Buck Owens and the Buckaroos at their peak
Buck and musical alter ego Don Rich. Rich died in a motorcycle accident in ’74.
Buck playing the late Don Rich’s Tele, near the end of his life.
I’ve probably published a couple of hundred articles in several dozen magazines and newspapers in my life, the most pleasurable stint being as music columnist at High Times for nine years simply because they let me do whatever the fuck I wanted (until a sub-moron named Steve Bloom stepped in and began ruining my copy which is pretty much why I left), but in all those years, the only person I ever wrote about who ever took it upon themselves to call me at home and thank me was Buck Owens. We got to be friends for a bit, Buck was a helluva guy, and something of a hero of mine, and his story is so unique and atypical it’s worth retelling.
Buck was born Alvis Edgar Owens Junior, Aug. 12, 1929 on a farm in Sherman, Texas (the stretch of Highway 82 that runs through Sherman is now named The Buck Owens Freeway), the eldest of three children born to Alvis Sr. and Mary Owens. When Buck was eight the family relocated to another farm in Mesa, Arizona, fleeing the dust storms and foreclosures chronicled in Steinbeck’s (and John Ford’s) The Grapes Of Wrath. Around the same time Alvis Jr. renamed himself Buck, after the family mule, whose asshole became a most familiar sight of his childhood. The Owens family were sharecroppers, raising mostly potatoes and cotton (“Man, you ever pick potatoes? Hard, dirty, sweaty work…..I hated every second of it” he told me in one of our first conversations). This hand to mouth, dusk to dawn, tough on the lower back dotage left a huge impression on him. He knew from a very early age that he would have to find some other way to get along. The Owens’ were a musical family, and his dad played a mean harmonica, his two uncles played guitar and mom sang in church. Buck left school after the
eight grade at age thirteen and went to work as a Western Union messenger, unloaded and drove trucks, washed cars and at age sixteen he hooked up with a nineteen year old guitar picker named Ray Britten, and as Buck & Britt they talked their way onto a local radio station KTYL out of Mesa where they were given a fifteen minute radio show which was broadcast from a drive in restaurant. They eventually worked their way to Phoenix where they took up residence at a local honky tonk. Around this time Buck started playing electric guitar and would soon become an impressive guitar player who would soon have little trouble finding work as a studio musician. Lou Whitney of the Morells/Skeletons fame, who was raised in Arizona remembers the scene of Buck playing in those Arizona honky tonks as “Nothing but bee-hives chasin’ hard ons”.
It was in Mesa, Arizona in 1948 Buck met and married an up and coming country singer named Bonnie Cambell, and they would have two sons Buddy (who would record some good country sides under Buck’s aegis under the nome du disque Buddy Allen) born in 1948 and Michael, born in 1950. Bonnie would later marry Merle Haggard (although she kept the name Owens for the rest of her days) and become an integral part of his band the Strangers until her passing in 2006. Having gone as far as they could in Phoenix, in 1951 Buck took Bonnie and the kids to Bakersfield, California, which was just then starting to develop a reputation as ground zero for west coast country music, being the home turf of the wild hillbilly boogie blasters The Maddox Brothers & Rose, and the up and coming Capitol artist Ferlin Husky. Bakersfield was a town full of transplanted Okies, Arkies and Texans driven west by the depression, and was close to the oil fields and many large farms which provided them work, so there was plenty of money to keep a good country singer working. It would sire such talent as Tommy Collins, Wynn Stewart, Merle Haggard, and of course, our subject for today. Buck’s first job in Bakersfield was playing guitar in steel player Dusty Rhodes’ band, but soon found a better paying job with Bill Woods’ Orange County Playboys who were a Bob Wills’ Playboys inspired outfit then considered California’s top country dance band as well as the house band at the Blackboard, Bakersfield’s largest night club. Hired as a lead guitarist, much to Buck’s surprise, Woods also made him the featured vocalist, and it was at the Blackboard, a large, loud, place with no monitors that Buck really learned to project his voice and get a song across. Another major influence on Buck’s musical development happened around this time when he acquired his first Fender Telecaster, which would become the trademark of his sound. “It’s got one sound and it goes right between your eyes” he once proclaimed to me with a big grin on his face.
