READ ALL ABOUT BUCK
BUY THE BOOK
With this 27 page multi-media Biography by Rich Kienzle, complete with photographs sound and video clips. Learn how Buck started out as the son of a sharecropper with a dream of a better life. Music became the inspiration that led him out of the ﬁelds and into a life of a recording artist that not only achieved a dream of success but also helped develop a sound that took the world by storm.
BUCK AND BRITT
STREETS OF BAKERSFIELD
THE GUITAR PLAYER
HOLD ON TO BUCK OWENS
HIGH AS THE MOUNTAINS
ROLL OUT THE RED CARPET
CLOSE UP THE HONKY-TONKS
WHATEVER IT TAKES
THE BAND KEEPS PLAYIN’ ON
BACK AT THE RANCH
KEEPER OF THE KEY
A COUNTRY MUSIC LAUGH-IN
BLUES FOR LIFE
PLAY “TOGETHER AGAIN” AGAIN
THERE’S GOTTA BE SOME
LET’S BRING BACK BUCK
Grayson County, Texas sits along the Red River, which separates Texas from Oklahoma. Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower was born in Denison, just south of the river. Sherman, the County Seat, lies south of Denison. Dallas is 50 miles further south.
Alvis Edgar Owens Sr., a native of Texas, and his wife, Arkansas native Maicie Azel Owens, tilled the land at their farm outside Sherman. The Owenses were sharecroppers, trying to make a living to support their children. Mary, the first, was born in 1927. On August 12, 1929, Alvis Edgar Owens, Jr. was born. Two other children would follow, Melvin in 1931, and Dorothy in 1934.
At times Alvis Sr. worked at a dairy farm in Garland, Texas, near Dallas. That life, his eldest son remembers, was difficult. "You get up about 2-3 o’clock in the morning and get through about 7 or 8 and 12 hours later you start all over. That’s the worst kind of work a person can do. You have to do these two shifts to get one day."
"Buck" was a mule on the Owens farm. When Alvis Jr. was three or four years old, he walked into the house and announced that his name was also Buck. That was fine with the family; the boy was Buck from then on. Music was an integral part of the Owens family. Maicie Owens played the piano and exposed her children to gospel music through visits to a number of churches before joining a Southern Baptist Church. The eldest Owens children worked in the fields as soon as they were old enough.
This hardscrabble life left a lasting impression on young Buck Owens. The financial insecurity, discomfort, and suffering kindled a fire of determination within him. He had no idea yet how to achieve his goals. But he knew without question what he didn’t want.
“That was where my dream began to take hold, of not havin’ to pick cotton and potatoes, and not havin’ to be uncomfortable, too hot or too cold. That in itself had driven me to try to find some better way of life. I remember as a kid being cold a lot, and hungry sometimes. We’d go to bed with just cornbread and milk, and I remember wearing shoes with holes in the bottom. I remember having twine for shoestrings: You take old black shinola polish and try to make ‘em look black, and that only makes ‘em look worse. I remember the hand-me-down clothes.”
“But most distinctly, I remember always saying to myself that when I get big, I’m not going to go to bed hungry, I’m not going to wear hand-me-down clothes. I’m not going to have homemade haircuts done by my mother; she cut our hair until we were about 12 or 13 years old. Just the fright of having to live a life through that…although even then, I was cognizant that half the people I went to school with were just exactly like me.”
The family’s work needs meant that Buck changed schools often. However, at least part of his dream of a better life took shape in school. He hated writing book reports or school papers, but found he could satisfy many of those requirements by singing or performing in small plays. He involved himself in such activities whenever possible. “I think even then,” he says, “I was looking to be somebody.”
BUCK AND BRITT
Around 1945, 16-year-old Buck teamed up with 19-year-old guitarist Theryl Ray Britten. “Buck and Britt” landed a 15-minute show (for which they weren’t paid) over KTYL Radio in Mesa. Since the KTYL studio had a 30-foot-long glass window facing its parking lot, they often had a drive-in studio audience for their shows. They also played at any local honky-tonk whose bartenders let them pass the hat (in their case a soup bowl.) Eventually they took up residence at a Phoenix honky-tonk known as the Romo Buffet and added a trumpeter named Kelly, who was stationed at a nearby Air Force base. They got 10% of the take, which was usually around $100 regardless of the size of the crowd, and split $10 three ways.
Buck also branched out as a musician. When Buck got an electric steel guitar, Alvis Owens adapted an old radio into an amplifier so his son could teach himself to play it. His early guitar idols included Jimmy Wyble, the country jazz guitarist of Bob Wills’ 1944-1945 Texas Playboys. Later, he became a fan of Merle Travis’ playing.
Alvis and Maicie Owens had major misgivings about their son’s vocation, particularly since he was underage. “My mother and dad objected strenuously to me playing in the honky-tonks and they never thought I’d amount to anything,” says Buck. “They never realized – and I didn’t either, at the time – what a wonderful opportunity was presented to me to be able to make a living and pay my bills while I’m learning my trade. But those were their feelings about playing music where people were drinkin’.”
STREETS OF BAKERSFIELD
By May 1951, Buck and Bonnie decided they’d gone as far as they could in Phoenix, and moved to Bakersfield, California, a city 100 miles north of Los Angeles. Its oil industry and farmlands, much like Texas and Oklahoma made it a haven for Dust Bowl refugees in the ‘30’s and ‘40’s. Buck’s parents moved there later in 1951. Bakersfield also boasted a robust country music scene. Bob Wills worked there extensively during his years in California, and both The Maddox Brothers & Rose and singer Ferlin Husky (known also as Terry Preston) called it home.
After Buck arrived, he joined a band led by steel guitarist Dusty Rhodes. Within four months or so he joined Bill Woods & The Orange Blossom Playboys, the house band at the Blackboard, Bakersfield’s top country music nightclub. From September 1951 to May 1958, the Blackboard was Buck’s home base. Like most western bands, the Playboys, billed as “Central California’s Top Dance Band,” played country, rhythm and blues, polkas, pop music, and even rhumbas. Buck assumed he was hired as lead guitarist and was surprised to discover that Woods also wanted him to sing. With no monitor speakers to hear his voice over the amplifiers, Buck quickly learned to project his voice. “You would get right up in that microphone and sing as loud as you could, hopin’ you would be able to hear enough comin’ back.”
