Singer, songwriter, guitarist
One of the biggest country-music stars of the 1960s, Buck Owens was languishing in semi-retirement until he was “rediscovered” in 1987. Owens’s rowdy honky-tonk music—better known as “The Bakersfield Sound” —had fallen out of vogue in the late 1970s; its revival by “country purists” has meant a welcome resurgence of interest in Owens and his band, the Buckaroos. Guitar Player magazine contributor Dan Forte notes that, from his base in Bakersfield, California, Owens “went against the country-pop grain, recording with his own road band, spotlighting a driving drum beat and hot guitar solos while eschewing string sections and studio background singers. In doing so, he was a major influence on the late-’60s country-rock movement that was spearheaded by the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers and spawned the current legion of back-to-basics country stars such as Dwight Yoakam, George Strait, Randy Travis, and the Desert Rose Band.” Owens may inspire others, but he does not lack fans himself—after eight years of almost complete anonymity, he booked more than one hundred live appearances in 1989.
Owens was born Alvis Edgar Owens, Jr., in Sherman, Texas, a small town near the Oklahoma border. His father was a farmer, and the family was very poor. As soon as he was able, “Buck” began to pull his own weight by picking cotton and doing farm work before and after school. He continued this practice when his family moved to Tempe, Arizona, in search of better fortunes. Owens dropped out of high school quite young and worked as a truck driver, ditch digger, hay baler, and fruit swamper. In his free time he began to experiment with musical instruments—first the mandolin and piano, then an electric guitar he bought himself. He listened to country music on the radio and imitated the guitar riffs of the professionals. By the age of sixteen he had mastered the guitar and was performing in Arizona’s rough-and-tumble honky-tonks. He married at seventeen and quickly fathered two sons.
In 1951, when he turned twenty-one, Owens packed up his family and moved to Bakersfield, California. He had heard that Bakersfield provided opportunities for country musicians, and the rumor proved to be true. There he was able to find regular gigs in dance clubs as well as lucrative studio work in nearby Los Angeles. Owens played session music for a number of Capitol Records stars, including Tennessee Ernie Ford, Kay Starr, Sonny James, Gene Vincent, and Tommy Collins. His own solo contract with Capitol came in the late 1950s, after he had begun writing songs for himself and others.
Owens had his first hit, “Under Your Spell Again,” in 1959. By then he was busy forming his own band, the
Given name Alvis Edgar Owens, Jr.; born August 12, 1929, in Sherman, Tex.; son of Alvis Edgar (a laborer) and Maicie W. Owens; married Bonnie Owens (a singer), 1947 (divorced, 1955); married Phyllis Owens (divorced, 1972); children: (first marriage) Buddy, Mike; (second marriage) John.
Singer, songwriter, guitarist, 1950—. Signed with Capitol Records, 1956 (some sources say 1957 or 1958); had first number one hit, “Under Your Spell Again,” 1959. Formed band Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, 1960. Moved to Warner Brothers label, 1976; returned to Capitol, 1988.
Star of syndicated television shows “Hee Haw,” 1969-85, and “The Buck Owens Ranch Show.” Owner of Blue Book Music Company, Thunderbird Broadcasting Company, Buck Owens Broadcasting, Inc., Aztec Radio, Inc., and radio stations KUZZ, KKXX, and KNIX.
Awards: Instrumental group of the year award from Country Music Association, 1968; named artist of the decade by Capitol Records, 1969; recipient of Pioneer Award from Country Music Association, 1989.
Addresses: Office— 1225 N. Chester Ave., Bakersfield, Calif. 93308.
Buckaroos, who would play behind him both on the road and in the studio. Chief among the band members was a young fiddler, Don Rich. Owens taught Rich to play guitar—eventually the pupil surpassed the teacher—and the pair became inseparable partners. “From that time on,” writes Irwin Stambler in the Encyclopedia of Folk, Country, and Western Music, “the only direction was up.” Owens produced a phenomenal thirty-one chart-topping country hits, putting Bakersfield on the music map with his spirited, drum-laden dance tunes. His number one songs include “Act Naturally,” “My Heart Skips a Beat,” “Together Again,” “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail,” “Waitin’ in Your Welfare Line,” and the instrumental “Buckaroo.” By 1969 Owens was well established as a top country star.
