Remembering Buck Owens

Biography by Stephen Thomas Erlewine - posted March 25, 2006

           Buck Owens, along with Merle Haggard, was the leader of the Bakersfield sound, an twangy, electricified, rock-influenced interpretation of hardcore honky tonk that emerged in the '60s. Owens was the first bona fide country star to emerge from Bakersfield, scoring a total of 15 consecutive number one hits in the mid-'60s. In the process, he provided an edgy alternative to the string-laden country-pop that was being produced during the '60s. Later in his career, his musical impact was forgotten by some as he became a television personality through the country comedy show Hee Haw. Nevertheless, several generations of musicians from Gram Parsons in the late '60s to Dwight Yoakam in the '80s were influenced by his music, which wound up being one of the blueprints for modern country music.
           Owens was born in Texas, but his family moved to Mesa, AZ, when he was a child, seeking work during the Great Depression. Owens developed a fervent interest in music as a young child, learning to play guitar in his early teens. He dropped out of high school in ninth grade, working on the farm to help his family but also spending a significant amount of time learning how to play the guitar. By his late teens, he had an occasional spot on a local radio station, KTYL Mesa, and was playing gigs in honky tonks and clubs around Phoenix with his friend Theryl Ray Britten. When he was 19 years old, he married Bonnie Campbell, who was also a country singer. By 1950, the couple had two sons.
           Buck and Bonnie Owens decided to leave Arizona in 1951, moving to Bakersfield, CA. In Bakersfield, he became a regular performer in a number of clubs, particularly the Blackboard, where he was the lead singer and played rhythm guitar for Bill Woods & the Orange Blossom Playboys. Soon, he formed his own band, the Schoolhouse Playboys, which also played the Blackboard. Buck's exposure in Bakersfield led to some session work for Capitol Records, beginning with Tommy Collins' 1954 hit "You Better Not Do That." During all of this, Buck and Bonnie grew apart and divorced in 1953; they remained friends and shared custody of their children.
           Between 1954 and 1958, Owens played guitar on a number of Capitol country records produced by Ken Nelson, including some by Faron Young, Tommy Sands, and Wanda Jackson. Occasionally, he was a session musician at the local Bakersfield studio Lu-Tal, run by Lewis Talley. Owens made his first solo recordings at Talley's studio in 1956, cutting ten songs for an independent label called Pep. The singles which included the often-covered "Down on the Corner of Love" and "Sweethearts in Heaven" as well as two rockabilly sides released under the name Corky Jones were unsuccessful, yet they attracted the attention of many country music business insiders. Around this time, Owens met Harlan Howard, a struggling country singer/songwriter. The pair became friends and collaboraters, with Buck writing the music and Harlan writing the lyrics. Owens and Howard formed Blue Book Music that year in order to publish their songs.
           Owens continued to play regularly in Bakersfield clubs. At these concerts, he attracted the attention of Johnny Bond and Joe Maphis, who were performers on Town Hall Party and signed to Columbia Records. Impressed with Owens' music, the pair sent a demo to their record label, who immediately became interested in signing Buck. Several people at Capitol were trying to persuade Ken Nelson, the label's country A&R head, to sign Owens as a recording artist, but he wasn't convinced that Buck was a capable lead singer or songwriter. It wasn't until a Capitol recording artist, the Farmer Boys, picked Owens' songs to record instead of Nelson's that the A&R head decided to sign the guitarist in February 1957.
           Initially, Owens' singles for Capitol Records were ignored. They were country-pop numbers, complete with a choral group singing backing vocals. Such a big production didn't fit comfortably with his unvarnished honky tonk roots and both singles sank without a trace when they were released in 1957. Hurting financially from the lack of sales, Owens moved to a suburb of Tacoma, WA, to work at a radio station, KAYE, in January 1958. In addition to DJing and selling ads for the station, he played clubs around the area. By the summer, Owens was convinced that his recording career was over, but Ken Nelson refused to let him out of his contract. In the fall of 1958, Owens had another session for Capitol Records, but this time he was allowed to use a steel guitar and a fiddle. One of the songs from the session, "Second Fiddle," was released as a single and became a surprise hit, climbing to number 24 on the country charts. Even though he had his first taste of success, Owens remained skeptical about his future as a recording artist, so he remained in Tacoma, hosting his own live show on KTNT. On the show, he featured a new local singer named Loretta Lynn. More importantly for Owens, he met Don Rich (born Donald Eugene Ulrich) at this radio show. Rich would become Owens' partner in the next decade and would have an immense influence over his music.