Dorothy Owens recalls that Buck, who had separated from Bonnie and moved home with his parents, was still trying to diversify musically. He taught himself to play saxophone, and she remembers his remarkable musical ear. “Mother and I used to play a little game with Buck,” she says. “He would be in another room and mother or I would hit one note on the piano and he would tell us what it was. Now that’s an ear.”
THE GUITAR PLAYER
The new music led to a change of guitar. He replaced his electrified Gibson L-7 archtop with a solidbody Fender Telecaster, a revolutionary new guitar that Fullerton, California steel guitar-maker Leo Fender had originally introduced as the Broadcaster in 1950. Its sound, achieved by anchoring the strings in the body like those of a steel guitar, was trebly and biting. Buck paid $35 for that used Tele, originally owned by prominent local country singer Lewis Talley. The Telecaster would play a major role in Buck’s musical future.
The rise of another Bakersfield artist also created an opportunity for Buck. Local favorite Ferlin Husky, a Capitol recording artist, helped Bakersfield singer Leonard Sipe, better known as Tommy Collins, obtain a Capitol contract in 1953. Ferlin played guitar on Collins’ first session, but before the second session, Husky got his big break when “A Dear John Letter,” his duet with Jean Shepard, went to #1 nationally. Tommy needed a lead guitarist; Buck was playing at the Blackboard when Ferlin phoned and asked Buck to play the session.
On September 8, 1953, they were in Capitol’s Melrose Avenue Studios… in Los Angeles, recording the novelty "You Better Not Do That." Buck’s intro featured the raunchy twisted-note style that became his trademark. It was Collins’ first hit, peaking at #2 nationwide. Ken Nelson, Capitol’s head of country A&R, heard something special in the guitar picking. "Buck had tremendous rhythm and he had this little style that set Tommy off, in the introductions usually."
HOLD ON TO BUCK OWENS
In 1957 Town Hall Party performers Johnny Bond and Joe Maphis, both Columbia recording artists, played regularly in Bakersfield and saw Buck’s potential. They sent a demo of Buck’s recordings to their producer, legendary Columbia A&R man Don Law, who agreed that Buck belonged on Columbia. Law wired the two performers to "hold on to Buck Owens for me" until he could travel to California to sign him.
Terry Fell and Claude Caviness were trying to interest Ken Nelson in recording Buck, but despite his admiration for Buck’s guitar playing, Caviness felt Buck lacked a vocal style. Today, Buck says, "Ken seems to remember that I bugged him and bugged him and that finally he signed me out of self-defense. I guess in a way that could be true, if you reconcile the fact that I never spoke to him about recording, other people did." —One day, however, would change everything.
Early in 1957 Buck was visited by the Farmer Boys, Bobby Adamson and Woody Wayne Murray, Capitol recording artists who worked in central and northern California. They were to record in L.A. on February 21, 1957 and asked Buck for some songs. He gave them four he’d written or co-written. He also was scheduled to play on the session. Buck found out – too late – that Ken Nelson had previously sent the duo four songs for the session. When Nelson found they had chosen Buck’s songs over his, he was furious – with Buck.
"Ken came out of the studio in the hallway and he was very angry," Buck says. "His exact words were, ‘I don’t appreciate people sluggin’ my artists with songs!’ I didn’t want to lose that gig with Ken Nelson, so I said, ‘Ken, they came to my house. I didn’t know I was doin’ anything wrong. They said they wanted these songs.’ And I don’t think he ever heard me, he was so angry."
The storm passed. After the session began, Nelson suddenly complimented Buck on the quality of the songs. With the session half over, he broached the subject of Buck recording for Capitol. When Buck told him of the pending Columbia contract, Nelson apparently realized that others saw potential in his guitarist that he’d overlooked. When the session ended, Nelson handed Buck a Capitol contract; he signed it on the spot.
Through the spring and summer, Buck continued at the Blackboard and in the studios. His first solo session for Capitol took place August 30, 1957, and though the songs were his, the results were another matter. "They were recorded with little doo-wahs…kinda pop-country with this big choral group, and I thought, ‘eeeee, God!’ But that’s what they were lookin’ for. They wanted to make the biggest hillbilly in Bakersfield something’ he wasn’t." He needn’t have worried. Both singles fizzled.
HIGH AS THE MOUNTAINS
In January 1958, encouraged by Dusty Rhodes, his original Bakersfield benefactor, Buck moved to Puyallup, Washington, a Tacoma suburb. It turned out to be another educational experience. He took over a third interest in 250-watt radio station KAYE, 1450 on the dial. "If you had a really good radio," he says today, "you could pick it up in the station parking lot." More importantly, he had a chance to learn the radio business from the ground up. He worked as a disc jockey, sold ads for the station, and performed in the area.
Buck’s stillborn Capitol recording career left him philosophical, and he wrote Ken Nelson a letter offering to forget the contract. "He turned my letter over and wrote on the back, ‘I still want to record you and I still like what you do.’" On a visit home to Bakersfield, Owens made a side trip to Capitol and asked Ken Nelson if he could record his next session with fiddle and steel. On October 9, 1958, he cut four original songs, including the ballad "Second Fiddle," in the "shuffle" style popularized by Ray Price in songs like "Crazy Arms." By the spring of 1959, it had reached #24 on the Billboard charts.
Despite this positive sign, Buck remained in Washington, where by 1959 he was hosting his own live TV show over KTNT in Tacoma. Among the local talent featured was a local house-wife-turned singer named Loretta Lynn. Dusty Rhodes introduced him to a teenaged fiddler from Tumwater, Washington by the name of Donald Eugene Ulrich. Better known as Don Rich, he would become Buck’s musical alter-ego and a major component of his best recordings.
The success of "Second Fiddle" led to another session, this one yielding "Under Your Spell Again" his first Top 10 record, in the fall of 1959. In June of 1960, with "Under Your Spell" a success, Buck divested himself of his holdings in Washington and returned to Bakersfield. It would remain his permanent base of operations.
