Between 1963 and 1967, American singer-songwriter Buck Owens (1929–2006) landed 14 consecutive number-one hits on the Billboard country music charts. Owens's distinctive stripped-down, revved-up sound helped usher in the era of hard-edged country music dubbed the “Bakersfield Sound” because it originated in the honky-tonks around Bakersfield, California. Far-reaching, the style influenced country music for decades to come.
Describing the appeal of popular American countrymusic star Buck Owens, fellow musician Marty Stuart told Darrin Foh of Guitar Player that Owens's style of music “was made to cut through a loud, smoky club on a Saturday night, and get directly at people's hearts.” Despite scoring 21 chart-topping singles (15 which he co-wrote), Owens lost his stature among the countrymusic elite after he became co-host of television's comedymusic-variety show Hee Haw in 1969. While Owens performed on the show, he also appeared in comedy sketches wearing overalls and telling corny jokes, perpetuating the country bumpkin stereotype. While Hee Haw turned Owens into a household name, it damaged his reputation as a serious country-music artist, and he spent the rest of his life trying to regain his 1960s stature.
The son of Alvis Edgar Owens, Sr., and Maicie Azel Ellington Owens, Owens was born in Sherman, Texas, on August 12, 1929. Born two months prior to the stock market crash that preceded the Great Depression, he had a childhood marred by economic hardship. Owens's given name was Alvis Edgar Owens, Jr., but around age three, he adopted the nickname “Buck” after the family mule. Alvis Owens, Sr., worked as a sharecropper, and the family frequently moved as he sought work to support his wife and four children. Early on, Maicie Owens introduced her son to music by toting him to church. A pianist, she spent Sundays playing gospel music with Little Buck sitting nearby.
In 1937, the Owens family headed west hoping to escape the drought and dust storms that now plagued the Great Plains region of the United States, including the farms and ranches in Texas. The family settled in Mesa, Arizona because that was where the trailer hitch broke. To help support the family, Buck worked the cotton and maize fields before and after school. He also traveled with his family to California several months each year, moving from farm to farm to pick fruits and vegetables as they ripened.
While his agricultural work took Owens out of school, it laid the foundation for his future career because the migrant labor camps were filled with music. During the day, the African-American and Spanish-speaking laborers sang in the fields to pass the time, and at night, the men gathered with their fiddles and mandolins. Intrigued, Owens begged his parents for a mandolin and received one in 1942.
After dropping out of school in the ninth grade, Owens worked at a citrus stand and a roller rink and delivered Western Union telegrams by bicycle. In his free time, he refined his mandolin and acoustic guitar skills. Soon, he was sitting in with bands, playing for free, at any honkytonk that would let him in. In his early teens, Owens befriended a musician named Theryl Ray Britten, and the duo landed a radio show on KTYL in Mesa. The Buck and BrittShowfeatured Owens on mandolin with Britt covering guitar and vocals. Around this time, he acquired a steel guitar and added its sound to the mix.
By age 18, Owens was married with a child on the way. He met his future wife, Bonnie Campbell, at the roller rink where he worked. Their first son, Buddy, was born in 1948, followed by Michael in 1950. In the late 1940s, Owens spent his nights playing music and his days hauling produce to the San Joaquin Valley, passing through Bakersfield frequently. In 1951, he moved the family to Bakersfield and two years later he and Bonnie divorced. In 1955, Owens married Phyllis Buford, with whom he had one son, Johnny, born in 1956, before divorcing in 1971. During the 1970s, he was married to Jana Grief but was divorced in 1979. That same year he married Jennifer Smith, and that marriage ended in 2001. According to Eileen Sisk in Buck Owens: The Biography, the musician also had a daughter from a marriage that took place when he was 16, but he never publicly acknowledged that relationship.
Meanwhile, newly arrived in Bakersfield, Owens landed a spot with the house band at the Blackboard, a popular honky-tonk. At first he played backup guitar, but soon he started performing vocals. In his autobiography, Buck 'Em!, Owens recalled that he developed his singing style while performing at the Blackboard, which lacked the proper sound equipment to give stage performers feedback. “Since there weren't any monitors at the Blackboard, I'm sure that's why I developed my hard-sounding vocal style,” he explained. “I was trying to hear myself so bad that I was always singing really loud.”
With his confidence growing, Owens formed his own band, the Schoolhouse Playboys, in the early 1950s. The group performed at dance halls and watering holes around Bakersfield and these gigs helped him develop his hard-edged style. Owens knew the crowd wanted to dance, so he played with high energy to keep them happy and moving. As his reputation for guitar-picking spread, he was invited to Los Angeles to work as a session musician for Capitol Records and added his signature Fender Telecaster twang on songs cut by Tommy Collins, Del Reeves, and Gene Vincent.
In 1956, Owens began recording his original songs. After several releases, he finally hit his stride in 1959 with “Under Your Spell Again,” which stayed on the country chart for more than five months, peaking at number four. In 1961, Owens toured as an opening act for country star Johnny Cash, gaining more exposure. That same year, he had two songs peak at number two on the charts. During the early 1960s, Nashville was pumping out sugary, popinspired country songs filled with swelling strings and backing chorales. Owens offered something different: a rockabilly flair, spare arrangements, and high harmonies. The pedal steel and his electric Fender Telecaster gave his music a stripped-down tone that caught on and became known as the “Bakersfield Sound.”
