March 26, 2006


Buck Owens; Singer and 'Hee Haw' Star (Matt Schudel, 3/26/06, Washington Post)

By blending rock-and-roll rhythms with country harmonies, Mr. 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 1 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, Mr. Owens 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, Mr. 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 Mr. Owens's office on Sept. 23, 1987, 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 Mr. Owens's 21st No. 1 hit. [...]

Alvis Edgar Owens Jr. was born Aug. 12, 1929, in Sherman, Tex., where his father was a sharecropper. To escape the Dust Bowl, 10 family members piled into a Ford sedan in 1937 and headed west, stopping in Mesa, Ariz., where their car broke down.

Mr. 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 Connie 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-and-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, Mr. 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, Mr. Owens lived in Puyallup, Wash., 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, Mr. 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.

Buck Owens shaped sound of country (Ken Barnes, 3/25/06, USA TODAY)

Powered by the crisp guitar licks of the late Don Rich and the driving rhythms of backing band The Buckaroos, Owens' hits jumped out of the radio, contrasting with the strings-laden Nashville productions of the era. Owens was the driving force in establishing his home base, Bakersfield, as the only serious modern rival to Nashville's grip on country music, as he, protégé Merle Haggard, Wynn Stewart and Tommy Collins saturated radio airwaves.

Although Owens cooled off on the charts by 1974, cutting such novelties as On the Cover of the Music City News, Monsters' Holiday and You Ain't Gonna Have Ol' Buck to Kick Around No More, a parallel career made him even more widely known to the American public at large: He co-hosted the country comedy series Hee Haw from 1969 to 1986.

That bucolic role unfairly pigeonholed him in many people's eyes, but his musical reputation was restored in 1988 when a duet with then-hot new star Dwight Yoakam, Streets of Bakersfield, became Owens' first No. 1 hit in 16 years.

Yoakam was an avid Owens booster ("I will cherish forever the musical moments he graciously shared with me during his life," Yoakam told the Associated Press) and helped fire him up to take one last whack at the country charts in 1989, when he had minor hits with Hot Dog, a rockabilly tune he had cut as Corky Jones in the '50s, and a duet on Act Naturally with, fittingly, Ringo Starr.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 26, 2006 5:52 PM

Even John Fogarty was listenin'.

Posted by: ghostcat at March 26, 2006 6:11 PM

I'm a hongry for your love... and I'm a waitin' in your welfare line... gimme a handout... I'm waitin' in your welfare line.

Posted by: Pepys at March 26, 2006 8:39 PM

I'm quite disappointed none of the online or print obits have even mentioned his '61 duets with never fully appreciated Rose Maddox. To doubt that "Mental Cruelty" wasn't a true turning point for Buck's career is to doubt the sun rises in the East.

Posted by: Mike Daley at March 26, 2006 8:46 PM

The live version of Johnny B. Goode on the last disc of that set is scorching hot. I always imagined it was what Buck sounded like late at night in a Bakersfield Honky-Tonk.

He also struck me as a having a completely American voice like Budy Holly. His best songs are constructed around clever and colloquial turns of phrase coupled with a righteous hook. He could catch the spirt of Western America in a bottle.

Posted by: Pepys at March 26, 2006 10:30 PM