ROLL OUT THE RED CARPET
In Bakersfield, Buck continued developing both his music and his outside business interests, taking over the old Fresno Barn dancehall, Bob Wills’ mid-‘40s stomping ground. He played there himself and booked other acts as well. Bored with college, Don Rich decided in December 1960 that he wanted a musical career, and moved to Bakersfield. After living with Buck for a time, he went home, married his hometown girlfriend Marlene and brought her south. Buck was also left with Harlan Howard’s share of Blue Book Music. Harlan, who moved to Nashville with Jan, preferred to concentrate on writing, and glad to let his friend have the company.
In fall 1960, "Excuse Me (I Think I’ve Got A Heartache)," an Owens-Howard composition, peaked at #2 on both the Billboard and Cashbox charts. In January 1961, Capitol released Buck Owens, his first LP, which contained "Second Fiddle," "Excuse Me" and "Above And Beyond." The back cover heralded Buck winning Billboard Magazine’s "Most Promising Country and Western Singer of the Year" award for 1960, selected by a poll of country disc jockeys. The cover featured an impressionistic painting of a pensive Buck wearing a red shirt, sitting on a grassy hill, and looking much like James Dean in the movie Rebel Without A Cause.
At that time, "Foolin’ Around" spent eight weeks at #2 on the Billboard charts, and one week at #1 on the Cashbox charts; it was Buck’s first #1 record anywhere. The pace picked up. He remained in the forefront that year with the big hit "Under The Influence Of Love."
CLOSE UP THE HONKEY-TONKS
For nearly two years, Buck and Don traveled in an old Ford to jobs around the country, backed by the house bands in whatever honky-tonk they were booked into. Eventually they replaced their acoustic guitars with Fender Telecasters so the house bands could follow and learn their music. This also made Buck stand out. At the time, few other country singers, among them Floyd Tillman, Joe Maphis, Hank Thompson, and Merle Travis, accompanied themselves with amplified instruments. Eventually, Don took over the lead guitar, having mastered Buck’s style.
Two more Top 10 records followed in 1962: "Kickin’ Our Hearts Around" and "You’re For Me." Until this time, most of Buck’s songs had been "shuffle numbers" the Texas style, down to the vocal harmonies on the chorus. "You’re For Me" unveiled a new Buck Owens sound. The conventional shuffle beat had been swept aside for a sound that would give Buck’s music a new dimension.
Buck’s close relationship with Ken Nelson played a major role in his successful recording career. The two had worked together since 1953, and understood each other. Buck appreciated Nelson’s flair for finding talented artists and giving them creative freedom while maintaining high standards. Today he speaks of Nelson, now in his eighties and retired in California, with pride and no small amount of awe.
"He kept us in tune, he kept me singing, he helped me grow immensely. He was a huge influence on doin’ the right thing, bein’ at the right place, he wanted that from me. He was a very silent influence on me, as far as growing, being a good citizen and learning how to live. Ken Nelson is a very great man."
Ironically, Nelson’s preference for an older style of production had much to do with Buck’s modern sound. Like earlier A&R men, such as Columbia’s Art Satherley and Decca’s Paul Cohen, Nelson expected his artists to have their music packaged and ready to record. In Nashville in the ‘60s, many singers with their own backup bands were forced to record with their own musicians to maintain their musical individuality.
As a session went on, he sat behind the console in the control room of whichever Capitol studio he was using, seemingly preoccupied with doodling on a notepad. All the while he listened, and jumped on a bad note or a fluffed lyric like a dog on a bone. If he felt a suggestion was required, he made it. Otherwise, he left the artists to create and helped them achieve their goals, which gave Buck the freedom to create his own sound and adjust it as he wished.
"Ken signed people that knew what they wanted in the studio," Buck explains. "The Wynn Stewarts, Hank Thompsons, Merles, Bucks, Ferlin Husky, all those people knew what they wanted and most of the time they’d bring in the musicians and the songs. He understood that, especially about Merle and I and Wynn Stewart. In his nice, easy-goin’, doodlin’ style, he always was listening and always was workin’ and always tryin’ to stay out of our way except to be of assistance…the best damn producer Merle Haggard and I could ever have."
Ken Nelson explained his philosophy in 1992: "My theory always has been, if you have to tell artists what to do, if you have to show them how to sing, they’re not really artists. I always hired an artist for what he could do. A lot of artists, you have to help them pick songs and so forth, but you don’t them how to sing. Buck was always well-prepared when he came in the studio. He had his own band, and they always rehearsed before they got to the date. Buck always had the ability to pick the right material for himself, and he was very easy to get along with, never had any problems. As far as creating the sound, that was just a matter of the engineers and the studio."
WHATEVER IT TAKES
By the spring of 1963, Buck was teetering on the verge of success he’d pursued day and night for nearly a decade. He hired more musicians, including a drummer, a pedal steel player, and a bass player. The Ford gave way to a Chevrolet camper. The group had no name until one of Buck’s early bass players, a talented Bakersfield musician named Merle Haggard, dubbed them "The Buckaroos."
In the spring of 1963 came the record that established him as a lasting presence: "Act Naturally," which remained at #1 for four weeks. Though he’d worked with Nashville agents like Eddie Crandall and Bob Neal, he needed a manager who understood him. That manager came along, by luck, when Buck got a call from Las Vegas-based booking agent Jack McFadden.
Buck met McFadden by chance in 1963. He was booked for a couple of dates in Oregon and Washington, and asked Jack to book enough dates to turn it into a 10-day tour. Jack, a gifted salesman, returned with 16 dates booked for more money than Buck had asked for. Buck was impressed. Within a few months, Jack became his manager – the only manager Buck has ever had. Until Buck quit the road in 1980, McFadden managed no other artists.
"I knew Buck was my type of artist," McFadden remembers, "because he was as hungry as I was. We made our deal on a handshake, with the motto ‘Whatever it takes.’" Buck also savors the association: "It’s been a wonderful relationship and it’s worked. Jack is a very fine, warm human being, and I’m crazy about him."
With "Act Naturally," McFadden remembers that Buck pushed himself even harder. "He drove thousands and thousands of miles in the camper. He never missed a date. He’d play clubs, starting at 9 at night till 1 in the morning, and never leave the stage. That is a manager’s dream, to have a person that will give that much of themselves. Never due to his own fault was he ever late. I went on almost every date with him. He did everything I ever, ever asked him to do and more. We put in the contract a 60-minute show, and hell, he’d do two hours."