By 1953 things were heating up in Bakersfield and Capitol Records signed Tommy Collins who would be the first in a line of country artists to purvey what became known as “the Bakersfield Sound”, basically, electrified honky tonk music with a pronounced beat and none of the schmaltzy backing singers, strings, tinkling piano, and smoothing out that Nashville was starting to incorporate into country recordings. Collins’ producer Ken Nelson, who had worked with Gene Vincent and Esquerita (and would go on to produce all the major Bakersfield singers) hired Buck to play on Tommy Collins’ sessions, and soon was using Buck as lead guitarist on discs by Wanda Jackson, Gene Vincent, Del Reeves, Tommy Sands, Faron Young, even Stan Fredberg’s rock’n’roll parody records. Buck also worked for other producers, most notably Lewis Talley, playing on Terry Fell’s classic two sided hit Don’t Drop It b/w Truck Drivin’ Man issued on RCA’s X subsidiary in 1954. Talley tried to interest RCA in Buck but they didn’t bite, but he did get him a deal with the local Pep label which issued five singles, four under Buck’s name (posted yesterday over at Uncle Gil’s Rockin’ Archives
if you want to hear ’em), and one, a whacked out double sided rockabilly blowout under the pseudonym Corky Jones– Hot Dog b/w Rhythm & Booze
. Buck always loved rock and roll and made no bones about it, citing Chuck Berry and Little Richard as two of his biggest musical influences. The Pep singles didn’t sell, but around this time Buck encountered a young Harlan Howard who was passing through Bakersfield, striking up a friendship which would lead to some great songs the two would write together, not to mention a publishing company– Blue Book Music which would eventually earn Buck a fortune. After a season in Buck’s guest room sleeping on a concrete block, Harlan would soon move to Nashville where he became one of the most successful tunesmiths of the era. Buck also met and married his second wife (he and Bonnie were by now divorced) in 1956 and this union soon begat his third son Johnny.
In 1957 Buck caught the ear of Columbia Records A&R man Don Law who had produced everyone from Robert Johnson to Johnny Cash. He offered Buck a deal, and it was this impetus that forced Ken Nelson to finally step up to the plate (he originally thought Buck lacked a unique vocal style) and while Law was en route to Bakersfield, Nelson pulled out a standard Capitol Records recording contract which Buck signed in 1957, and his first Capitol single Come Back b/w I Know What It Means was issued in October of that year. Two more singles followed in 1958– Sweet Thing b/w I Only Know That I Love You, released in April, followed by I’ll Take A Chance On Loving You b/w Walk The Floor, which came out in November. These discs, solid but somewhat pedestrian affairs sold naught, and Buck who had briefly relocated to Tacoma, Washington where he played in a band with Nookie Edwards, later of the Ventures, and appeared on his own radio show on KTNT-AM offered to let Nelson rip up his recording contract.
Although Buck Owens’ unique sound hadn’t quite crystallized yet, Nelson believed in Buck and called him back to California for his fourth session at the Capitol Tower in Hollywood in October of 1958. That day, with the great Ralph Mooney on steel guitar, Buck cut his first hit– an original tune called Second Fiddle, it would rise to #24 on Billboard’s
country charts, and it would set Buck on his path to greatness. Another session was called for in June of ’59, it sired Buck’s first top ten country hit, another original tune, Under Your Spell Again
, a honky tonk weeper, it’s lyrics were inspired by Johnny Otis’ current hit Castin’ My Spell. By July it had peaked at #4.
Back in Tacoma, where he now had the first of what would be many of his own TV shows, Buck encountered the catalyst that would be the final ingredient in his sound– then college student Donald Eugene Ulrich aka Don Rich who Buck originally hired as a fiddler but would soon master Buck’s unique guitar style and they quickly developed into one of those great musical duos like Bird & Diz, Don & Dewey, Howlin’ Wolf and Huebert Sumlin, that seemed to be able to communicate with each other through musical telepathy.
