The Baron of Bakersfield

With his unmistakable honky-tonk sound and 15 No. 1 hits in a row, Buck Owens owned country music.

By King Kaufman
Published February 23, 1999 7:11PM (EST)

A decade before Waylon and Willie and the boys became revered as "outlaws" for shunning Nashville and basing their careers in Texas, Buck Owens changed country music and became its biggest star from a flat little oil town called Bakersfield, Calif.

He was a rebel without a dark side -- a polite, law-abiding, hard-working family man who invested his earnings prudently, stayed away from drugs and drink, preferred working with musicians who did the same and spent 17 years hamming it up as the co-host of the corniest show on TV, "Hee Haw." But he was a rebel nonetheless, insisting on playing his own music, his own way, with his own band and in his own town at a time when country singers were supposed to go to Music City and sing over sweet, canned backing tracks laid down by session players and string sections. They named the hard, guitar-driven honky-tonk sound that purists still call "real" country after his town, but the Bakersfield Sound is the sound of Buck Owens.

He was born Alvin Edgar Owens Jr. outside Sherman, Texas, on Aug. 12, 1929, the son of sharecroppers. The house had dirt floors and no electricity. The family had a mule named Buck, and at 3 Alvin announced that he was going to be called Buck too, and so he was. Like so many others, the family packed up a car and trailer and headed west in 1937 to escape the Dust Bowl. "It was like 'The Grapes of Wrath,'" Owens said, "except that we didn't make it to California." The trailer hitch broke in Phoenix, so the Owenses settled in nearby Mesa. Buck, a big, strong boy, quit school at 13 to go to work in the fields and hauling produce. "That was where my dream began to take hold," he recalled years later, "of not havin' to pick cotton and potatoes, and not havin' to be uncomfortable, too hot or too cold." Christmas that year brought his first musical instrument -- a mandolin, which he taught himself to play. Over the next few years, if a local band needed a player, Buck taught himself how to play the instrument: steel guitar, sax, harmonica. The work ethic and perfectionism he would later be famous for were already in place. He was 16 when he figured out the guitar.

In 1945 Owens hooked up with another guitar player named Theryl Ray Britten for a local radio show called "Buck and Britt." He also started playing pedal steel for the wonderfully named Mac's Skillet Lickers, who had a singer named Bonnie Campbell, who soon became Bonnie Owens.

Around this time Buck began driving a produce truck between Mesa and California's Central Valley. He was impressed by Bakersfield, a booming farm and oil town. The hard-drinking oil workers made for a thriving honky-tonk scene, and a pair of musician uncles who lived in Bakersfield told Buck he could make a living there playing music. So in 1950 Buck, all of 20, moved his wife and two young sons to California.

He went to work as the guitar player for a house band, first at a place called the Corral and then, for seven years, at a joint called the Blackboard. The goal was to get the rough crowd to dance. The result was a musical education: "We played rhumbas, we played sambas, we played tangos, we played polkas. Whatever the crowd wanted to hear."

They also, eventually, began to play some rock 'n' roll. Early in his time at the Blackboard, Owens switched to a newfangled instrument -- a solid-body electric guitar called a Fender Telecaster, whose bright, twangy sound was better suited to the louder style coming into fashion than the old hollow-body electrics. Developing a distinctive, string-bending playing style, Owens earned a reputation as one of the best pickers around, and he was able to supplement his $12.50-a-night income by driving two hours over the hills to Hollywood for session work at Capitol Records -- three hours of playing for more than $40. He played behind Tennessee Ernie Ford, Sonny James, Wanda Jackson, Del Reeves, Tommy Sands, Faron Young and Gene Vincent, among others. His best gig was playing guitar for a singer named Tommy Collins, whose "If You Ain't Lovin' You Ain't Livin'" would be a hit for Buck years later. Collins' "You Better Not Do That" was a No. 2 country hit in 1953. He toured with Collins for a while, even backing him at the Grand Ole Opry, but returned to his steady job at the Blackboard.