In mid ’63, with "Act Naturally" off the charts Buck recorded the follow up. "Love’s Gonna Live Here," another "freight train" number, spent 8 weeks at #1 according to Billboard. The next single, "My Heart Skips A Beat," was #1 for seven weeks in ’64, and also hit the top of the Billboard charts. The single’s B-side, "Together Again," came up just below it at #2. Then one week the positions reversed, a remarkable, nearly unheard of achievement. The distinctive sound of Buck’s records had caught the public’s fancy.
"You’re For Me," "Act Naturally," and "Love’s Gonna Live Here" heralded Buck’s new sound – a churning, upbeat 2/4 rhythm that made every Buck Owens record instantly identifiable. Don Rich compared it to a "runaway locomotive"; Buck refers to it as the "freight train" sound. From 1962 to 1968, he would use this sound, rooted in the dance beat of Bob Wills, on all his ballads. Buck explains it this way: "I always had a lot of driving-type music in my bones. I always loved music that had lots of beat. I always wanted to sound like a locomotive comin’ right through the front room. The guitar licks all came from Don and me.
"It was the most exciting period of my life. I found a sound that people really liked…I found this basic concept and all I did was change the lyrics and the melody a little bit. My songs, if you listen to them, they’re quite a lot alike, like Chuck Berry. Chuck found a sound and just kept changin’ the lyrics. Once in awhile I’d throw in a left-field song. But basically, if you listen to ‘I Don’t Care’ and ‘My Heart Skips A Beat’ and ‘Tiger By The Tail,’ I just left it the same and changed the song and the chord progression a little bit and sold it to them over and over again."
To some, this may sound cynical and calculating. But Buck was hardly the first in country music to do it. Jimmy Rodgers’ classic "Blue Yodels" used the same basic structure in the 1920s and the 1930s. Many of Ernest Tubb’s and even Hank Williams’ hits used similar musical structures. The difference was that amid the cosmopolitan country of Eddy Arnold and Jim Reeves, Buck’s records sounded fresh, streamlined, and modern. In the studio, Buck and the Band were rehearsed and ready, and he insisted on getting an acceptable version in just a few takes, the better to preserve a sense of spontaneity.
The records’ unusually bright sound was also by design. Having worked in AM radio, Buck knew its sound properties. He and Ken Nelson mixed his recordings using small speakers to get optimal projection on AM radios and car radios. Those efforts resulted in the clear, distinctive sound on Buck Owens records.
"I cut records for AM radio, and I was always conscious that AM used to have a great big old bottom on it. So I took most of the bass out of the records and put on more high-end – that made ‘em sound cleaner than the others. Ken Nelson agreed. I got a letter one time from a guy in Ohio that had some kind of a radio show, and he said, ‘You know, the records that you guys do there are so crystal-clear. Some people say you’ve got a little black box that you run the tape through.’"
Buck adds that the simplicity of his music and lyrics was also part of the plan. "I tried to play songs that all the bar bands could play. I remembered havin’ been in a bar band and never bein’ able to get any musicians to rehearse. There was no way my sound could change very much, using the same musicians, engineers, studios, and echo, and the same singer. I don’t know how it could have changed very much, and in retrospect, I think it was the right thing for me to do. It was exciting onstage to perform those ‘freight train’ songs.’"
The public agreed, for the #1 songs, most in the "freight train" style, piled up. In 1964 came "I Don’t Care (Just As Long As You Love Me)." In 1965, "I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail," "Before You Go," "Only You (Can Break My Heart)," and the instrumental "Buckaroo." In 1966, the more laid back "Waitin’ In Your Welfare Line," "Think Of Me," and "Open Up Your Heart." In 1967, "Sam’s Place" and "Your Tender Loving Care."
Blue Book Music by them was a major country song publisher due to the songs of Buck and Merle Haggard, a major star in his own right. Buck also formed Buck Owens Enterprises, managed by his younger sister Dorothy. In 1965 Buck and McFadden founded OMAC Artists Corporation, a booking agency. In March 1966, Buck put his radio experience to work when he bought KUZZ-AM in Bakersfield. He also started a new station there, KBBY-FM. KBBY later became KKXX-FM, which was #1 rock ‘n’ roll station in Bakersfield for 10 years. KUZZ was – and remains – the #1 country station. Buck soon extended his radio holdings. In 1967 he bought KTUF-AM and in 1968 KNIX-FM, both in Phoenix. Eventually most operations were consolidated under the umbrella of Buck Owens Productions.
By 1966, Buck, Merle, Tommy Collins, and Wynn Stewart, each on Capitol but each with his own style, collectively defined what was then referred to as the "Bakersfield Sound": a sharp, Telecaster-driven honky-tonk sound. As hardcore singers like Ray Price were heading in the countrypolitan direction, the no-frills, unadorned drive of the Bakersfield Sound, lacking any gimmickry, remained a reassuring beacon for hard country fans.
Alvis and Maicie Owens’ one-time concerns about their son’s love for playing honky-tonks were long gone. "The last 16 years of my daddy’s life, he got to work for me, and that made him his own boss and he like that," Buck says. "And my mother told me on several different occasions that she was livin’ her dream vicariously through me. She once said that I was getting’ to do all the things that she would have wanted to have done."
Unlike many country stars, Buck and Don Rick were enthusiastic fans of The Beatles’ early music, even before the group covered "Act Naturally." The pair had every Beatles album, and onstage did a good-natured imitation of the Liverpool quartet. Buck’s professed Beatlemania bothered some fans: "People would say ‘You shouldn’t be sayin’ that. You should be talkin’ about country music.’ And I said, ‘Why not? It’s the truth! Why can’t I say I’m a Beatles fan?’ I used to get criticized for that." Ken Nelson recalls that The Beatles admired Buck as well: "We used to have to send Buck’s albums to The Beatles when they came out."
THE BAND KEEPS PLAYIN' ON
Buck’s stage shows were loose and pleasant, always on time, always leaving a satisfied audience. In 1965, Dorothy Owens remembers Buck spending 302 days on the road. The mode of touring changed as a bus replaced the old Chevy Camper in March 1966, and by late 1967 they were traveling by air. Yet unlike other artists, Buck and company kept the road’s hard times in perspective, avoiding the lure of booze or pills.
