Dwight & Buck: Bakersfield Bound
Dwight Yoakam’s personal friendship with Buck Owens began Wednesday, September 23, 1987. Yoakam was in Bakersfield to play the Kern County Fair that night, and Reprise Records arranged a meeting at Buck’s offices. That night, Buck surprised everyone by appearing onstage with Yoakam. Their 1988 hit duet “Streets Of Bakersfield” came a year later.
“He tells it [that] he didn’t know I was comin’ at all,” laughs Yoakam. “I was traveling, and I forget where I was coming in from. We had a two-hour window [and] I thought I would get there [and] get to the soundcheck and then get to see Buck, or go to him first then get the soundcheck. He said I just showed up. But…he was not going to come out [to perform]”
Yoakam waxes eloquently, and passionately, on Buck’s legacy. “I think ultimately he will, I hope, be remembered for being the continuum, the thread, the musical link to the great pioneers of honky-tonk music — Hank Williams Sr., Ernest Tubb,” Yoakam says. “And that in turn, through the inspiration of his west coast country sound, Bakersfield sound — I refer to it as a California country music sound — the inspiration was drawn to create the whole subgenre of country-rock music that occurred from the Byrds’ Sweetheart Of The Rodeo album forward to the Burritos to Poco to Linda Ronstadt, Stone Poneys [and] her solo career to the Eagles.”
Yoakam doesn’t stop there, citing Buck’s Dust Bowl roots and his “connection to that Steinbeck-like migrant culture…that gave us an enormous amount of our late 20th-century pop culture. The hot rod culture of post-World War II was born of a lot of those sons of Arkie and Okie: migratory workers, Dust Bowl families…”
Buck’s lifelong professionalism also hit home with Yoakam. “I grew up watching my mother and her sisters and brother and those that came out of Appalachia across to Ohio to work in factories, how they were subjected to that sociocultural economic ridicule,” he says. “Buck lived it. And he made a promise to himself that he would not be subjected to it.
“One of the ways that generation of migratory transplants proved their worth was they would show you — illustrate through their promptness, their neatness, their appropriate, respectful appearance and performance of the task at hand without complaint — that they were worthy of your respect. And this was an issue that he carried with him, I think: vulnerability to that kind of ridicule.
“The thing I would say about Buck as a person, that is most overlooked, is how vulnerable and how sensitive a man he was. It’s belied by the reputation as a tenaciously skillful businessman; first recording artist in history to get his masters back from a major company. That all preceded and cloaked him in this aura of a tough veneer and exterior that couldn’t be gotten to.
“Years into knowing him, I realized just how vulnerable to having his feelings hurt he was, how sensitive he was to the expression of friendship, and in the last four or five days, how that was so crystal clear in his songwriting,” Yoakam observes. “It escaped me for years because [his songs] are cloaked in that effervescent performance he gave everything. That made it seem as if it was all a shrug, a chuckle and a mugging, rolled-eyed moment with Don Rich.
“Buck led with his heart…and after his passing I realized in thinking of these songs, every song he wrote — ‘Tiger By The Tail’, [while] cloaked in that effervescent kind of performance, is completely vulnerable: ‘I won’t be much when you get through with me.’ He knows.”
Yoakam, who chatted with Buck by phone for two hours the Monday before Owens died, also reflected on the later years. “I think when he built the Crystal Palace it gave him a venue, a forum for [interacting] more often with a variety of people that would come through. That was so wonderful, for me to see him have that vantage point to observe new performers and to share experiences with a variety of performers.”
Only Buck’s inner circle knew of the 2004 heart attack and stroke that finally forced him to dial back. “He never really came back 100 percent from that; he was back to 80-90 percent,” Yoakam recalls. “He was vulnerable to pneumonia and a variety of things. Since this New Year and the start of late winter, he looked like he was feeling better.”
In the end, Yoakam concludes, “The thing about Buck is that he was completely, absolutely open, and that’s what made millions of people feel they knew him if they never met him. It’s an outgrowth of him being a huge fan in his own right. He was a fan. And that’s the greatest credential you can have as a performer.”