Television offered an enticement to Owens in the late 1960s, and it almost proved his undoing. He became the cohost of “Hee Haw,” an enormously popular comedy-variety series, and he hosted his own syndicated show, “The Buck Owens Ranch Show.” Of the two, “Hee Haw” offered Owens far more exposure—so much exposure, in fact, that his record sales, once numbering a million a year, dropped off precipitously. “Television lays you bare; there’s nothing left,” Owens told Guitar Player. “If there’s any mysterious part about you, television tells it all.” Not only was Owens on the air at least once a week, the format of “Hee Haw” forced him to play the role of country bumpkin. Even a weekly solo with the Buckaroos did little to counteract the prevailing “Hee Haw” image. Owens’s musical career was dealt a further blow in 1974, when Don Rich died in a motorcycle accident. “The death of his ‘compadre’ signaled Owens’ decline,” writes Forte. “The albums Buck made after Don Rich’s passing were admittedly half-hearted, and in 1979 Owens hung up his performing shoes to concentrate on his considerable business affairs.”
Owens’s decision to quit performing was made in part because he did not like the direction country music was taking. He has said that the music coming out of Nashville in the mid- to late-1970s was dull and uniform, because many country artists were using the same backup musicians and producers, and most country artists were striving for crossover pop hits. “If everyone who makes an album uses virtually the same studio and engineers, and picks from the same pool of musicians that all hang out together, the records are all going to sound alike,” he told Guitar Player. “I just kind of dropped out. I couldn’t compete…. I just felt like, ’Why keep beating these people up if they don’t want to hear this stuff?’” The “stuff” to which Owens referred was his honky-tonk “Bakersfield Sound.” In the 1980s a new generation of country musicians, some based in Los Angeles, have revived Owens’s style with great success.
Dwight Yoakam was the first country singer to persuade Owens to perform again. After eight years of busy “retirement” —he still taped “Hee Haw” and ran several lucrative businesses—Owens agreed to sing some of his old hits with Yoakam. In 1987 the two appeared together at about a dozen concerts; then they recorded “The Streets of Bakersfield,” a top ten country single that was nominated for a Country Music Association award. Owens made two discoveries: he was in demand as a musician again, and he still loved music enough to want to perform. He has returned to the stage on a regular basis and has released two albums, Hot Dog! and a reissue of his live 1966 appearance at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Owens, who once tried to compromise with Nashville’s slick standards, claims he is glad to be back making the kind of music he wants to make—the high-energy, rhythmic, steel-guitar sound associated primarily with him. “I like real music,” he told Guitar Player. “If it’s country, I want it honky-tonk. I’m a honky-tonker.”
Buck Owens on the Bandstand, Capitol, 1963.
Buck Owens Sings Tommy Collins, Capitol, 1963.
I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail, Capitol, 1963.
Best of Buck Owens, Capitol, 1964.
I Don’t Care, Capitol, 1964.
Together Again, Capitol, 1964.
Before You Go, Capitol, 1966.
Carnegie Hall Concert, Capitol, 1966.
Roll Out the Red Carpet for Buck Owens and His Buckaroos, Capitol, 1966.
America’s Most Wanted Band, Capitol, 1967.
Buck Owens and His Buckaroos in Japan, Capitol, 1967.
Open Up Your Heart, Capitol, 1967.
It’s a Monster’s Holiday, Capitol, 1974.
Buck ’Em!, Warner Brothers, 1976.
(Contributor) Dwight Yoakam, Buenas Noches from a Lonely Room, Reprise, 1987.
Hot Dog!, Capitol, 1988.
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, Harmony Books, 1977.
Shestack, Melvin, The Country Music Encyclopedia, Crowell, 1974.
Stambler, Irwin and Grelun Landon, The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country, and Western Music, St. Martin’s, 1969.
Chicago Tribune, October 30, 1988.
Guitar Player, February, 1989.
Los Angeles Times, July 30, 1988.
Newsweek, January 9, 1989.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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