"We had a GREAT TIME! We like what we were doin’ and we did it with a great amount of flair. We did it with a propensity towards ‘Ready or not, here we come!’ The road had the lonely times, but I kept myself busy. I never missed an opportunity to go to a radio station or a TV station when I was in town, if I had an extra hour or so. I knew how important that was. We played chess, we played cards. One time in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, we got some boxing gloves, big ‘ol 16 ouncers, so we couldn’t hurt each other and we boxed for a while.
"There were not (because I never would have had ‘em) any drinkers other than socially. Weren’t any druggies in the band. Anybody who’s been on the road any length of time had taken No-Doz or a diet pill to stay awake, but I think that even that was very much at a minimum. I could almost say it practically didn’t exist. I showed up clean, ready to go with the band."
That need for cleanliness was the sole source of mischief in the band. "We drove up to the Holiday Inn, we didn’t have to make reservations, it was always cheap, always clean, always a good place to stay. We used to get one room and we’d park the vehicle outside, everybody would all take showers and we’d steal towels because we knew we wasn’t gonna have enough towels for all five of us to shower."
Though Buckaroo members varied during Buck’s years on the road, Don Rich was constant. The pair, with their twin Fender Telecasters, had a near-telepathic empathy onstage and in the studio. They enjoyed each other and, a quarter-century later, Buck still marvels at it.
"Don and I made a sort of synergy where one and one don’t make two. The two of us together made three. He was half a generation younger than I was. He had a freshness and he loved to pick the guitar, hated the fiddle. I’d say ‘Don, get that fiddle!’ He’d say ‘Aw, no, Chief, not the fiddle.’ I’d say ‘Yeah, Don, get that fiddle.’ He’d say ‘Ohh, Chief.’ I’d say ‘Don, I’ll make ya tell jokes.’ That’s the only thing that could get him to get the fiddle."
Don’s good nature helped Buck keep his head on the road. "Sometimes I’d get upset with things, I’d say ‘Goddamn that so and so,’ and Don’d say, ‘Awww, Chief, hell, he don’t know.’ I’d be mad at the bass player, maybe he was late or I couldn’t find him. And Don’d say, ‘Let me look for him. Don’t be upset.’ That was his way of talkin’ to me."
On March 1, 1965, Capitol Records released I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail, Buck’s ninth LP. It featured the title track, "Cryin’ Time," the cowboy favorite "Streets of Laredo," Bob Wills "A Maiden’s Prayer," and a rocking version of Chuck Berry’s rock’n’roll classic "Memphis." Ironically, the March 1965 issue of the Nashville-based fan magazine Music City News carried a paid ad from Buck. In his "Pledge to Country Music," he stated,
I Shall Sing No Song That Is Not A Country Song. I Shall Make No Record That Is Not A Country Record. I Refuse To Be Known As Anything But A Country Singer. I am Proud To Be Associated With Country Music. Country Music And Country Music Fans Made Me What I Am Today. And I Shall Not Forget It.
Some fans felt he broke this pledge by recording "Memphis," and, later, The Coasters’ "Charlie Brown" and his hit version of Chuck Berry’s "Johnny B. Goode." However, in his own mind, Buck had made a subtle musical distinction most fans didn’t notice, particularly regarding the Chuck Berry songs.
"I see ‘Memphis’ as bein’ rockabilly," he says. "I didn’t say I wasn’t gonna do rockabilly. I just said I ain’t gonna sing no song that ain’t a country song. I won’t be know as anything but a country singer. I meant that, I still mean that. Listen to the lyrics. If they’re not country lyrics…the melody…if that ain’t a country melody…The only thing was, a black man was singin’ it, a black man who I was a big fan of. So, my famous saying for my little pledge – I didn’t date it. I really meant it at the time. I don’t mean for it to be taken lightly."
That fall, Jack McFadden received an offer for Buck and the Buckaroos to perform at New York City’s Carnegie Hall. Despite being at the top of his profession, Buck feared not enough people in New York were country music fans, and turned it down. For once, his normally accurate instincts failed him. Grand Ole Opry groups had done well at Carnegie Hall since 1947. Flatt and Scruggs recorded one of their best-known albums there in 1962.
After Capitol offered to record the show and release it as a live LP, Buck agreed. The show, scheduled for March 25, 1966 was sold out the week before. Dressed in their rhinestone-studded Nudie outfits, Buck and the band put on a performance that the singer marvels at more than 25 years later. "It amazes me today and I think ‘God Dang! Nobody forgot anything, nobody ever made a slip, nobody made one error I could find.’ Carnegie Hall was definitely a big thing for me."
BACK AT THE RANCH
Buck’s first national TV appearances came in 1963 and 1964, with several guest spots on both ABC’s Jimmy Dean Show and NBC’s Kraft Music Hall. He first ventured into his own nationwide TV series in 1966. His friends Bud and Don Mathes, owners of Mathes Brothers Furniture in Oklahoma City, asked him to host a half-hour TV show. The show, to run 52 weeks a year, would be sponsored locally by Mathes. Buck saw an opportunity to expand his horizons by having the shows nationally syndicated, and at its peak, Buck Owens’ Ranch ran in 100 markets. Top artists taped a dozen or more performances at WKY in Oklahoma City, which were patched into the shows by Buck and his son Mike, who doubled as the show’s announcer. Among the regulars were eldest son Buddy, who performed as "Buddy Alan," and Oregon-bred vocalist Susan Raye, who began working with Buck’s shows in 1964.
1966 and 1967 were banner years for #1 Buck Owens records as tallied by Billboard. Most were in the "freight train" style and they continued in a steady stream. Late in 1967, his "thank you" to the fans "It Takes People Like You (To Make People Like Me)" reached #2.
He began experimenting musically in 1968 pulling away from the "freight train" sound. "How Long Will My Baby Be Gone" was conventional enough; the ballad "Sweet Rosie Jones" was a bit more dramatic. "I’ve Got You On My Mind Again," which made it to #5, was a greater departure, its R&B feel unlike anything he’d previously recorded. However, his success continued. On Saturday March 30, 1968, Buck and The Buckaroos played for Lyndon Johnson and an enthusiastic audience at the White House. They were among the first to know that the next night Johnson would announce his decision not to seek re-election. An LP of the performance appeared in1972.
