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Tuesday, 28 March, 2006

No one. Not one blog, journal, only a mention on the traditional media,
even then mostly as a curiosity; no one pays tribute to perhaps the
greatest single innovator of America’s bastard cultural child. The
other music form which gestated on this continent gets no respect even
among its supposed adherents, upon the passing of perhaps its greatest
single innovator.

Edgar “Buck” Owens Jr.

b. Sherman,
Texas, August 12, 1929

Bakersfield, California, March 25, 2006
the classic red, white and blue guitar

The rest of this is stolen outright from a variety of sources:

Singer, songwriter,
and guitarist Alvis Edgar
Owens Jr. ruled the country music scene for a period in the mid-1960s,
producing a clear, twangy, danceable sound that he repeated across
dozens of chart-topping singles. Though he would later become a fixture
on television through the success of Hee Haw, Owens is best remembered
by fans and those younger stars he has influenced for timeless hits
like “Act Naturally” (#1, 1963) and “My
Heart Skips a Beat” (#1, 1964).

an American
singer, credited with twenty number one hits on the Billboard magazine
country music charts. A consummate bandleader, Buck Owens pioneered a
unique and fresh sound: clean and crisp, with no sliding guitars or
characterized by sharp, staccato guitar riffs and lyrics. This unique
sound was dubbed by reviewers and music industry observers as the
Bakersfield sound—a reference to Bakersfield, California, the
city Buck Owens called home and from which he drew inspiration for what
he preferred to call “American Music”.

His early life followed the classic
Depression-era Dust Bowl family stereotype.  Sharecroppers
North Texas near the Oklahoma border, his family moved west to Arizona
in 1937, barely making ends meet.  Having experienced the
of poverty, Owens began playing the honky-tonks of Phoenix and Mesa,
Arizona, to make money, learn a trade, and stay away from the harsh
conditions of farm labor.

Owens was born in
Sherman, Texas, the son of sharecroppers. He chose the nickname “Buck”
after a family horse (or a mule — reports seem to vary). In
1937, his family joined many others fleeing the hardships of Dust Bowl
farming during the Great Depression. They packed ten family members in
a Ford sedan, and left Texas for California. Their trailer hitch broke
in Mesa, Arizona, and there they stayed.

Buck, a big, strong boy,
quit school at 13 to work in the fields and haul 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.

He worked a number of
odd jobs,
and eventually found work playing music in bars for $5 a night. In 1945
Owens hooked up with another guitar player named Theryl Ray Britten for
a local radio show called “Buck and Britt”.

Over the next few years,
if a local band needed a player, Buck taught himself how to play the
instrument: steel guitar, saxophone, and 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.

The musical influences on the young Owens were
diverse, reflecting both the popular music of the time and places in
which he matured and the various styles that he had to learn to play as
a working dance-hall musician in the Southwest.  He listened
stringband and cowboy music on Mexican border radio stations and
learned to play and synthesize western swing, rhythm & blues,
the emerging genre of honky-tonk. In 1947 he met Bonnie Campbell, with
whom he worked in a group called Mac & the Skillet Lickers, and
two married in 1948.

Around this time in the
late 1940s Buck began driving a produce truck between Mesa and San
Joaquin Valley of California. 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,
settling there to work the gritty honkytonks populated by Bakersfield’s
oil workers. 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

 From 1951
to 1958 Buck played at the Blackboard, the center of the
vibrant Bakersfield music scene. As lead guitar player and singer for
the house band led by Bill Woods, Buck worked marathon shifts and
played anything to get folks dancing, including country, r&b,
rockabilly, rhumbas, polkas, and even sambas.

They also,
eventually, began to play some rock ‘n’ roll. Early in his time at the
Blackboard, Owens switched to a newfangled instrument produced by the
Leo Fender company — a solid-body electric guitar called a Telecaster,
whose bright, twangy sound was better suited to the louder style coming
into fashion than the hollow-body electric jazz guitars, made by
Gretsch and Gibson.

Developing a
distinctive, aggressive and trebly attack to his 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.

He made a few singles
for local labels, and
even recorded a rockabilly single, “Hot Dog,” for
Pep Records in 1956,
which was released under the name Corky Jones so that Buck’s
credibility would not suffer. Capitol producer Ken Nelson signed Owens
to Capitol in 1957. Two years later, “Second
Fiddle” became Owens’s
first chart record.

His best gig was
playing guitar for Bakersfield singer-songwriter 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. Buck toured with Collins for a while, even backing him at the
Grand Ole Opry, but soon 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 the
records, along with his reputation as a solid picker and performer,
helped him land a contract with Capitol Records 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 seemed to be
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, Washington, he took it, moved his family north in 1958 and
became a jack-of-all-radio-trades.

During a period he spent in the Seattle area
in the late fifties, Buck struck up a musical relationship and personal
friendship with a young fiddler, Don Rich.  Their partnership
crucial in Buck’s career, and Rich stayed with Owens as
guitarist, and leader of Buck’s band, the Buckaroos, until
his death in

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 Donald Eugene Ulrich (stage name Don
Rich), who would become his fiddle player, harmony vocalist,
bandleader, co-writer, arranger and best friend. “It didn’t take him
long before he superseded what I could do [on guitar],” 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 the country in an old Ford, using local house bands to back

Owens’s first #1 hit, which began a string of
six years in which he had at least one #1 and usually had three, was
“Act Naturally” in 1963, later covered by the
Beatles. Following this
with a series of similar singles with a clear sound that seemed
literally to jump out of AM transistor radios, Owens hit the top again
and again with songs such as the ballad “Together
Again” (#1, 1964),
“I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail” (#1,
1965), “Think of Me” (#1, 1966),
and “Sam’s Place (#1, 1967).