In the mid-'50s Owens recorded some sides for the small Pep label, including a rockabilly number called "Hot Dog" that he released under the name Corky Jones so as not to put off the country audience. These went nowhere, but they, along with his reputation as a picker, helped him land a contract with Capitol in 1957. Capitol A&R man Ken Nelson had been reluctant to sign Owens, who he thought lacked vocal style. But Columbia Records began sniffing around, so Nelson signed him just so Columbia couldn't. Two early singles fizzled, and Owens, divorced, remarried, a father again and pushing 30, figured he'd had his shot. Rock 'n' roll had pushed country aside, and the Bakersfield honky-tonk scene was drying up. "I just didn't seem to be getting anywhere," he said. Offered a chance to buy a one-third interest in a radio station in Puyallup, Wash., he took it, moved his family north in 1958 and became a jack-of-all-radio-trades.

Owens' time in the Northwest was significant for two reasons: Working as a disc jockey, he learned about the sound qualities of AM radio -- knowledge he would soon use in the recording studio -- and performing in the area he met a talented 16-year-old fiddler named Don Rich, who would become his guitar player, harmony vocalist, bandleader, co-writer, arranger and best friend. "It didn't take him long before he superseded what I could do," Owens said. "He took that style and improved it immensely."

He continued to record in Hollywood during this time, often writing songs with his friend Harlan Howard, and one of his singles, "Second Fiddle," hit No. 24 on the Billboard country chart in the spring of 1959. A few months later, "Under Your Spell Again" hit No. 4. In February 1960, "Above and Beyond" hit No. 3. It was clear Buck's career as a DJ was over. He left the radio station and a live TV show he hosted in Tacoma -- which featured such local talent as Loretta Lynn -- and returned to Bakersfield. Rich dropped out of college and joined him. They began touring around in an old Ford, using local house bands to back them.

Now a confident, successful professional, Owens took charge in the recording studio. Nelson was the nominal producer of his sessions, but unlike autocratic Nashville producers like Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley, he let Owens run the sessions and took the role of interested observer, pointing out muffed notes or out-of-tune strings. In the '50s and early '60s, country had gone uptown. The hillbilly sound had been replaced by a smooth, string-laden, pop-influenced style typified by Eddy Arnold and Patsy Cline. Owens' records went against that grain, taking the unsophisticated honky-tonk feel of the hillbilly music and polkas he had grown up listening to on border radio stations and updating it with rock-band instrumentation. Forgoing string sections, he minimized pedal steel and fiddle and brought the drums and his and Rich's Telecasters to the fore.

Rather than using the stolid session musicians most country singers relied on, Owens put together a solid road band and brought it into the studio. (The band was eventually named the Buckaroos by a brooding ex-con who played bass for three weeks: Merle Haggard.) He did it because he wanted the live show to sound like the records, but the result, happily, was the opposite: The records sounded like a live band. Using what he'd learned about AM radio sound in Washington, Owens mixed his records using tiny speakers so he'd know what they'd sound like in the real world. The guitars fairly shimmered. The vocal harmonies cut like diamonds. If you were listening to the radio, you knew a Buck Owens song in an instant. It jumped right out of the speaker.

Owens was named the most promising country and western singer of 1960 by Billboard, and his top-10 duets with Rose Maddox in 1961 earned them a nod as vocal team of the year in DJ polls. But it was in 1963, after updating his sound again, that Owens' career went ballistic. He moved away from the traditional country shuffle to a more upbeat, driving style with the single "You're For Me" in late 1962. A few months later, "Act Naturally" became his first No. 1 hit. It was rock 'n' roll with a country feel. The Beatles later covered it without changing much of anything. It crossed over to the pop charts, and it began an astonishing run: For the next four years, every Buck Owens single went to No. 1. Fifteen in a row. At one point, he had a B-side, "My Heart Skips a Beat," alternating in the top spot with its A-side, "Together Again." "Love's Gonna Live Here," the follow-up to "Act Naturally," was No. 1 for 16 weeks. He even sent an instrumental -- the signature "Buckaroo" -- to No. 1. The streak finally ended in October 1967 when his tribute to his fans, "It Takes People Like You (To Make People Like Me)," underachieved, stopping at No. 2. The next single, "How Long Will My Baby Be Gone," went to No. 1, as did three more songs in 1969.

He played sold-out shows at Carnegie Hall and the London Palladium. In 1968 he played at the White House by special invitation of President Johnson, and he blew away the hippest room in America, the Fillmore West. Creedence Clearwater Revival, the biggest American rock band of the period, listed "listenin' to Buck Owens" as one of life's pleasures in "Lookin' Out My Back Door." Beginning in 1966 he hosted a syndicated TV show, "Buck Owens' Ranch," for six years. He hit on a trademark when he painted his guitar red, white and blue. And he was smart with his money: He ran his own music publishing company and, with his manager, Jack McFadden, a booking agency. He bought radio stations and opened a recording studio in Bakersfield, which country music writers now called "Buckersfield."