Buck’s fan club was massive. The Buck Owens "All American" Fan Club published a regular magazine, and the merchandising even extended to a Buck Owens Guitar Method book, a guitar instruction record by Buck, and a Buck Owens guitar chord book. He even had an offer that year from some Canadian TV producers to star in a pilot of a country music TV variety/comedy program.
KEEPER OF THE KEY
No longer performing on other promoters’ package shows, Buck headlined his own from 1966 to 1970, and it was a formidable one at that. Featured were Susan Raye and 1950s country star Freddie Hart, along with Tommy Collins, Sheb Wooley, and Rose and Cal Maddox of the Maddox Brothers & Rose (Buck had recorded two hit duets with Rose in 1961). It was easy and profitable for all concerned. "You have a complete package," explains Buck, "and you don’t have to book anyone else with the show. The other singers got the money from me, so they always got their money."
While OMAC simply booked Collins and Maddox, Buck also plunged head-first into efforts to develop new young talents. Freddie Hart, Susan Raye, Tony Booth, Buddy Alan, and many of the other artists Buck worked with were managed by Performance Management, founded by Buck and Jack McFadden. In March 1969, Buck opened Buck Owens Studios in an old movie theater in downtown Bakersfield. It featured 16-track recording equipment and a then-new Moog synthesizer. The media began referring to Bakersfield as "Buckersfield," a term Buck himself never used.
Buck’s stature with Capitol permitted him extraordinary clout. A deal between Capitol and Buck Owens Productions allowed Buck to record himself, Tony Booth, Freddie Hart, Buddy Alan, The Buckaroos, Susan Raye, and others in his Bakersfield studios. Capitol merely packaged and released the recordings. No country singer at that time had a similar deal. Among the other aspiring singers Buck discovered were longhaired twin brothers Jim and John Hager, who were also signed to Capitol.
Few country entertainers played San Francisco’s legendary Fillmore Auditorium, the premier rock concert hall in America in the late ‘60s. Buck played there October 11 and 12, 1968. Many country singers, hostile to the music and youth of the time, would have refused such an engagement. Buck would not. Conversely, his music, along with that of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard (despite his anti-hippie hit "Okie From Muskogee") were admired by young people and rock musicians. Ironically, in 1969 Buck’s desire to experiment beyond the "freight train" sound grew with numbers like the waltz-tempo "Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass," which boasted rock-style fuzztone guitar, and "Tall Dark Stranger." Both reached #1.
Rolling Stone, the San Francisco-based rock music publication that had run a story on Merle Haggard a year earlier, ran a lengthy piece on California country music in their June 28, 1969 issue. Written by John Grissim Jr., it profiled everyone from Glen Campbell and Ken Nelson to John Hartford and Judy Lynn. Buck, however, was the main focus. Though the story was plagued by factual errors, Grissim explored Owens’ popularity and extensive business holdings in detail, and later expanded the article into a full-length book: Country Music: White Man’s Blues, covering the country scene nationwide.
Eventually, aside from Buddy Alan, Susan Raye, the Haggers, and a few others, Buck abandoned his efforts to develop new talent. Without naming names, he explains that many lacked the all- powerful drive to succeed – the drive of, say, a Buck Owens. Buck explains his views thusly: "Lady Limelight is a jealous lady. She wants all of your attention. You don’t have any time to think of anything else but Lady Limelight, because pretty soon that light will be shinning on somebody else. So you better do it while you can. I wanted it for these people a hell of a lot worse than they wanted it."
A COUNTRY MUSIC LAUGH-IN
Canadian TV producers Frank Peppiatt and John Aylesworth had conceived Hee Haw, named for its cartoon donkey mascot, as a country music version of NBC’s popular Laugh-In that would mix quick-cut, cornball humor with country music. Buck taped the pilot in 1968 and CBS picked it up as a summer replacement for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, canceled due to its controversial anti-war humor during the Vietnam years. CBS picked up a 13 -show option, and at Buck’s recommendation the producers hired singer Roy Clark as co-host. The show premiered Sunday, June 15, 1969.
Hee Haw was so successful during the summer that CBS slotted it into the fall schedule. The Buckaroos served as the house band, and Buck was suddenly getting national exposure on a weekly basis. With him came the top talents in his stable: Buddy Alan, Susan Raye, and the Haggers.
In 1966 Buck and The Buckaroos had their instruments painted red, white and blue, an extension of Buck’s innate patriotism. When these instruments were seen on Hee Haw, guitar manufacturers began making offers to him to market a guitar in those colors. Though Buck used a red, white and blue acoustic guitar built for him by Semie Moseley of Mosrite Guitars, his business sense told him an expensive model of that type wouldn’t sell to the public.
He finally licensed Chicago Musical Instruments (makers of the prestigious Gibson guitars) to market a $99 acoustic model, and received a $2.50 royalty on each sold. He knew that Sears would market them but had no idea they would sell as well as they did –until the first royalty check came. "The very first statement, they sent me $15,000," he laughs. "I said, ‘Oh, you mean THAT Sears!"
During this time, Buck was also filming what may be the first country music videos ever done. He did four tied to his hit singles "Tall Dark Stranger," Sweet Rosie Jones," "Big in Vegas" and "I Wouldn’t Live in New York City (If They Gave Me The Whole Dang Town)." Filmed in 35 millimeter, they were rarely seen, since there were no outlets for playing videos then and cable TV networks didn’t yet exist.
With Buck Owens now a national TV star, Capitol flooded the market with nine LPs between December 1969 and February 1971. Three were reissues of earlier albums, along with a new gospel album, a live album, three new Buck studio albums, and a Christmas LP. One promotion man complained to the label that they were releasing more Buck product than he could ever promote.
In 1971, Buck signed his final four-year contract with Capitol. Following lengthy negotiations, the label gave him something few artists ever received: Ownership of all his Capitol recordings at the end of the contract. He would give the label five years to sell off his albums before he would take ownership in 1980. Such business acumen was routine for Buck and still a rarity at the time among country singers. As Dorothy Owens says, "Buck’s a very bright person. He thinks all the time and he thinks ahead. Buck’s a good businessperson, always thinking to the future and ‘What if?’ He’s always saying that. He invested his money and he didn’t waste it. He didn’t spend it on high living. He’s very comfortable with a moderate way of life."
