Buck Owens – “I hope that they see me as absolutely honest”
Editor’s note: Film producer Laura McCorkindale interviewed Buck Owens in September 2005 and January 2006 at his home in Bakersfield, California, and at his Crystal Palace nightclub. Other than a mid-March phone interview with a Long Island radio station, these are acknowledged by Owens’ family and management to be the last interviews that Buck granted.
In trying to paint a picture, a human picture of what it was like talking to the legendary Buck Owens just a few months before his death, I find myself at a loss for words — something that doesn’t happen to me often.
But, hey, we’re talking about a revolutionary musician and visionary businessman who made an irreplaceable impression on American culture. If you’ve forgotten about his monumental impact on country, rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll because of his years hosting “Hee Haw”, forget about that TV show. It was just a good paycheck.
When I first met Buck, it was just a formality, a time for him to tell me in person that he doesn’t do interviews — or at least that he didn’t want to do one with me. I drove the hundred-odd miles from Los Angeles to Bakersfield expecting this rejection, but went anyway for the opportunity to hear Buck at the Crystal Palace, performing his timeless songs that had recently captured my attention, stirring my senses like an exuberant reunion with a long-lost friend.
But here’s the thing about Buck — he was always full of surprises. He did immediately tell me he doesn’t do interviews anymore, as expected. But in the next moment, after sternly grilling me about my love for country music, my reasons for wanting to interview him, and my skills (or lack thereof) as a pedal steel player, he reluctantly agreed to talk.
Not unlike good ol’ mountain country music, Buck was a sonic paradox. Happy and sad, simple and complex, yielding and dogmatic, funny and serious, he had one eye on the future of what he still wanted to create, and both feet grounded in reminders of what he’d already so masterfully accomplished.
There’s a rare quality that my incongruous time with Buck Owens produced. I call it a lingering — an interaction that got richer over time. Buck is like a song you enjoy on first listen, but come to love as it stays with you even in the moments you’re not hearing it.
BUCK: Let me just tell you one thing: Don’t ask me something you don’t want to know.
LAURA: Let me process that for a minute.
BUCK: Well, process it soon.
LAURA: I may only discover that I don’t want to know it after I hear the answer — and then it’s too late.
BUCK: No, it’s not. You haven’t written it down yet.
LAURA: Good point.
Buck wins, as he should. Right out of the gate, his ability to banter exceeds my expectations. Our chat begins with all the standard background information: He came back to Bakersfield in 1951, where as a young boy he lived in labor camps picking fruit to make ends meet. We brush over his incredible streak of #1 hits, talk of the remarkable loyalty that has surrounded him with a handful of trusted employees for 30 years and counting. We debate which instrument is harder to learn: steel guitar or fiddle. Since he plays both, I’m not sure why I’m taking a stand, but it seems Buck’s vibrant spirit just brings out my inner spunkiness.
Since we’re at his Crystal Palace, which Owens opened in 1996 after decades of contemplating such a venue in Bakersfield, it seemed fitting we talk about its inception.
LAURA: Even though Bakersfield is one of the hometowns of country music, there’s not much of that going on around here anymore, except for your Palace, right?