And the hits kept a comin’. Above And Beyond
(Rich’s vinyl debut, playing fiddle) rose to #3
in February of 1960, followed in August by Excuse Me I Think I’ve Got A Heartache
(co-written with Harlan Howard) hit #2, as did another co-write with Howard– Foolin’ Around
which peaked in January of ’61. Buck’s next record, a two sided masterpiece was a duet with Rose Maddox who had fronted the hell bent for Dexedrine proto-rockabilly family band The Maddox Brothers & Rose– Loose Talk
b/w Mental Cruelty
, both sides would hit the C&W top ten while Foolin’ Around
was still topping the charts, giving Buck three of the top ten positions in one week. To celebrate my second birthday, Buck recorded another tune he’d written with Harlan Howard– Under The Influence Of Love, another #2 in the summer of ’61, and from the same session Nobody’s Fool But Yours (which he’d originally recorded in ’59) hit #11. These discs had made Buck a hot property and he and Rich hit the road, originally using local musicians where ever they played, they kept a gruelling schedule, often playing over 300 shows a year.
A seasoned pro by now who didn’t drink much and had no use for drugs, Buck still made time for various business investments on the side including Blue Book Music (he’d bought out Harlan Howard’s half early on). By 1963 he’d put together his own band, named by their moody bass player, a recent parolee from San Quentin with a spider web tattooed across his back– Merle Haggard came up with the name The Buckaroos. Many musicians would pass through the Buckaroos, Rich being the only constant, but the classic line-up–Buck, Don, Doyle Holly on rhythm guitar, Tom Brumley on steel guitar, Willie Cantu on drums and Bob Morris on bass would come together around 1964. Ken Nelson as a producer took a 180 degree opposite approach to what was then happening in Nashville, preferring that his singers use their own bands to give them some type of uniqueness, although occasionally outside players like James Burton who played on Open Up Your Hear
t, and Ventures drummer Mel Taylor who gave the big beat to My Heart Skips A Beat
were brought in.
Buck’s first #1 (on the C&W charts) record and most identifiable record– Act Naturally
was recorded in February of ’63, and was covered by the Beatles a year later with Ringo singing lead. Oddly enough, Buck and the Beatles had already formed a mutual admiration society before they recorded Act Naturally. Buck & the Buckaroos had added the Beatles arrangement of Twist & Shout to their act soon after the Beatles first landed in the U.S., while Ken Nelson remembers that four copies of every Buck Owens album had to be sent to the Beatles office at NEMS in London upon release. Act Naturally was followed up by two more chart toppers– Love’s Gonna Live Here, and the aforementioned My Heart Skips A Beat
, while it’s flipside Together Again
would reach #2 and become a country standard recorded by everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis to Ray Charles. When Don Rich switched his main instrument from fiddle to guitar in 1963, the stinging sound of double Telecasters coupled with a 2/4 shuffle rhythm became the basis for what became known in the biz as “the freight train sound”, which, if it isn’t self explanatory means that Buck Owens & the Buckaroos, road hardened and electrified, now sounded like a train barreling down the tracks. Capitol released eight LP’s in three and a half years, all excellent (and all currently available from Sundazed
), but his seventh LP– Together Again/My Heart Skips A Beat
is what I think is one of the greatest country LP’s of all time,
Buck ended off 1964 with another two sided winner--I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail
b/w Cryin’ Time
(which Ray Charles would take to the top of the R&B and Pop charts), he was white hot shit at this point, even putting an instrumental, the superlative Buckaroo
in the top ten. He began hosting his own TV show– Buck Owens’ Ranch Party
, while touring the world, taking country music to places it had rarely been including Japan and Carnegie Hall (and releasing live LP’s from both of those places). But Buck was a funny guy, ha ha funny and
the other kind of funny. In March of ’65 he took out a full page ad in a trade paper called The Music City News,
having been criticized for using a heavy rock’n’roll drum beat, playing Chuck Berry and Beatles songs onstage, etc. he printed The Pledge
: I Shall Sing No Song That Is Not A Country Song, I Shall Make No Record That Is Not A Country Record, I Refuse To Be Known As Anything But A Country Singer
, etc. it went. A week later he issued a rockin’ version of Chuck Berry’s Memphis as his next single. When later asked about it, Buck explained– “I didn’t say I wasn’t gonna do rockabilly”. Ever topical, he started out 1966 with Waitin’ In Your Welfare Line
, and followed it up with Open Up Your Heart
which featured James Burton’s chickin’ pickin’ guitar.
