded “Act Naturally” with Ringo Starr doing the vocal.
Buck’s iconoclasm grew. He pledged to “sing no song that is not a country song” in his fan club newsletter, only to upset some fans with his hit version of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis”, deflecting complaints by noting its country lyrics. The fledgling Rolling Stone featured him in a 1969 story on west coast country; Gram Parsons, the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Grateful Dead and Creedence Clearwater Revival were all outspoken Buckphiles. By the time his live 1969 recording of Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” hit the charts, no one complained.
On the road as in the studio, Buck and the Buckaroos were a well-oiled machine admired by promoters for punctuality and professionalism, apparent on their classic 1966 LP Buck Owens At Carnegie Hall. Declaring “I’ve never been arrested, jailed, [or] taken dope,” he declared; “I’ve paid my taxes and I’m proud of it.” This was, for Buck, like his business skill, a point of pride.
In 1966, he purchased KUZZ-AM in Bakersfield, opened an FM counterpart, and bought two Phoenix stations. Those investments eventually made him tens of millions, putting him alongside Webb Pierce, Gene Autry and Eddy Arnold, whose business skills matched their musical talent. Known for his generosity, Owens was Bakersfield’s first citizen.
In 1969, the year he joined “Hee Haw”, he began experimenting with rock-influenced sounds on the hits “Tall Dark Stranger” and the fuzztone-heavy “Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass”. Nelson was not impressed by these departures from the tried-and-true, asserting that “[Buck] was trying to bring his music up to date, to what he thought was ‘the thing,’ but if you’re not yourself, it’s no good.” Owens also tried bluegrass and novelty tunes. Still business-savvy, he made the unprecedented move of negotiating a final Capitol contract with a clause that when the contract expired, all rights to his masters reverted to him.
The triumphs became irrelevant in 1974 when Don Rich died in a motorcycle crash. Call it depression or a nervous breakdown; the loss shook Buck Owens to his very soul. He lost a brother, a musical alter ego and protege who’d happily rejected solo stardom to remain in his boss’s shadow.
Buck carried on, playing shows, taping “Hee Haw” in Nashville twice a year, half-heartedly recording for Warner Bros., and struggling emotionally. In 1977-78 he endured his first public faux-pas with a third marriage, this one to Buckaroos fiddler Jana Jae. He annulled, then un-annulled it before it ended in divorce. He married a fourth time in 1979.
By then, the entire climate had changed. Radio played Buck’s hits as oldies. Only one of his Warner recordings, a duet with lifelong fan Emmylou Harris, came near the top-10. As he gradually emerged from his darkness and sorrow, he faced a glaring truth: To the public, Buck Owens the “Hee Haw” co-host and comic had eclipsed the country superstar and honky-tonk master. He despaired of the early ’80s Urban Cowboy era when the lightweight pop-country of Dolly Parton, Ronnie Milsap, Kenny Rogers and Dottie West held sway. In 1986, he gave up “Hee Haw”, wondering if the music would ever change.
At almost that same moment, New Traditionalism turned things back to basics through the hits of Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam, Ricky Van Shelton, Keith Whitley, and west coasters Highway 101 and the Desert Rose Band. Owens and Yoakam met and performed together, and in 1988, when they revived an obscure 1971 Buck single, “Streets Of Bakersfield”, Owens had his 21st #1. The joy in his voice was obvious when I interviewed him that year as he exclaimed, “All these young [performers] comin’ along…I can tell from listenin’ to them that the Bakersfield sound in some way has touched them at one time or another.”
With his businesses managed by trusted family members, he resumed recording, including an “Act Naturally” duet with Ringo. Along with some limited tours, he reveled in the adulation of generations not born when he recorded “Second Fiddle”, and started licensing his Capitol material to Rhino, Sundazed and other labels. He rebounded from a 1994 bout with tongue cancer, and two years later, his wealth allowed him to build the 500-seat Crystal Palace, Bakersfield’s ultimate honky-tonk restaurant and museum. Along with top country talent, he and the Buckaroos played there most weekends.
It seemed difficult to imagine Buck Owens, vigorous and renowned for clean living, facing mortality. He rebounded from a 1997 bout with pneumonia, but a 2004 stroke and heart attack forced him to scale back his appearances. He hadn’t planned to play there on Friday evening, March 24, until he met a group from Oregon who drove in hoping to hear him. Once more, mustering the determination that had lifted him from poverty, he managed a 90-minute show, returned to his ranch north of town, went to bed and didn’t awake.
It was surely the way he would have wanted it.