In the early 1960s, Owens began building a backing band to accompany him onstage. Known as the Buckaroos, the band's early lineup was fluid. Merle Haggard played bass for awhile, but by 1963, the band's sound was enriched by the talents of fiddler and guitarist Don Rich, steel guitarist Jay McDonald, bassist Kenny Pierce, and Ken Presley on drums.
In the mid-1960s, the Buckaroos' lineup shifted again. Rich stayed on and was joined by bassist Doyle Holly, steel guitarist Tom Brumley, and drummer Willie Cantu. This classic Buckaroos lineup helped Owens solidify his sound. He relied on Rich as an additional singer and occasional songwriter, and the fiddler/guitarist played a substantial role in keeping Owens's career on track. The Buckaroos recorded dozens of albums and, with their backing, scored number-one hits in 1964 with both “I've Got a Tiger by the Tail” and “I Don't Care (Just as Long as You Love Me).”
Although the Buckaroos performed with Owens, they also performed and recorded independently of him, and this caused some tension. In 1965, the Buckaroos had a number-one instrumental hit with “Buckaroo,” often cited as one of the top country-music instrumentals of all time for its dueling guitar riffs between Owens and Rich. From 1965 to 1968, the Buckaroos also received Academy of Country Music awards for Band of the Year. They also won Country Music Association awards for Instrumental Group of the Year in both 1967 and 1968.
The Buckaroos were highly popular: besides being talented musicians, they were great entertainers who could hold a crowd's attention. Owens and the Buckaroos played at New York City's Carnegie Hall in 1966, only the second country band to take the stage there. The performance was recorded and a live album issued, cementing their standing as one of the more gifted country bands of the era. As Buckaroos steel guitarist Brumley told Vintage Guitar contributor Rich Kienzle, the Carnegie Hall record was truly a live album. “There was no fixin' on that whole album, and I don't think there's a mistake on it. We were used to that, which was good for us and made us really get on the stick. It was a habit—go in the studio, play something, and get it nailed.”
Owens and the Buckaroos churned out more singles in the late 1960s, scoring number-one hits with “Who's Gonna Mow Your Grass” and “Tall Dark Stranger” in 1969. Around this time, loyalties within the Buckaroos became unstable. Owens had gained a reputation for being hard to work with, reportedly suffering from mood swings. Brumley now left, as did Cantu. Holly left in 1971 to pursue a solo career. Three years later, Rich died in a motorcycle accident, and the Buckaroos lost their prestige.
In 1969, Owens began co-hosting television's Hee Haw. The variety show featured Owens's music as well as plenty of cornpone humor, with Owens playing a backwards-thinking buffoon alongside his banjo-picking co-host Roy Clark. The show took place in fictional “Kornfield Kounty” with a backdrop that featured cornfields, hay bales, and rickety shacks. Hee Haw was an instant ratings-grabber: after being dropped by CBS after only two seasons, it was picked up and ran in syndication until the 1990s, at its height airing in 15 million homes each week. While the show expanded Owens's popularity beyond the countrymusic world, most of his new fans viewed him as a comedian rather than as a musician.
For Owens, who had spent the better portion of his life hustling for gigs on the road, Hee Haw provided security and did not take much of his time. Taping occurred twice a year—in Nashville—with 13 episodes shot each June and October. However, he left Hee Haw in 1986, frustrated that it had overshadowed his musical legacy. Discussing his regrets with Washington Post writer Richard Harrington, Owens recalled that he lost interest in the show when he was asked to do more comedy than music. “They paid me a lot of money to do that show, so I more or less looked the other way, winked and thought, ‘Well, I don't have to be out in some lonely little hotel room tonight, I'll take the money and run.’”
In the 1980s, Owens mentored a new generation of countrymusic artists who were refocusing the genre away from pop and back to its roots. He took an interest in Dwight Yoakam and joined him onstage for a performance at a fair near Bakersfield in 1987. Afterward, the duo collaborated on a recording of “Streets of Bakersfield,” taking it to number one on the Billboard country music chart in 1988. Owens had not topped the chart since 1972, with “Made in Japan.” Now back in the spotlight, he received the Academy of Country Music Pioneer Award in 1989.
In 1996, Owens opened the Crystal Palace, a concert venue in Bakersfield. The Crystal Palace was designed to take country music to a higher level and offer a sophisticated venue removed from the smoke-filled honky-tonks of his youth. Willie Nelson, George Jones, Clint Black, and the Dixie Chicks would also perform there. Owens frequented the Crystal Palace stage as well, even performing a concert on the eve of his death.
On March 24, 2006, Owens arrived at the Crystal Palace at around 4 p.m. to prepare for a show. He did not feel well and was going to leave when he learned that a group of fans from Oregon had made the long drive south just to see him play. He stayed and did the show, finishing out with “Big in Vegas.” Owens then went home and died of a heart attack in his sleep, at around 3:30 a.m. the next morning.
Owens, Buck, with Randy Poe, Buck 'Em! The Autobiography of Buck Owens, Backbeat Books, 2013.
Sisk, Eileen, Buck Owens: The Biography, Chicago Review Press, 2010.
Guitar Player, July 2006, Darrin Foh, “Riffs Tribute: Buck Owens,” pp. 36–37.
Vintage Guitar, May 2007, Rich Kienzle, “Buck Owens and The Buckaroos: ‘A Bunch of Twangy Guitars.’”
Washington Post, August 13, 1989, Richard Harrington, “The Basics and Buck Owens.”□