He was no poet. His lyrics were simple and direct, relying more on clever wordplay than deep insight. Merle Haggard had since stepped out of his shadow to become the bard of the working man. (Not to mention marrying Bonnie Owens, who had a few minor hits of her own.) George Jones was a far better singer, and even his own boy Don Rich was a better guitarist. But Buck Owens owned country in the '60s.

In 1969, he agreed to co-host a hillbilly version of "Laugh-In" with Roy Clark on CBS. "Hee Haw" started as a special, then it was a summer replacement, and then finally it earned a spot on the schedule. It went to the top of the ratings. It was ridiculous: corn-pone humor delivered from a plastic cornfield, eliciting laughs from an animated donkey. Hee-haw. But the biggest stars in country music came on, and the show treated the music seriously. CBS canceled it in 1971 in a move away from rural shows, but it went on and on in syndication. A generation, and then another, grew up knowing Buck Owens as the doofus on the TV show that defined the word "hick."

His chart success faded. He still had four or five hits a year, but they weren't smashes anymore. Only one song went to No. 1 in the '70s, a wry number called "Made in Japan" in 1972. On July 17, 1974, Don Rich was killed in a motorcycle accident. Owens was devastated. He continued hosting "Hee Haw" but scaled back his music. The hits stopped. His Capitol contract ran out, and he signed with Warner Brothers. A duet with Emmylou Harris, "Play Together Again Again" (the title referred to his earlier hit "Together Again"), reached No. 11 in 1979, but when his Warners contract expired in 1980, he made no effort to find a new one. He remained shaken by Rich's death. "He was like a brother, a son and a best friend," he said recently, "and since he died I never quite got over it."

He continued hosting "Hee Haw" until 1986, but, now married for a third time, spent most of his time managing the business empire that earned him the sobriquet "The Baron of Bakersfield." For the second time, he figured that his musical career had run its course. And for the second time, he was wrong.

Country music had gone soft again. Nashville's supremacy had been challenged by the Bakersfield sound of the '60s and the Outlaw movement of the '70s, but by the early '80s, Music City reasserted its dominance. Slick, urbanized, interchangeable singers typified by TV star Barbara Mandrell shared the spotlight with countrified pop-rockers like Alabama, the decade's biggest sellers. But there was a rumbling of neo-traditionalism. Dwight Yoakam, a Bakersfield resident, had had a hit with an old Johnny Horton tune, "Honky Tonk Man." Yoakam, who like his hero was 30 by the time he found success, took to lecturing interviewers about Owens, who seemed forgotten by history: "Those Buck Owens records in the late '50s and early '60s were some of the hippest hillbilly stuff ever known to man," he told the Los Angeles Times in a typical comment.

On Sept. 23, 1987, Yoakam walked into Owens' office unannounced and talked him into joining him onstage that night at the Kern County Fair. They sang a medley of Owens hits and brought down the house. In January they provided the highlight of the Country Music Association's 30th anniversary TV show with a duet of a song Owens had recorded in the early '70s, "Streets of Bakersfield." Owens told Yoakam he should record the song. Yoakam agreed, provided Owens would sing it with him. Their duet was Owens' first No. 1 single in 16 years.

Owens re-upped with Capitol and began recording again, even occasionally touring. His records no longer had the sting of his peak years, but he clearly enjoyed settling into his role as a revered elder statesman of the music. "Hee Haw" seemed to fade into the distance as young musicians like BR-549 cited him as an influence, covered his songs and asked him to join them onstage. Garth Brooks has taken to placing a birthday call to Owens from the stage and having his audience serenade the old man. Throat cancer cost him a piece of his tongue in 1993, but he recovered and returned to the stage. In 1996, the year he was voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, he opened Buck Owens' Crystal Palace, a restaurant, nightclub and museum in Bakersfield. Big-name country acts play there, and on most Friday and Saturday nights, Buck Owens and his Buckaroos play two shows. If you're on Highway 99, it's worth getting off on Buck Owens Boulevard and stopping in. It's five bucks at the door, the food's decent -- and the boss can sure play that Telecaster.

King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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