In 1967, with Merle Haggard singing about how proud he was to be an Okie from Musgokee and the Ballad Of the Green Beret topping the charts, Buck took the Buckaroos into the Filmore West, where their spangled suits and sparkle finished Telecasters blew everyone’s minds. The money was pouring in and Buck bought two radio stations and a tv station (in the mid-80’s he admitted to me that country radio had gotten so bad he couldn’t listen to his own stations). Capitol issued roughly four albums a year, usually two by Buck, an instrumental album by the Buckaroos, and then a gospel, Christmas, or some other type of change up. They all sold well, because Buck and his band were able to keep to an amazingly high standard (only the Herb Alpert inspired Bakersfield Brass LP was truly wretched).
In 1968, CBS canceled the very popular Smothers Brothers
television show due to their anti-Viet Nam war stance, and in it’s place came Hee Haw
, a rip-0ff of NBC’s ground breaking Laugh-In
, only instead of a cast of mod hipsters, it had ultra corny country humor (which was almost never funny) and lots of country music (much of it excellent). It was a huge hit, and Buck was the co-host along with Roy Clark (another former session musician who had played with Wanda Jackson). CBS kept the show for three years, canceling only after someone at a party in the Hamptons made a snide joke about it that upset Babe Paley, CBS prexy William Paley’s wife. It went into syndication where it remained for decades, eventually becoming the longest running syndicated show in history. Buck also kept his own Ranch Party
show until 1973 and stayed with Hee Haw
until 1986, making piles of money and becoming a household name. Sears marketed a Buck Owens brand red white and blue guitar (Pat Smear can be seen playing one on the Nirvana MTV Unplugged musical wake). Unfortunately (doesn’t it seem like that’s the most used word on this blog?), Hee Haw
became what Buck was most known for, overshadowing his music, and eventually the overexposure hurt his credibility as a serious artist. From Hee Haw’s
debut there was a noticeable drop in quality of his discs, although he still made a few gems like Big In Vegas
(1969) I Wouldn’t Live In New York City (If They Gave Me The Whole Dang Town)
(1970) and Streets Of Bakersfield
(1972). Still, Buck Owens had realized fame and fortune that, for a kid who started out picking pototatoes was a nearly inconcievable feat. It all began going south on July 17, 1974 when Don Rich was killed in a motorcycle accident. His closest friend and confident, and musical alter ego, Rich’s death sent Buck first into shock, then an extended depression. Musicially, he never recovered.
Although he had everything he’d ever wanted, including a record deal that gave him ownership of his own masters (something only Ray Charles had previously gotten), from Rich’s death on, Buck’s recording career was a half hearted affair, he cut down his touring dates, eventually retiring from the road for good in 1980, and basically hung around Bakersfield tending to his business affairs, watching his fortune grow, by the mid-80’s he had even let his own recording catolog go out of print. He signed with Warner Brothers making a few lackluster discs that he told me “He couldn’t give away”. CD’s replaced LP’s and Buck’s Capitol output was noticably missing from the shelves in record stores. In the late 80’s I wrote an article about him in High Times, much of it poking fun at the caricature of a figure he’d allowed himself to become via Hee Haw, the rest of it praising his old records. Then one morning, from across the room, a voice on the answering machine (anyone who knows me, knows I rarely answer the phone, and have always screened my calls, long before the invention of caller ID) came a familar sounding voice. “Hi Jim, this is Buck Owens”, I dove for the phone and we had a nice but rather short conversation. He told me he’d be in NYC in a month doing a guest slot during Dwight Yokham’s sold out Carnagie Hall show. We made plans to meet.
Buck picked me up in a stretch limo a few hours before the show. When I got in he seemed shocked that I lived in a mostly Hispanic ghetto with wide open drug markets on both sides of the street, homeless men and crack addicts huddled in the doorways and girls with green hair and spandex tights, drunken Ukranian men, and all manner of street flotsam wandering about.
My building was an old tenemant in the middle of the block, and my apartment (where I lived for over twenty years) was a three room railroad with a bathtub in the kitchen and a watercloset with an old fashion box and chain toilet (like the one Michael Corleone gets the hidden gun out of in The Godfather). The Tompkin Square riots had just happned and having been blamed for starting them by that idiot Mike Tiabi on the CBS TV News (“…strange voices on the radio, urging people to rise up….”, it reminded me of the William Burroughs routine “We don’t report the news….we write it”.) I was under surveillance by the 9th Precinct and an unmarked cop car was soon following our limo up to Carnagie Hall. Buck asked me why I lived where I did, and when I explained that I originally moved there because it was cheap (the rent was $225 a month, when I left in 2003 it had risen to $395) but that I loved the neighborhood and knew and got along with everyone from the dope spotters to the bartenders, there wasn’t a soul east of Ave. A I didn’t know. I felt safe and comfortable there. Buck shook his head and said “You’re crazier than me”. That night he stole the show with a fifteen minute guest spot in the middle of Yokham’s set that featured Buck wailing away on Don Rich’s champagne spangled Telecaster.
