Editors note: This story has been updated to correct information on Owens' marriages
Buck Owens, a Texas-born fruit picker who made the name of his adopted hometown synonymous with a distinctive brand of country music, died early Saturday morning at his ranch just north of Bakersfield. The cause of death was heart failure. He was 76.
Owens, born in near-poverty just south of the Texas-Oklahoma border and raised from the age of 8 in the Phoenix area, moved to Bakersfield at age 21, hoping to make it as a club musician. He died the multimillionaire king of a regional radio and media empire, renowned as one of country music’s most influential artists and undoubtedly Bakersfield’s most famous citizen.
“I bet it’s twangy in heaven tonight,” said country-music star Brad Paisley, who telephoned Saturday night from a tour stop in Iowa.
Owens had endured a string of medical setbacks in his last dozen years. He underwent throat cancer surgery in 1993, was hospitalized with pneumonia in 1997, suffered a minor stroke in 2004 and checked himself into a Los Angeles-area hospital in February with an unspecified illness. He had previously been treated for heart arrhythmia and lung problems.
Family spokesman and longtime Buckaroo band mate Jim Shaw said Owens was rushed to Bakersfield Memorial Hospital sometime after 4:30 a.m. Saturday but could not be revived.
Funeral plans had not been determined as of Saturday.
The father of the Bakersfield Sound had performed just the night before at his Buck Owens Boulevard dinner club, the Crystal Palace, closing his 90-minute portion of the show with his 1969 hit “Big in Vegas.”
But during an unprecedented run of success in the 1960s and early ’70s, Owens was big everywhere, from Japan to the White House, and from New York’s Carnegie Hall to San Francisco’s Fillmore West. Those who didn’t know him from his string of No. 1 hits learned his name from “Hee Haw,” the long-running comedy-variety show he co-hosted with Roy Clark.
Lost on many of those television viewers was the fact that Owens was an innovator who gave commercial country music a creative edge that served it well through two decades of change and growth.
“Buck was one of the greatest entertainers of the century,” fellow Country Music Hall of Fame performer Merle Haggard said by telephone from Mississippi, where he is on tour. “He influenced everybody from me to the Beatles. He was recognized in rock, in country, in rockabilly and in bluegrass.
“It’s a sad day in country music,” said Haggard, a native of Oildale himself. “Buck was a powerful figure in the industry and just a great, great contributor to the music. In a lot of ways, he showed us the way.”
In the course of things he boosted the careers of numerous singer-songwriters, among them Red Simpson, Tommy Collins, Dallas Frazier and Homer Joy, who wrote “Streets of Bakersfield,” Owens’ last big hit.
“I had a career ’cause he gave me one,” Joy said Saturday by telephone from Dallas. “I got my break ’cause he took a chance.”
Among Owens’ enduring contributions to Bakersfield is the Crystal Palace, a museum and dinner club that probably represents the city’s best-known tourist attraction. It’s on Buck Owens Boulevard, near the headquarters of Buck Owens Productions and next to the bright yellow, 30-foot-high “Bakersfield” gateway arch that Owens commissioned as a re-creation of the city’s old Union Avenue footbridge.
Owens, who fronted the Buckaroos, recorded 25 No. 1 songs, including a string of 19 in a row between 1963 and 1967. Twenty-six of his other songs made the top 10 between 1963 and 1974, and he capped his career with one last chart-topper, a remake of “Streets of Bakersfield,” recorded as a duet with Dwight Yoakam in 1988.
His career slowed dramatically in 1974 when Don Rich, Owens’ lead guitar player and high-harmony vocalist, was killed in a motorcycle accident. Owens stopped recording for years, turning his attention to his numerous business interests, including KUZZ radio. Owens admitted that he never really got over the death of his chief musical collaborator.
Paisley said he and his band mates had worked up an impromptu tribute to Owens that they planned to unveil Saturday night in Cedar Falls. At one point, Paisley said, they would flash a photo of Owens and Rich on the big screen alongside the title of the Owens hit, “Together Again.”
“He’s up there with Don Rich now,” Doyle Holly, who played bass on the Buckaroos’ biggest hits, said by phone from Nashville. “He lost his harmony singer too soon, but he doesn’t have to replace him now. Rest in peace, chief.”
The honky-tonk sound
Owens was one of the primary authors of the Bakersfield Sound, a twangy, rock-influenced interpretation of hard-core honky-tonk that emerged in the early 1960s.
The electrified, treble-heavy sound, produced in the studios of Hollywood’s Capitol Records with the Fender Telecaster solid-body guitar as its instrumental backbone, was the antithesis of the Nashville Sound.
At the time, Nashville recordings featured lush orchestrations and a roster of stars backed by the same studio musicians; the Bakersfield Sound was almost tinny by comparison. Owens was proud of his independence and his music’s harder edge, and he seemed to revel in the rivalry of Nashville and his “Nashville West.”
Owens’ distinctive “shuffle” style of music fell out of fashion in the mid-1970s. But a decade later the Bakersfield Sound enjoyed something of a renaissance, with performers like Yoakam, the Mavericks and the Derailers borrowing heavily from Owens’ signature style.
Owens, who admired the work of Hank Williams, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, got into trouble with the Nashville establishment because of his broad interpretation of what constituted “country music” — his rendition of Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” especially inflamed the critics.
But Owens didn’t care much; in fact, like his contemporary Merle Haggard, Owens seemed to cultivate a career-long love-hate relationship with Music City.
“My problem with Nashville was simple,” Owens told The Californian in 1997. “I don’t like the way they do talent, and I don’t like the way they cut records.”
In the end, they forgave each other. Owens was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1996.