           "Under Your Spell Again," the fall 1959 follow-up to "Second Fiddle," broke the doors open for Owens. Climbing to number four, the single began a streak of Top Ten singles that ran more of less uninterrupted into the '70s. After "Under Your Spell Again" became a success, Owens moved back to Bakersfield. That winter, Rich also moved to Bakersfield, joining Owens' band as a fiddler and guitarist. Early in 1960, Owens took over Howard's share of Blue Book Music, leaving him in total control of the publishing of all of his songs. "Above and Beyond" became a number three hit in the spring.
           Owens had his next hit, "Excuse Me (I Think I've Got a Heartache)," in the fall of 1960. It was followed in January 1961 with Buck Owens, his first album, as well as the single "Foolin' Around," which spent eight weeks at number two. That spring he had a hit single, "Mental Cruelty"/"Loose Talk," recorded with Rose Maddox. Owens and Rich began touring the country together, playing with pickup bands in each honky tonk they visited. Soon, the pair stopped playing acoustic guitars and began playing Fender Telecasters, electric guitars with a bright, punchy twang. Rich would eventually become the lead guitarist. This change was evident in Owens' two Top Ten hits in 1962, "Kickin' Our Hearts Around" and "You're for Me." Instead of being the shuffling honky tonk numbers that had been Owens' signature, the songs were bright, driving tracks in 2/4 that showed a hint of rock & roll influence. By the beginning of 1963, Owens had begun to assemble his own band, featuring a drummer, bassist, and a pedal steel guitarist. One of the first bassists for the band was Merle Haggard, who named the group the Buckaroos.
           Owens' first number one single, "Act Naturally," arrived in the spring of 1963. "Act Naturally" elevated Buck from a successful singer into stardom, starting a streak of 15 consecutive number one singles. Its follow-up single, "Love's Gonna Live Here," became his biggest hit, spending 16 weeks at number one. "My Heart Skips a Beat," released in the spring of 1964, was nearly as successful, spending seven weeks at the top of the charts. It was replaced at the top by its B-side, "Together Again"; later that year, "I Don't Care (Just as Long as You Love Me)" spent six weeks at number one.
           In 1965, his number one hits included "I've Got a Tiger by the Tail," "Before You Go," "Only You (Can Break My Heart)," and the instrumental showcase "Buckaroo." That spring, Owens took out an advertisement in the Nashville-based publication Music City News claiming: "I shall make no record that is not a country record." He then released his ninth album, I've Got a Tiger by the Tail, which featured a version of Chuck Berry's "Memphis." Owens explained that "Memphis" was a rockabilly song, a genre he believed to be part of country music. Also in 1965, he demonstrated his knack for business by forming Buck Owens Enterprises (which was managed by his sister Dorothy) and the booking agency OMAC Artists Corporation. Blue Book Music was also becoming quite successful, with the songs of both Owens and Haggard earning the company significant amounts of money. The following year, Owens began purchasing radio stations; by the end of the decade, he owned four stations.
           Owens' success had spearheaded the national acceptance of the Bakersfield sound. Haggard, Wynn Stewart, and Tommy Collins were all grouped under this heading in addition to Owens. The Bakersfield artists updated honky tonk, standing in direct contrast to the smooth country-pop of Nashville. Consequently, Owens was one of the biggest stars in popular music in the mid-'60s. He was playing hundreds of shows a year, selling thousands of records, and selling out concerts across the country. He continued to build his streak of number one hits with "Waitin' in Your Welfare Line," "Think of Me," and "Open Up Your Heart" in 1966. That year, Owens launched his first television series with Buck Owens' Ranch. The program was a half-hour music show that ran throughout the year and was syndicated to 100 markets at the peak of its popularity. Owens' string of number one hits continued throughout 1967, as "Where Does the Good Times Go," "Sam's Place," and "Your Tender Loving Care" all hit the top of the charts. His streak ended at the end of the year, when "It Takes People Like You (To Make People Like Me)" peaked at number two.
           Owens began to branch out musically in 1968, adding more textures, tempos, and stylistic flourishes to his music. Though he only had one number one hit that year with "How Long Will My Baby Be Gone," all of his singles from 1968 "How Long Will My Baby Be Gone," "Sweet Rosie Jones," "Let the World Keep On a Turnin'," "I've Got You on My Mind Again" charted in the Top Ten, and all but one reached the Top Five. The following year, Owens opened a state-of-the-art, 16-track recording studio in downtown Bakersfield appropriately called Buck Owens Studios. Capitol allowed him to record himself and several other artists including Susan Raye, Tony Booth, and Buddy Alan at the studio; the label would merely press and package the records.