It was guys like Yokham and the other “new traditionalists” of the era that brought Buck out of his depression. In fact his last two hit records were duets with younger artists who were greatly inspired by his earlier work. The first came in 1979 when he cut Play Together Again with Emmylou Harris which rose to #12 C&W (Harris, who began her career as a member of Gram Parsons’ Fallen Angels often name checked Buck in interviews) and in 1988 he re-cut Streets Of Bakersfield with the aforementioned Dwight Yokham, it went to #1 C&W. It didn’t pass Buck’s notice that Yokham’s career was launched not out of Nashville, but on the punk rock circuit, opening for bands like the Blasters and X. Anyways, after the show Buck taped an interview for my WFMU radio show along with a station ID. I tried to drag him with me to see Iggy Pop who was playing on the west side Pier that night but he begged off saying he was a bit tired. Over the years I’d get a card or note from Buck, or a hello through mutual friends. Every once in awhile he’d call just to chat or say hi, or to ask my opinion on a record label like Sundazed (who did beautiful re-issues of his best Capitol sides with bonus tracks and excellent sound quality) and Rhino. In 1997 his assistant and piano player Jim Shaw called and told me Buck wanted me to help write his autobiography. His timing couldn’t have been worse. I’d just opened a bar and was in the process of opening a second one, I was also managing an all girl band and was close to getting them a record and publishing deal, and I had just begun a new relationship with a women that I’d later marry. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was to leave New York and sit around Bakersfield for six months banging on a typer. I reccomended a few other writers and told him if they didn’t work out I’d might be free in three years. It was the last time I heard from him. He never wrote his story. Soon his health began failing: he had a stroke, then a heart attack, followed by a bout with oral cancer which resulted in a piece of his tongue being amputated. He opened an upscale nightclub in Bakersfield called Buck’s Crystal Palace and took to performing there regularly, but I never made it out there. He cut another album for Capitol which featured good but not great remakes of Hot Dog (the title track), Act Naturally (in a duet with Ringo, the album’s best track), A-11, and a few new but forgettable tunes. It didn’t sell many copies. But thanks to the new generation, and Buck leasing his vintage Capitol sides to Rhino, Sundazed and later Bear Family, the kudos were starting to come in. He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1996 (the most overdue C.M.H.O.F. entry in the history of that organization) and the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall Of Fame, he hosted a re-union of the Buckaroos who were still alive at the Crystal Palace in ’99, and kept a regular schedule of performing there. He sold one of his radio stations (KNIX in Pheonix) to the evil Clear Channel empire, but he kept KUZZ in Bakersfield until the end. On March 25, 2006, he finished his set at the Crystal Palace, walked back into his dressing room and died of a heart attack.
Buck Owens, he created a style of country music so simple and perfect, his formula– take a common expression, and add a shuffle or waltz time beat and three chords or four chords, and then sing and play ’em like you mean it, was absurdly effective, and he left a body of work that is as solid and enduring as the Telecasters used to make it. I miss the hell out of him.
ESSENTIAL BUCK OWENS ALBUMS: Bear Family
has a 7 CD box set of the complete Capitol years, Rhino has a scaled down three CD box, but if you want to pick and choose, Sundazed
re-issued all his best LP’s, I’d say the best are: My Heart Skips A Beat/Together Again, Buck Owens Sings Harlan Howard, Buck Owens & the Buckaroos- On The Bandstand, The Best Of Buck Owens, I Don’t Care, I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail, The Instrumental Hits Of Buck Owens & the Buckaroos, Roll Out The Red Carpet, Dust On Mother’s Bible, Carnegie Hall Concert, Buck Owens and the Buckaroos In Japan, The Best Of Buck Owens Vol. 2, Buck Owens Sings Tommy Collins, Buck Owens (aka Under Your Spell Again), and Before You Go/Nobody But You.