When you get up in years, it tends to be the people who don't come to your birthday party you think about most. That's how it is with Fuzzy Owen, the Bakersfield Sound pioneer and longtime manager of Merle Haggard, one of many old comrades who have died in recent years.
"You look around for them and see how many people you know and you don't know near as many," said Owen, who turns 88 on April 30.
"They're dropping like flies all around. My wife has been gone since 2012 and I lost my baby brother six days after Merle passed away last year."
Though Owen technically was sitting around — the TV on, dog in his lap — when contacted by phone Thursday, he's not sitting around in the feeling-sorry-for-himself sense. He's consented to a birthday party in his honor Wednesday at Buck Owens' Crystal Palace — on the condition that the celebration also include friend Carol Knapp, whose 65th birthday is April 29. Performer Ed Shelton will play traditional country music and, yes, there will be birthday cake.
"He's a modest man," said Knapp, who met Owen when he was a customer of hers at Wells Fargo. "He looks good for 88. He doesn't look like he was rode hard and put up wet. He's amazing, he's sharp, he goes to the mall and goes walking. He has a dog named Bella. He didn't abuse his body with alcohol and stuff. He's led a good life."
And an eventful one. At just 17, Owen and a buddy lit out for California from Vilonia, Ark., to try their luck at music. Owen got a job as a busboy at Tiny's Waffle Shop and a gig playing music with a bunch of guys, including George French on accordion and piano, at an Edison Highway joint called the Sad Sack. Apparently, they weren't kidding with that name.
"They had prostitution in the top and drinking on the bottom," he said. "It ain't there no more."
Because he was underage, it was nip and tuck in the barrooms on some nights.
"When the police would come in, we'd have to go out the window or wait until they left. You had to be 18 to play there. It was kind of fun dodging everybody."
Eventually, Owen threw in with a man by the name of Lewis Talley to start a record label. It was in that capacity, as a talent scout, that he first encountered a young Merle Haggard, who followed Owen's band one Sunday at the Lucky Spot — and a lucky spot it was, for both men.
"I happened to hear him sing and I decided to record him. He was the one."
Owen and Haggard also shared the affections, at different times, of the first lady of the Bakersfield Sound, Bonnie Owens — who had already married and divorced Buck Owens.
"I was in between the two," Owen said. "Bonnie and I went together a few years. I really didn't want to get married. I'm an Arkansas boy that didn't want to be hooked up. But Bonnie was a nice lady."
Before long, it became clear that Haggard was a once-in-a-lifetime talent, so Owen quit his pedal-steel career and decided to take on the young singer full time, a relationship that started in 1962 — "ever since he became Merle" — and lasted until the day of Haggard's death, on April 6 of last year.
"I sure miss him. We was more than just partners. We were friends, too."
With the exception of an elite few — Billy Mize and Tommy Hays come to mind — Owen is about the last of the Bakersfield Sound gang. Though hard of hearing, Owen is in great shape, a blessing he chalks up to clean living.
"I don't drink and never did. I worked in nightclubs for 10 years but I never did want to drink. I might've been drunk eight or 10 times my whole life. I either get hungry or sleepy or dizzy."
Since Owen's wife, Phyllis, died in 2012, he lives alone in Bakersfield, but he has two daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to keep him busy.
"I'm not lonely."
As for the party, he's not sure who to expect beyond his family and Knapp's old friends and customers from the bank.
"Yeah, I'm kind of looking forward to it. I've had a lot of parties."