The path to discovery of a favorite musician can sometimes be a tortuous affair, especially when the artist you have come to love and admire could easily have been your grandfather. My first remembrance of Buck Owens, like many my age, was seeing him with his tri-colored red, white and blue guitar, pickin’ and a grinnin’ with side kick Roy Clark on the Laugh-In style country music comedy show Hee-Haw. The show had already been in syndication for years, but the only times I recall ever seeing it was down at my grandparents’ in South Georgia. Streaming over the airwaves from Albany to the small farming town of Arabi, population 300 or so, Hee-Haw was like Friends or Seinfeld is today, ubiquitous, always on. Owens was cute, big eared and squinty-eyed, kind of dorky, I remember, and affable. But years later, when my musical tastes were settling into punk, hip hop, and indie rock, he became only a faint blip on the radar of memory––a ‘Pfft, You Were Gone’ kind of blur.
But just as Johnny Cash (RIP) began attracting attention from an MTV style audience through the slick Mark Romanek video of a Nine Inch Nails cover and the posthumously produced Oscar winning filmography Walk The Line, many other unlikely older artists whose musical style is hardly exercised today have managed to find younger audiences (think Tom Jones, R. L. Burnside, etc). Still others have yet to cull that wide reaching cross-generational appreciation.
Having been a fan of Owens now for a few years, and seeing him for the first and only time two years ago (09/07/04), it’s hard to imagine why this maverick musician, the creator of the Bakersfield country rock sound, the progenitor of No Depression and other modern spin offs, never reached the indie-cred level of people like Cash or Willie Nelson, country music peers who successfully grabbed the attention of young listeners––listeners who for the most part have no interest in any of the overproduced bubblegum streaming out of Nashville today.
And why not? Fans of Wilco or Neko Case or those tragically hip Gram Parsons rediscoverers who don’t know the music of Owens would be pleasantly shocked to learn of the guy’s history and to listen to classic albums like Together Again and My Heart Skips a Beat or to hear fans scream Cheap Trick-Budokan-style on Buck Owens and his Buckaroos Live in Japan (1967). The goofy anchor of Hee-Haw was much more than his rustic humor allowed on his boob tube stint. He was a pioneer, an outsider, a true rebel genius.
Born in Texas in the midst of the Great Depression in 1929, the son of a sharecropping family that migrated west Grapes of Wrath style in search of work, the young Buck had a tumultuous upbringing. He was forced to change schools often, and spent a lot of time outside of class helping the family make ends meet by working along side them in the fields, picking cotton, fruit and potatoes. Early on he was introduced to music, and by the 9th grade he had dropped out of school to work full time in the fields and as a delivery man. But he soon learned that playing in honky tonks for five dollars a day was better than the fields for the same pay. After all, a honky tonk (as Owens often remembered in interviews) was cool in the summer and warm in the winter. A nice change of pace from his regular routine.
An early appreciation for his talents by other musicians––his ability to play everything from guitar to dobro to madolin to fiddle to sax even––encouraged Owens that music was the way for him, and he never looked back. He married for the first time at nineteen, while living in Phoenix, and he and his wife Bonnie soon headed out to California, to Bakersfield, which at the time was a hot spot for oil industry wild catters and migrant farmers. There he honed his distinctive honky tonk twang––a voice that could stand up to the best that Carl Smith, Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams had to offer. But stardom was still a long way off, and for most of the 50’s he worked in the bands of other talents and as a studio session guitarist for artists like Wanda Jackson and Faron Young. Managing to produce a few solo singles, but with no hits yet, he almost packed in his career by 1958 when he decided to move to Tacoma, Washington for a job as a radio DJ. In Tacoma, he kept on recording and met Don Rich, a jack of all trades musician, who would become Owens’ most important musical collaborator and the leader of Owens’ backup band, The Buckaroos. With a surprise hit in 1959, “Under Your Spell again,” Owens was ready to return to Bakersfield and begin making his signature mark on music history.
The late 50’s and early 60’s were a period in country music history that saw the rise of Country-Pop, a Nashville engineered, lavish, orchestral, smoothed out version of the honky tonk sound of the early 50’s. Looking for a broader audience, honky tonk heroes like Ray Price (and just about everyone else in country music) were beginning to jump ship to this new sound that was more accessible to curious urban newcomers. But back in Bakersfield, Buck Owens, and a few other rabble-rousers like Merle Haggard, weren’t keen on the notion of losing their edge. They put down their acoustic guitars and picked up amplified Fender telecasters, stripped their bands down to the essentials, got rid of the pedal steels and turned up the volume. It was still honky tonk, but louder, the lyrics with a little more morose humor, and the sound verging on the still nascent back beat rhythms of rock and roll.