           While Owens had a dedicated country following, he also had picked up a number of pop and rock fans as well. Not only did the Beatles cover "Act Naturally" on their 1965 Help! album, but in the fall of 1968, Owens headlined and sold out two concerts at the legendary rock & roll venue Fillmore West. Owens continued to experiment musically, as evidenced by the two 1969 number one singles, "Who's Gonna Mow Your Grass" and "Tall Dark Stranger." In the summer of 1969, Owens' second television show, Hee Haw, premiered. Hee Haw was the concept of two Canadian TV producers, who envisioned it as a down-home, country version of the popular Laugh-In. Owens was hired as its host, and he brought on singer/guitarist Roy Clark as a co-host. Owens only had to tape the show twice a year once in June and once in October and his segments were spread throughout the season's shows. Initially, the show was just a summer replacement for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, but its summer run was so successful that CBS scheduled it for the fall. As Hee Haw became more popular, so did Owens. In the span of just over a year December 1969 to February 1971 Capitol released no less than nine Owens albums, including reissues and three new studio records. During that time, he continued to chart in the Top Ten with regularity, as "The Kansas City Song" peaked at number two in the summer of 1970 and "I Wouldn't Live in New York City (If They Gave Me the Whole Dang Town)" reached the Top Ten at the end of the year.
           At the beginning of 1971, Owens signed what would turn out to be his last contract with Capitol. He would record for the label for another four years and after his contract expired, he would gain ownership of all of his Capitol recordings, from 1957 to 1975; Capitol could continue to manufacture Owens records until 1980, when the masters would all return to Buck. Throughout 1971, he continued to have Top Ten hits, including a version of Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water," "Ruby (Are You Mad)," and "Rollin' in My Sweet Baby's Arms." In 1971, CBS cancelled Hee Haw, and the show moved into syndication, where it became even more popular. By 1973, it had been so successful that it forced Buck Owens' Ranch off the air, simply because Owens' first program couldn't compete with the high ratings of his second show. In the spring of 1972, he had his final number one single as a solo artist, the ballad "Made in Japan." However, his career began to slide after that. It took him over a year to reach the Top Ten again with "Big Game Hunter" at the end of 1973. Two other Top Ten hits followed in the spring and summer of 1974, though both songs a rewrite of Dr. Hook's "On the Cover of the Rolling Stone" called "On the Cover of the Music City News" and "(It's A) Monsters' Holiday" were novelty numbers.
           In July of 1974, Rich, Owens' longtime partner and guitarist, died in a motorcycle crash, which sent Buck into a deep depression. Though he had one more Top Ten hit that fall with "Great Expectations," he had trouble breaking the Top 40 in the years following Rich's death. Owens' contract with Capitol expired in 1975, and he moved to Warner Brothers, where he began recording in Nashville. Appropriately, his music began to sound more like country-pop than the hard-edged Bakersfield sound he had become famous for, but that's because he relinquished creative control of his records to the producers. Owens' record sales had significantly declined, but Hee Haw remained popular. Ironically, its success had an unwanted side effect for many listeners in the general audience, Owens became the cornball country comedian he was in the show, not the hardcore honky tonker he was at heart. That perception remained throughout the end of the '70s and even a hit duet with Emmylou Harris, "Play Together Again Again," in 1979 couldn't erase it. In 1980, Owens decided he didn't want to continue with the grind of constant performing and recording. He ended his contract with Warner and drastically cut back his performances. Even though he was semi-retired, he continued to tape Hee Haw until 1986.
           Owens was out of public view for the early and mid-'80s, which is when a new generation of country singers was developing. Like Buck in the '60s, they stood in opposition to the pop-inflected country of Nashville, building their sound on the Bakersfield country of Owens and Haggard. One of the leading performers of the new traditionalists, Dwight Yoakam, persuaded Owens to join him on a re-recording of Buck's 1972 song "Streets of Bakersfield." After they performed it on a CBS television special, the duo recorded the song, releasing it in the summer of 1988. "Streets of Bakersfield" became a major hit, reaching number one; it was the first time since 1972 that Owens had a number one hit. Its success spurred him back into the recording studio, where he made a new album called Hot Dog!. It was a moderate success and it re-energized Owens. He assembled a new version of the Buckaroos and continued to perform and record, including a duet of "Act Naturally" with Ringo Starr.
           Owens didn't record or perform frequently in the '90s, but his classic Capitol recordings began to appear on compact disc; they hadn't been in print since 1980, when he gained control of the tapes from Capitol. Furthermore, Owens' influence continued to reverberate throughout country music as well as some quarters of rock & roll.

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