While there were other country artists on the radio in the 1960s, nobody was quite as hot on the radio as Buck Owens. From 1963-1971, each of his solo Capitol singles made the number one position on at least one of the major trade charts. Sometimes, he would not only top the hit parade with one side of a record—but both. He was without a doubt one of the great artists in the format. Today marks the anniversary of Owens’ birth, let’s take a look back at the man who became “The Baron Of Bakersfield.”
Though he and the California town will be forever linked, Owens was actually born in the Lone Star state of Texas in 1929. He was born Alvis Edgar Owens, and took the name of “Buck” from a donkey on the family farm. One day when he was young, Alvis walked into the house and said that from that day on, his name was Buck. Needless to say, it stuck.
His family moved to Mesa, AZ when Owens was eight. It was there he got his first major exposure to music via a radio show on which he appeared. In the late ’40s, he was drawn to California, where he settled with his wife, Bonnie. He made a name for himself in many of the musical clubs in Bakersfield, and eventually became one of the most in-demand session players around the L.A. area, appearing on records by Sonny James, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and Tommy Collins.
Owens made a few records himself, including the rockabilly number “Hot Dog,” which he recorded not as “Buck Owens,” but as Corky Jones. While the song didn’t make it, Owens soon was offered a recording contract with Capitol Records in 1957.
It took a while for Owens to find his way of his own. His first recordings for Capitol failed to light any fires within the industry. Perhaps it could have been the style of the recordings, which were very much in the “Nashville Sound” style. It took a while for Owens to hit the charts, but when he did—he did so with a vengeance.
1959 would see the first major hits for Owens—Second Fiddle” and “Under Your Spell Again,” and as the ’60s dawned, it was apparent he was on a roll. His career grew steadily throughout the early part of the decade, and in 1963, he hit the top of the charts for the first time with “Act Naturally.” His next record, “Love’s Gonna Live Here,” spent an incredible sixteen weeks at number one. As the 60s progressed, Owens continued to chart hit after hit at the top of the charts. He also made history by playing such legendary venues as Carnegie Hall, The Fillmore, and even the White House, where he recorded a live album in 1968.
A huge part of Owens’ sound was his back-up band, The Buckaroos. Over the years, names such as Ralph Mooney, Jerry Wiggins, and Jay Don Maness, and the man who gave the band its’ name—Merle Haggard played in the band, but it was the 1964-1967 lineup—-Tom Brumley on steel, Willie Cantu on drums, Doyle Holly on bass, and Don Rich on guitar and fiddle that perhaps stands as the most legendary back-up band in the history of country music. Their sound provided Owens with some of his biggest hits, including “Tiger By The Tail” and “Together Again.”
1969 saw Owens enter another phase of his career, as he signed on to co-host a new variety series called Hee Haw, along with Roy Clark. The series was an instant hit, and ran on CBS for three seasons, until it fell victim to a purge of all rural based programs on the network. Rather than fade away, the show went into first-run syndication, where it remained the pre-dominant showcase for country music and its’ artists.
Though the show made Owens a household name, it also took away some of his credibility as a hit making artist. His sales declined, and only tallied a single number-one record after 1971, “Made In Japan.” It’s a shame that his releases didn’t perform as well as earlier efforts, as he was recording some of his more varied material. Whether it was an album of current pop covers (Bridge Over Troubled Water) or bluegrass (Ruby), artistically, he was at the top of his game.
Owens stayed in the top ten through 1974-75, but the tragic loss of Buckaroos band leader Rich (from a motorcycle accident in July 1974 in Morro Bay, CA) took away his spirit, and sent the singer into a nervous breakdown, from which some say he never quite recovered.
He left Capitol in 1975, and signed with Warner Brothers. Though he and several others have said that the recordings left a lot to be desired, a further listen reveals something otherwise. Songs like “Our Old Mansion,” “It’s Been A Long, Long Time” or “California Okie” reveal an Owens that was still capable. His biggest hit for the label turned out to be a sequel to his classic “Together Again,” 1979’s “Play Together Again, Again.” However, as 1980 began, Owens decided that he had enough of the stage, and slowly faded from the performing spotlight. He continued to co-host “Hee Haw” through 1986, but focused more and more time on his business empire.
In the fall of 1987, a young artist who had claimed Buck as his primary influence—Dwight Yoakam—showed up at his office, and invited him to come out and join him at the Kern County Fair that night. Impressed by the singer’s nerve, Owens took to the stage, and the two struck up a friendship that would lead to a recording of a 1972 Owens album cut, “Streets Of Bakersfield,” that would become his first number one in 16years, and would also be Dwight’s first chart-topper.
The success would lead to Buck’s signing with Capitol once again, as he would release three albums for the label. Looking back, it’s possible that he could have had better success with his new records, but the selection of a remake of “Hot Dog” as the first single was not the best decision that could have been made. Still, he tallied a minor hit in the summer of 1989 with a remake of “Act Naturally,” now a duet with another man who had recorded it—Ringo Starr, who cut the song with the Beatles.
The singer went back to his business interests in the 1990s, and was named to the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1996—the same year he opened his Crystal Palace nightclub in Bakersfield. On many Friday and Saturday nights through the next decade, the singer would appear at the club—even taking requests from fans. He might do his hits, Merle Haggard’s, or Charley Pride’s. After all these years, the man who had started his career playing covers in the clubs of Bakersfield had come full circle, just a few miles down the road.
On March 24, 2006, Owens had finished eating supper at the Crystal Palace, when he decided that he didn’t feel up to performing. As he was walking toward his car in the parking lot, he encountered a fan that had driven from Oregon to see him perform, he turned around and went back in—doing his usual performance. As fate would have it, it would be his last show. Owens finished the show, and went home, where he would pass away during the early hours of March 25th. For a performer, it probably was the perfect way to go out. His funeral in Bakersfield brought out many of the format’s greats, including Trace Adkins, Brad Paisley, and Garth Brooks.
Though he was perhaps best known from Hee Haw, a closer look at his career reveals a man who forged his own musical style that borrowed from western swing, bluegrass, country, and rock ‘n’ roll. In doing so, Owens influenced everyone from Yoakam and Paisley to ZZ Top and Credence Clearwater Revival. Buck Owens represents a time when the guitars sounded and shined a little louder and a little brighter. He leaves behind a catalog that is well worth looking into to. So, what are you waiting for?
Fuente: LimeWire Music Blog