In fact, Owens, though he vowed never to play anything but country, had a broad definition of what country meant. Beyond his beer hall ballad roots, he was also a fan of everything from The Beatles to Little Richard and incorporated their styles into his own tunes. After a string of number #1 hits throughout the 60’s (15 in all), his rock appreciation was soon returned as bands like The Byrds, The Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and The Beatles themselves all began cutting their own songs in the vein of the Bakersfied sound. The Beatles covered “Act Naturally” on Help! (1965), giving Owens enormous worldwide exposure, and Gram Parsons would pull often from the Owens oeuvre––the best I still think is his version of “Close Up The Honky Tonks,” Owens’ sad and funny plea to have all the bars in the world shut down in order to keep his nightlife loving baby in line.
At the one Owens show I saw a couple of years ago at Bimbo’s 365 Club in the North Beach, San Francisco, my only disappointment of the evening was that he didn’t play that particular song. Like I said, I had a circuitous introduction to the man, via neo-country outsiders (and Owens fans) like Parsons and Emmylou Harris. Nonetheless, the show was a surprising event––to see how many people turned up. I think it even sold out. But then San Francisco is always baffling in that way––the numerous microgenres of people’s interests. Still Owens, based in Bakersfield, was no stranger to the Bay Area. With his rock affinities, he and his Buckaroos were one of (if not the first) country groups to play The Fillmore back in the 60’s. And Owens himself always considered San Francisco to be his favorite city (outside of Tokyo) to play in. The diversity, he said, was inspiring.
When he and the newest iteration of the Buckaroos (sans Don Rich who died in a motorcycle accident in 1974––an event that sent Owens into a lengthy depression and almost ended his recording career) took the stage, they were all dressed in black. I had wondered before if they would still sport the wild vibrant nude suits that Gram Parsons appropriated from the Buckaroos during his brief career. Owens joked early on that Dwight Yokham had told him that if he would “only loosen up a bit”––like let his shirt tail fly––he “might make it in this business.”
He also said that he had seen Chris Isaacs in the audience earlier. Isaacs had told Owens that “he had a funny coat on.” Owens returned the dig by telling Isaacs that his coat looked like “a pizza coat. Got pastramis on it.” While Owens’ latter look may have been toned down, his fans complimented each other on their authentic retro country attire. “Nice shirt” and “cool buckle” could be heard as people filed in, as the opening act, a Bob Wills style country swing band called Red Meat, played their set. I even got props for my Vans––a pair of slip-on surfer shoes, but with an Evel Kneival style print of red, white and blue stars and stripes that could pass as an ode to Owens’ famous guitar. The crowd was ebullient, if all over the place age wise, as the 74 year old cruised through five classic numbers, ending with the rollicking “Tiger By The Tail,” before slowing it down for his heartbreaking transnational unrequited love ballad, “Made In Japan.”
By the time Owens et al (and a masterful et al at that––especially Terry Cristofferson, Buck’s lead guitar and pedal steel guy) got through song #20, it didn’t matter what Owens was wearing. What his all-American telecaster didn’t say for him, his haunted, chiseled, rarified look made up for. The aw golly visage of his Hee Haw days were put aside and it appeared that he had returned to his (I imagine) virile days of youth (when still a kid he passed for an adult, making his living in those Southwestern honky tonks). When the band got around to their Bruce Springsteen cover of “Pink Cadillac,” I realized that I had never before understood the utter raunchiness of that song. Buck and his new duet compatriot, Kim McAbee, slid up against each other’s backsides with a vigor that would have made up for all the bad Viagra commercials ever produced.
Owens, who though a little slurry over the evening (the aftereffects of throat surgery in 1993), never had problems with alcohol or drugs––his only vice being just too many women, he has said. He joked at one point, after a request for “For The Good Times,” given by some couple that was celebrating 25 years of marriage, that 25 years of being with the same person was just “cruel and unusual punishment.”
After the "Pink Cadillac" piece, Owens began fooling around with a fiddle as the band played “Soft Place to Fall.” With his back turned to the audience, he again seemed almost drunk and not able to tune the darn thing to play it. But seeing as he had masterfully managed the dobro in an earlier song, my doubts, I figured, were unfounded. And sure enough they were. Building from a rather sloppy beginning to a rendition of “Orange Blossom Special,” he finally got in the groove and tore the violin up, eventually bleeding into the old Bob Wills classic, “Faded Love.” At the end of that song, the lights went out, leaving Buck solo on the fiddle, ironing out a ghostly din. Years ago, this would have been Don Rich territory. And with no visuals, only the music, it seemed that Owens’ sound got better––as if he was in fact at that moment, audience unseen, having a sort of private phone call with his best buddy in heaven (and now perhaps they are jamming together in the great by and by).
There was no encore. When the band didn’t return to the stage, someone who saw me scribbling away asked if I was going to write something bad because they didn’t come back on. I turned and replied: “What? At 74? 20 songs and two hours? The guy was phenomenal. What more could you ask?”
Buck Owens & The Buckaroos played most Friday and Saturday Nights at Buck’s Crystal Palace in Bakersfield, CA, right up until his death this past Saturday. He was 76.
For more info go to www.buckowens.com