Buck continued to diversify musically. He followed his 1971 hit recording of Simon and Garfunkel’s "Bridge over Troubled Water" with an LP featuring two more Simon and Garfunkel songs and numbers by folk-rockers Donovan and Bob Dylan. It disturbed Ken Nelson. "The last two years of recording," said Nelson, "Buck tried to get too hep and that is the one thing that I didn’t approve of, and I told him that, too. He 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."
Thinking back, Buck recalls these musical departures quite differently: "I got to realizing that I wanted to record, I wanted to experiment. And doing those same old songs the same old way–I said, ‘I think it’s time for me to have some fun.’ And so we got into those things and we had quite a bit fun with them too."
CBS dropped Hee Haw in 1971 as the network ended a decade of rural oriented programming, but in syndication the show was more successful that it had ever been with CBS. Buck shifted musical directions again in 1971, adding five string banjoist Ronnie Jackson to the Buckaroos and recording two hit bluegrass numbers: The Osborne Brothers’ "Ruby (Are You Mad)" and "Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arms." However, in 1972, with the more conventional ballad "Made In Japan," Buck Owens had his final #1 solo recording.
Through 1972 and 1973 he toured, taped Hee Haw twice a year and worked in his studio. His recording career was in decline, his hits being novelties like "Big Game Hunter" and "On the Cover Of The Music City News." Hee Haw’s success in syndication led to the demise of Buck Owens’ Ranch in 1973. In certain markets, TV stations programmed Buck’s Show against Hee Haw, whose producers arranged with Buck to end his show. He still owns all 400 Ranch Shows.
It had been a fantastic run — a decade of unprecedented success. Then one summer morning, Buck Owens suffered a sudden, tragic blow from which it took him years to recover.
BLUES FOR LIFE
At 6:30 on the morning of July 17, 1974, Buck’s home phone rang. It was his son Michael, who managed KUZZ. He informed him that Don Rich had been killed earlier that evening when his motorcycle struck a highway divider. "He said , ‘Dad, I have to tell you something.’ And then he told me about Don. It’s something that I always wanted to forget and never to remember…and I had to call his wife and tell her –she was in Morro Bay."
Several of Buck’s musicians had bought motorcycles, and when other friends of theirs died in motorcycle mishaps, Buck repeatedly preached against them. Don promised Buck he’d ride his only on dirt trails. That night he was working late at Buck’s studio, planning to travel to Morro Bay to meet his wife and kids for some deep-sea fishing. He was heading from Bakersfield to Morro Bay on his bike when the accident occurred.
Buck was shattered. The alter-ego, the musical son who had blossomed under his wing, whom he depended on both in the studio and onstage, was suddenly gone. A huge void remained in Buck’s life and music and in his soul.
"After Don’s death, I don’t think I ever quite recovered. I had such a long period of shock and such a long period of being depressed and confused and hurt that I couldn’t talk about Don much for at least four, five, six years."
"Don was incredibly important as a human being. He was as much a part of the music as I was. He seemed able to read my mind. And a lotta times I would try to fool him on the stage: we had our little thing goin’. He was uncanny about catchin’ me so he could sing with me. There was never anything like that happened to me before or since. That’s the way I’ll always remember him. I finally got at peace with that."
Buck continued with Hee Haw after Don’s death, since he only had to tape in Nashville in June and October of each year. And in 1974, Buck was about to depart Capitol after 18 years. His records hadn’t been selling, so there was little or no thought of another Capitol contract.
PLAY "TOGETHER AGAIN" AGAIN
In 1975 Andy Wickham of Warner Bros. Records, a long time Buck Owens fan, signed him to Warners. "I was very comfortable with Andy. He let me do what I wanted to but it just wasn’t there. I couldn’t do it by myself. I missed Don so much every place I’d go." With Norro Wilson producing, Buck recorded in Nashville for the first time, leaving the control to others and concentrating on generic pop-country music. The fire was gone and his fans knew it. Neither his Warner singles nor albums were up to his old standards proven by their low chart positions. His biggest hit with Warners was a duet with Emmylou Harris on "Play Together Again Again," a Buck tribute that reached #11 in Billboard.
Buck was philosophical about his lack of success at Warners. "It wasn’t Norro’s or Andy Wickham’s fault, it was my fault. I didn’t want it bad enough to go out and do the job. Because from the day of Don’s death, I went through the paces…things were over at that time for me. It never did pick up."
A decade before, Buck Owens had been the top country singer in the nation. Now, with his record sales dragging, Hee Haw was his major outlet. And people began to forget the dynamic honky-tonk singer Buck Owens had been. They saw him as an over all-clad comic holding a red, white and blue guitar, standing in a fake cornfield singing "Phfft! You Were Gone" with guest after guest. Then in his late forties, his artistic frustration was growing.
THERE'S GOTTA BE SOME CHANGES MADE
As the ‘70s ended Buck realized that the unbearable emotional pain had to stop. It was time to let go and get on with living. "I was in a zombie -like mode and I went through the motions up until January 1, 1980. And I knew I couldn’t go through that anymore, so I called the guys together. I told ‘em , "I’m gonna still play some dates, but I’m not gonna do anything near like I did it before. I can’t do that and I don’t want to do it." Several members of the band continued with him in other roles. He and Warners mutually agreed to end his contract. For the first time in 23 years, Buck Owens was no longer recording.
He reordered his priorities over the next few years. "I spent a lot of that time from age 50 to 60 doin’ things that I wanted to do. I’m in an absolute frenzy towards doing as many things as I can that I want to do today. The rest can wait till tomorrow, next week, if I’m around we’ll take a look. That’s my attitude: to remove any and all stress off myself."
Buck also had time to reflect on his career. Don’s loss had been devastating, yet in the end, he realized what truly diminished his appeal as a recording artist was the very thing that made him a household word: Hee Haw.
