Spectropop remembers

BUCK OWENS (1929 - 2006)

Buck Owens, one of country music's leading stars and a host of the long-running television variety show Hee Haw, died March 25 at his home in Bakersfield, California. He was 76 and died in his sleep. He was treated for cancer in 1993 and pneumonia in 1997, but in recent years he had been in good health and performed regularly at his Bakersfield nightclub.

By blending rock 'n' roll rhythms with country harmonies, Buck Owens created the distinctive "Bakersfield sound", which propelled him to enormous success. Between 1959 and 1974 he had 45 songs in the country Top 10 and 20 No. 1 hits, including "Act Naturally" (1963), "Love's Gonna Live Here" (1963), "Together Again" (1964), "I've Got A Tiger By The Tail" (1964) and "Waitin' In Your Welfare Line" (1966).

He was unquestionably the leading country music star of the 1960s, annually selling more than a million records. He performed more than 300 nights a year and appeared at Carnegie Hall and the White House. In the mid-1960s, he had 15 consecutive No. 1 country hits. As a patriotic gesture in the late 1960s, he began to perform with a red-white-and-blue guitar, which became a signature.

From 1969 to 1986, he and Roy Clark were the hosts of Hee Haw, a comedy and country music program that was hugely popular in rural America. He had a syndicated television series, Buck Owens' Ranch Show, from 1966 to 1972. Except for his weekly Hee Haw appearances, Owens stopped performing in 1979 to focus on his varied business enterprises, which were concentrated in Bakersfield and Arizona, the state where he spent an impoverished childhood.

His career had a late resurgence after a Bakersfield country star of a younger generation, Dwight Yoakam, walked into his office and asked him to join him onstage that night at a county fair. The response was enthusiastic, and he collaborated with Yoakam the following year on "Streets Of Bakersfield", which became Owens's 21st No. 1 hit. He recorded several new albums, his earlier works were reissued and he found fresh acclaim as an elder statesman who refused to compromise the rough-hewn roadhouse feel of his music. "If it's country, I want it honky-tonk," he once said. "I'm a honky-tonker."

Alvis Edgar Owens Jr. was born August 12th, 1929, in Sherman, Texas, where his father was a sharecropper. To escape the Dust Bowl, ten family members piled into a Ford sedan in 1937 and headed west, stopping in Mesa, Arizona, where their car broke down. Owens quit school at 13 to work in cotton and potato fields and later was a truck driver and ditch digger. "That was where my dream began to take hold," he said, "of not having to pick cotton and potatoes and not having to be uncomfortable, too hot or too cold."

He learned to play the mandolin and quickly moved on to the guitar and other instruments. By 16, he was performing in clubs and on radio in Arizona. He married his first wife, singer Bonnie Campbell Owens, when he was 17 and performing with a group called Mac's Skillet Lickers. In 1951, he moved to Bakersfield after hearing that the oil-rich city held opportunities for musicians. He played trumpet, saxophone, harmonica, piano and drums but was best known for the ringing, jangling sound of his Telecaster electric guitar. He gained most of his musical training from the radio, listening to the Texas swing of Bob Wills and to bluegrass and rhythm-and-blues music played on Mexican border stations. He absorbed the sounds of early rock 'n' roll and in 1956 released a rockabilly record under the name Corky Jones. "Out of all that came my music, country mixing with the early rock-and-roll sound," he said. "I always wanted to hear music drive with a lot of beat. If I'd wanted to go to sleep, I'd have taken a nap."

He worked nights at a Bakersfield club called the Blackboard and commuted during the day to studios in Los Angeles, where he was a backup musician for Tennessee Ernie Ford, Kay Starr, Gene Vincent, Wanda Jackson, Faron Young and other performers. After signing a contract with Capitol Records in 1957, Owens formed a band, the Buckaroos, named by a fellow Bakersfield singer and musician, Merle Haggard. (Haggard later married Mr. Owens's ex-wife.) From 1958 to 1960, Owens lived in Puyallup, Washington, where he had a radio show and played in clubs. While there, he met a 16-year-old fiddler, Don Rich, who later switched to guitar and became a key part of the Buckaroos' success.

Disdaining the packaged, syrupy sound associated with Nashville, Owens recorded his music in California, layering it with jangling guitars, driving drums, pedal steel guitar and tight vocal harmonies designed to sound good on radio. He wrote many of his hits and composed several songs popularized by other artists, such as "Cryin' Time", which was a hit for Ray Charles in 1966.

Early in his career, Owens began to invest in real estate and television and radio stations, and his vast holdings later expanded to include a weekly shopping publication, a television production company and a management company. By the time his nightclub, Buck Owens' Crystal Palace, opened in 1996, he was dubbed the "Baron of Bakersfield" and had an estimated net worth of $100 million.

His three marriages ended in divorce. Survivors include three sons, one of whom performs country music as Buddy Alan.

(Matt Schudel, The Washington Post)

Alvis Edgar "Buck" Owens, Jr., singer/musician/songwriter:
born August 12th, 1929 - died March 25th, 2006