Buck Owens, 1929-2006
Farewell to a legend, an innovator and a dear friend …
He will be missed: Owens sat for this November 2005
American music has lost a legend and Fender has lost a dear friend with the passing Saturday, March 25, of Buck Owens.
Owens, 76, died in his sleep at his home in Bakersfield, Calif., mere hours after giving a brief performance at the Crystal Palace, the popular Bakersfield restaurant and nightclub he opened in 1996.
Owens enjoyed a phenomenally successful 30-year career on record and on television. He had more than 20 number-one records from the mid-’60s to the mid ’70s, and was a familiar face to millions of viewers as the co-host, along with guitarist Roy Clark, of cornball humor fest and variety show Hee Haw, one of the most popular syndicated television shows of all time.
The show’s hick image belied Owens’ true legacy, though, as a musical pioneer. In person he was down to earth and affable, but onstage—often in a rhinestone suit and with a sparkly Fender Telecaster® guitar—he was a flashy, fiery performer with a hard-hitting, backbeat-heavy sound.
Owens will also be remembered for a noteworthy rebellious streak which led to him eschewing the Nashville country-and-western establishment in favor of basing his career at home in southern California. At clubs such as the Blackboard and the Corral, he and his band largely single-handedly pioneered a clean, driving and loud electric guitar-based honky-tonk style that came to be known as the “Bakersfield sound,” which greatly influenced later generations of performers, including the Byrds, Dwight Yoakam, Alan Jackson, Son Volt and BR-549. Owens also freely voiced his disdain for Nashville’s sappy, string-laden and over-produced songs of the ’50s and ’60s, and raised a few eyebrows by refusing to call his music country and western; preferring the term “American music” instead.
He was born Alvis Edgar Owens Jr. on Aug. 12, 1929, near Sherman, Texas, and was going by “Buck” by age four. His family fled the Dust Bowl for California when Owens was 8 years old, but only made it as far as Mesa, Ariz., where the family car broke down. He taught himself to play a mandolin he received for Christmas when he was 13, and was playing music in bars by age 16. As a produce driver in the late 1940s, Owens took a liking to a farm and oil town 100 miles north of Los Angeles called Bakersfield, and moved there with his wife and two sons in 1951 with aspirations of a music career.
During a stint at the Blackboard in the early ’50s, Owens tried out a new instrument, a solid body Fender electric guitar called a Telecaster. Its bright, twangy sound suited Owens’ loud, trebly style, and he used it to further his increasing reputation as one of the best guitar players in southern California. He started doing session work for Capitol Records around this time, and played on Tommy Collins’ 1953 number-two country hit “You Better Not Do That.”
Owens in 1997 with Fender’s Shane Nicholas.
After some mid-’50s records on the small Pep label went nowhere, Owens signed with Capitol in 1957. Two early singles failed to chart, and Owens, by now divorced and remarried, took advantage of an opportunity to buy into a Puyallup, Wash., radio station. He moved his family there in 1958 and began working as a disc jockey.
While in Washington, he met a young musician named Donald Eugene Ulrich, who went by the stage name Don Rich. Rich became Owens’ fiddle player, harmony vocalist, songwriting partner, guitarist and lifelong best friend. Owens continued writing songs and recording them in southern California during this time, and finally scored on the Billboard country chart in 1959 with “Second Fiddle” (#24) and “Under Your Spell” (#4). “Above and Beyond” hit number three in February 1960, and Billboard named him that year’s most promising country-and-western singer.
His driving style was apparent on “You’re For Me” in 1962, and Owens scored his first number-one hit in 1963 with “Act Naturally,” a song later covered by the Beatles. His next 15 songs went to number one, a spot occupied by 19 of his astonishing 39 hits during the 1960s. Some of the biggest were “Together Again,” “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail,” “Love’s Gonna Live Here,” “My Heart Skips a Beat” and “Waitin’ in Your Welfare Line.”
Throughout this time, Owens rebelled against another country music tradition: artists seldom recorded with the bands they toured with, but with Owens, the band you heard on the record—the Buckaroos—was the band you saw onstage. Further, he frequently complimented and absorbed influences from artists outside the country genre, including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
Owens became co-host of Hee Haw in 1969, and stayed with the hit show until 1986, becoming familiar to millions of viewers, many of whom were mostly unaware of his well-earned place in music history.
Tragically, Rich was killed in a 1974 motorcycle accident. Owens was devastated for years to come; he continued hosting Hee Haw, but cut back on recording and live appearances. Always an astute businessman, with interests ranging from music publishing to radio and television stations, Owens spent much of the 1980s less concerned with the charts and more concerned with the business empire that had earned him the nickname “The Baron of Bakersfield.”
A sort of musical renaissance awaited Owens, though, starting in the late ’80s. Fellow Bakersfield resident and avid fan Dwight Yoakam persuaded Owens to come out of performing retirement, and the pair scored a number-one hit in 1988 with their duet version of a song Owens had recorded years earlier, “Streets of Bakersfield.” Yoakam and a whole new generation of artists regarded him reverently as a sort of elder statesman, and the “new” country music’s biggest star, Garth Brooks, placed onstage birthday calls to Owens each year.
Owens was treated for throat cancer in 1993, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1996. He continued performing regularly at the Crystal Palace right up until the very end, always a consummate performer and clearly still relishing the sheer joy of playing live.
Owens was photographed in November 2005 for Fender’s 60th anniversary ad campaign, with several guitars, including his original ’51 Telecaster, a Telecaster that once belonged to Rich, and a red, white and blue 1998 limited edition Buck Owens signature Telecaster.
Shane Nicholas, marketing manager for Fender guitar amplifiers, met Owens several times, and interviewed him in 1997.
“Here’s a guy who had more hit records than almost anyone, yet he still loved playing for the people,” Nicholas said. “During the course of his gig, he was taking requests on little scraps of paper from the audience!”
“From the first moment I met Buck, all at once he struck me as a shrewd businessman, a superstar entertainer and a country uncle who would enjoy swapping guitars and stories with you on the back porch. I was impressed with the way he ran his empire like a mogul, yet spent plenty of time with me answering questions about his music and career. He truly loved Fender guitars and amps since the very early days. It was a pleasure and a privilege to visit him, try out his guitars, show him new gear and hear him play.”
Owens is survived by three sons, Buddy, Michael and John. There will be a public viewing from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday, April 1, at Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace, 2800 Buck Owens Blvd., Bakersfield, Calif., 93308 (no cameras or cel phones, please). There will be a funeral service at 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 2, at Valley Baptsit Church, 4800 Fruitvale Ave., Bakersfield, Calif., 93308 (again, no cameras or cel phones, please). In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Bakersfield SPCA, 3000 Gibson, Bakersfield, Calif., 93308.
Owens was a true American original, a gentleman and a truly authentic musical voice. He will be missed by many family, friends and fans, and by Fender. We bid him fond farewell.