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 1950s and
early 1960s, 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
Mexican polkas he had grown up listening to on border radio stations
and updating it with rock-band instrumentation.

Unlike most other artists during the heyday of
the Nashville Sound, Owens would virtually always record with his road
band, giving his records both a distinctive sound and a live feel. From
1963 to 1967, during the peak of Owens’s commercial and
career, Owens and Rich were joined by pedal steel player Tom Brumley,
drummer Willie Cantu, and bassist Doyle Holly on all of
Owens’s records
and on the Buckaroos’ own marginally successful releases on
While Nelson nominally produced his sessions, Owens would shape and
control the band’s sound and songs.  These factors,
and Owens’s
desire to keep the same winning song and arrangement formula, helped to
create the conditions for his signature style based upon simple
storylines, infectious choruses, twangy electric guitar, an insistent
rhythm supplied by a drum track placed forward in the mix, and high
two-part harmonies featuring Owens and Rich.

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 in
the band 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.

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 (“…like a freight train coming
through your livingroom,” as Buck said) with the single “You’re For Me”
in late 1962. A few months later, “Act Naturally” became his first #1
hit. It was rock ‘n’ roll with a country feel. The Beatles later
covered it, (Ringo Starr
on vocal), without changing much of anything. They were great fans of
Buck and requested that Capitol send them every new record and album
when they were released.

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
. He bought radio stations and opened a recording
studio in Bakersfield, which country music writers now called

Owens’s control of his music was reflected in
his business interests.  He established himself as a savvy
businessman early in his career with Blue Book, a music publishing
company that controlled his own work and that of other Bakersfield
writers like Merle Haggard.  Owens also invested in radio
throughout the Southwest, and with his manager Jack McFadden
established his own management and booking agency that handled a number
of artists.

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 so-called “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. Unlike many fellow artists, Owens avoided drugs and drink,
living as a quiet family man. But Owens was a rebel at heart doing his
music his way, shunning the conventions of Nashville, and fairly owned
country in the ’60s.

By the 1960s, with the
help of manager Jack McFadden,
Owens began to concentrate on his financial future. He bought several
radio stations, including KNIX and KESZ in Phoenix, Arizona,
and KUZZ in Bakersfield, incorporating his trademark red, white and
blue guitar into each station’s logo. In 1999, Owens sold KNIX and KESZ
to Clear Channel Communications; he maintained ownership of KUZZ until
his death.

Owens established Buck
Owens Enterprises and produced records by
several artists released on the Capitol label including his son Buddy Alan. His most successful
proteges were Susan Raye, who recorded popular duets with Owens in
addition to her hits as a solo artist and country veteran Freddie Hart
who reached superstardom almost twenty years into his career in 1972
with “Easy Loving”.

In 1969, he agreed to
co-host what critics called “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. Critics said it was ridiculous. 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
co-host of Hee Haw … Only one song went to #1 in the 1970s, a wry
number called “Made in Japan” in 1972.

After many career highlights, including shows
at Carnegie Hall and the Fillmore in San Francisco, Owens’s
career faded both commercially and artistically in the 1970s, though he
kept quite busy with his many business interests and with Hee

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.

Dwight Yoakam, a
Bakersfield resident, had had a hit with an old honky-tonk tune, “Honky
Tonk Man” (originally a hit for Johnny Horton). 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 September 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 1988 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 #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

Hee Haw seemed to
fade into the distance as young musicians like The Derailers and BR5-49
cited him as an influence, covered his songs and asked him to join them
onstage. Garth Brooks had taken to placing a birthday call to Owens
from the stage and having his audience serenade him.

Esophageal 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
played two shows.

“He had come to the
club early and had a chicken-fried steak dinner and bragged that it’s
his favorite meal,”
longtime spokesman, Jim Shaw] told the Los Angeles Times.
After the meal, he planned to cancel his Friday appearance after
telling band members he wasn’t feeling well. Before he reached his car,
however, a group of fans introduced themselves and explained they had
traveled from Oregon to attend the show. The 76-year-old singer
returned to the club and performed the show.

Shaw recalled Owens
telling the audience, “‘If somebody’s come all that way, I’m gonna do
the show and give it my best shot. I might groan and squeak, but I’ll
see what I can do.” Shaw added, “He died in his sleep…probably of
heart failure. So he had his favorite meal, played a show and died in
his sleep. We thought, that’s not too bad.”

Owens was rushed to
Bakersfield Memorial Hospital sometime after 4:30 a.m. March 25, 2006
but could not be revived, Shaw told the Bakersfield Californian. Owens
had performed nearly every weekend at the Crystal Palace since opening
the $5-million complex in October 1996. He was diagnosed with throat
cancer in 1993 and suffered a minor stroke in 2004. He had previously
been treated for respiratory problems.

Mark Fenster, Country
Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s Encyclopedia of
Country Music, published by Oxford University Press

Salon Brilliant
Careers: The Baron of Bakersfield

Associated Press, via
The Bakersfield Californian, March 26 2006

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