"Anybody that’s been on television – Perry Como, Jimmy Dean, Andy Williams, Johnny Cash, Buck Owens- when you become a household name, when they can see you once a week, it reduces and diminishes your value. You’re no longer special. I think quintessentially, television is the bare bones of the removal of all mystique. Don’t forget, in 1969 I was still havin’ #1 records. As I went along it degenerated into more comedy and a lot less singin’, or doin’ those silly little cast songs."
"I enjoyed the Hee Haw people, but from 1980 on I didn’t enjoy it and thought about leavin’, and thought, hell, it’s an easy job and pays wonderful. I kinda just prostituted myself for their money. My music, which I loved, had suffered badly and I knew what it was from: too much ‘Phifft! You Were Gone.’ I thought: ‘One more year, I’ll do one more year…"
Buck finally left Hee Haw in 1986. It continued, with Roy Clark hosting. "I was always very grateful to ‘em and am grateful to ‘em now. I went back a couple of years ago and did their 20th anniversary show. But the longer I stayed on Hee Haw, the worse things got for me musically."
There was no reason to expect any more music from Buck Owens. The same year he cut back his activities, 1980, saw the hit film Urban Cowboy making country music trendy. In Nashville, producers hustled to create easy-listening records smothered in strings to attract pop-record buyers. It seemed that the simpler days of Nudie suits and freight train songs were gone forever.
LET'S BRING BACK BUCK
Like other California artists, Buck had many friends in Nashville but never considered moving there even at his peak. He loathed its politics and Music Row’s tendency to minimize the contributions of West Coast artists.
"The beef I had with Nashville was they thought they spoke for all country performers and that just wasn’t true. It seemed they never wanted to give the West Coast musicians the credit we deserved. A lot of things that came out of the West Coast – not necessarily by me, but by country people here – Nashville took and applied. I was at odds with them right from the beginning; Merle came along and he was at odds with them. They wanted to control what we did on the West Coast, I felt."
"I’m from the Bob Wills and the Little Richard school of music. Bob Wills did what the hell he thought, Little Richard did what he thought, and those were my big influences. I didn’t like the music in Nashville: soft, easy, sweet recordings, and then they pour a gallon of maple syrup over it…so contrived. I disliked the fact that musicians who had their own bands could not record with their bands. Nashville producers wouldn’t let ‘em."
As "Streets Of Bakersfield" peaked, Buck received a letter from Capitol Records’ Nashville head Jim Foglesong, asking him to consider Capitol if he decided to record again. Ken Nelson had retired long ago. Buck signed with them and late in 1988 released a new album, Hot Dog, featuring a remake of the rockabilly number he’d first done 32 years before, as well as "Under Your Spell Again" (sung with Dwight) and "A-11," which he’d first recorded in 1964. The single version of "Hot Dog" only made it to #46 on the charts. Nonetheless, Buck began doing interviews and performing with a reconstituted Buckaroos.
In March 1989, Buck was invited to the "Bammy" Awards, sponsored by BAM (Bay Area Music), a San Francisco-based rock magazine. At the presentation, his appeal to rockers of two generations reared its head again. He was photographed with fans that included Neil Young, Van Halen lead singer Sammy Hager, Chris Isaak, and John Fogerty(who’d mentioned Buck in the 1970 Creedence Clearwater Revival hit "Lookin’ Out My Back Door"). Buck was both pleased and moved.
"Seein’ Neil Young, Sammy Hager, John Fogerty…he liked me well enough he put my name in one of his songs. And I had no idea how they felt at that time. I wasn’t thinkin’ about that and I’m glad I wasn’t. I was just thinkin’ about doin’ what I liked to do. To know that the music has had some effect on the Rodney Crowells and the Dwights and the Marty Stuarts and Vince Gills and some of those young pickers, I’m very proud of that, although it was unplanned. It was just something that happened."
The producers of the Bammy Awards show had suggested that Buck and Ringo Star sing a duet version of "Act Naturally" at the show. Though Ringo didn’t appear at the festivities, Buck came up with a better idea: to record the song with Ringo. They did so in London that year at the Abbey Road Studios, where The Beatles’ hits were recorded. It was a Grammy-nominated single and an album of the same name followed that year. Buck and Ringo also did an "Act Naturally" video. Though the album revealed his continued vitality, it didn’t meet sales expectations.
At age 62, Buck’s view of Nashville had changed…a bit. "Today, if I had to do it over again, I think what I would do it a little differently. I think what I would do, I would just be cool and take advantage of what Nashville had to offer instead of tryin’ to swim upstream all the time. All the control comes from Nashville, though my deal was on the West Coast.” Despite longstanding musical and stylistic differences with California acts, Nashville came to recognize and respect the huge impact Buck (and Bakersfield as a whole) had on country music. In 1996, Buck Owens was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
In October 1996, he opened the Buck Owens Crystal Palace in Bakersfield. It was the realization of a longtime dream: a combination nightclub, restaurant and museum. With Buck’s–and Bakersfield’s—place in country history now firmly established, the Palace became the West Coast’s premiere country venue, winning numerous CMA and ACM awards as Nightclub Of The Year. It allowed him to book both stars who were longtime compatriots and young artists on the way to stardom. The Palace also brought him full circle. When Buck and the Buckaroos played there Friday and Saturday nights, he reverted to the casual format he’d enjoyed in his days at the Blackboard: taking requests from the audience and enjoying himself.
He wasn’t feeling well on Friday, March 24, 2006 and told the Buckaroos to play without him; he was heading home. Walking to his car, he encountered a couple from Bend, Oregon. They told him they’d driven 700 miles, excited at the prospect of seeing Buck perform. He changed his mind on the spot, played his usual 90 minute set and shared the story of the encounter with the audience. When the performance ended, he drove to his ranch, went to bed and died in his sleep in the early morning of March 25.
His family and Foundation continue to honor his legacy, celebrating his life by carrying on the operation of the Crystal Palace the way they know he would have wanted. His music has become something transcendent and timeless, still fresh and influential over half a century later.
When Buck was asked several years before he died what his legacy might be, his response was:
"I think I’m gonna be remembered the same way that people remember me today. There’s gonna be those that liked me and those that didn’t like me. I’d like just to be remembered as a guy that came along and did his music, did his best and showed up on time, clean and ready to do the job, wrote a few songs, and had a hell of a time."