Hard work and big dreams
Alvis Edgar “Buck” Owens, who at age 4 nicknamed himself after the family mule, was born Aug. 12, 1929, in Sherman, Texas, a town about 65 miles north of Dallas. He was the second-oldest of four children and the oldest of two boys born to Alvis and Maicie Owens. Life was difficult, but Maicie Owens enlivened the household with her piano; gospel music echoed through the house regularly.
Owens’ father, a sharecropper, intended to move the family west from the Red River region in 1937, but the Owenses’ trailer hitch broke in Phoenix, and there they remained for more than a decade. Buck and his siblings worked in the fields as soon as they were old enough, and the hardscrabble life left a lasting impression on them all, Buck in particular.
“That was where my dream began to take hold, of not havin’ to pick cotton and potatoes, and not havin’ to be uncomfortable, too hot or too cold,” Owens told biographer Rich Kienzle. “That in itself had driven me to try to find some better way of life. I remember as a kid being cold a lot, and hungry sometimes. We’d go to bed with just corn bread and milk, and I remember wearing shoes with holes in the bottom. I remember having twine for shoestrings: You take old black Shinola polish and try to make ’em look black, and that only makes ’em look worse. I remember the hand-me-down clothes.
“But most distinctly, I remember always saying to myself that when I get big, I’m not going to go to bed hungry, I’m not going to wear hand-me-down clothes. I’m not going to have homemade haircuts done by my mother; she cut our hair until we were about 12 or 13 years old. Just the fright of having to live a life through that … although even then, I was cognizant that half the people I went to school with were just exactly like me.”
Buck and Bonnie
In 1945, he met 15-year-old Bonnie Campbell at the Mazona Roller Rink in Mesa, Ariz.
“He was a pretty good roller skater,” she told The Californian in a 1997 interview. “But I liked him because he played guitar.”
The two dated, but Owens, who was six weeks older, was surprised nonetheless when he showed up for his daily 15-minute radio show, “Buck and Britt,” co-starring Theryl Ray Britten, and there was Bonnie. “What’re you doin’ here?” he asked, assuming she’d come to watch him. “Singin’,” she answered. He didn’t even know she could carry a tune.
By January 1948 they were married and within two years they had two baby boys. Buck picked oranges; Bonnie stayed home with the kids.
But by 1951 it became evident that the marriage wasn’t working. Bonnie and the two boys left for Bakersfield, moving in with Buck’s favorite aunt and uncle, Vernon and Lucille Ellington. Buck arrived soon afterward, closely followed by his parents.
Dim lights, thick smoke
Buck set out to look for work in the local saloons, and it didn’t take long for him to hook up with steel guitarist Dusty Rhodes and, four months later, Bill Woods and the Orange Blossom Playboys. He earned $12.50 a night, enough money to make a dent in his bills for the first time in his life.
Bonnie took a job car hopping at a hamburger joint at Union and Truxtun avenues. They remained legally married, though they were separated, because neither could afford a divorce.
At first, Owens played a hollow-body Gibson guitar. But, short on cash one day, he hocked it for $10. When he came back to get it, it had been sold. Fellow musician Lewis Talley offered him a used Fender Telecaster — a new, innovative but not-yet-fully appreciated solid-body electric guitar — for $30. Owens bought it, and American music was never quite the same.
That type of electric guitar, created just three years earlier by Leo Fender, gave Owens’ music a distinctively raw edge that set apart both the guitarist and, more significantly, the musical flavor of his adopted city.
But fame and success were still several years away.
For years, Owens labored at the Blackboard, a rowdy honky-tonk on Bakersfield’s Chester Avenue that featured many of country music’s West Coast pioneers. Wednesdays and Thursdays were guest-star nights. George Jones played one night, Glen Campbell another.
The Blackboard, in fact, was the must-stop spot in Bakersfield for Bob Wills, Roger Miller, Patsy Cline, Little Jimmie Dickens, Connie Smith, Tex Ritter, Dallas Frazier, Ferlin Husky, Lefty Frizzell, Tommy Duncan, and, until he went to prison for stomping his wife to death, Spade Cooley.
It was at the Blackboard in 1956 that singer Wynn Stewart introduced Owens to Harlan Howard, the man with whom Owens would co-write such songs as “Excuse Me (I Think I’ve Got a Heartache)” and “Foolin’ Around.” Howard, quoted in Nicholas Dawidoff’s “In the Country of Country,” remembers watching Woods smoke his pipe and flirt with girls, while Owens was “working his ass off getting a menial wage.”
His big break
On Aug. 30, 1957, Capitol Records producer Ken Nelson signed Owens to a recording contract. He’d known Owens for some time before that from Owens’ guitar-playing sessions in Hollywood behind Tommy Collins, the Farmer Boys and others. Owens had tried long and hard to get himself a contract, but when rival Columbia Records came calling, Nelson changed his tune. Owens recorded two singles; both fizzled.
In January 1958, Owens moved to Tacoma, Wash., and took over one-third interest in 250-watt radio station KAYE, 1450 on the dial. “If you had a really good radio,” he said later, “you could pick it up in the station parking lot.” More importantly, he learned the radio business.
A few months later, he was back in Bakersfield, and on Oct. 9, 1958, he cut four original songs, including the ballad “Second Fiddle,” in the “shuffle” style popularized by Ray Price in songs like “Crazy Arms.” By the following spring, it had reached No. 24 on the Billboard charts.
But Owens remained in Washington, where in 1959 he was hosting his own live TV show on KTNT. Among the local talent was a housewife-turned-singer named Loretta Lynn. Then there was a teen fiddler from Tumwater, Donald Eugene Ulrich. Later known as Don Rich, he would become Owens’ musical alter-ego and a major contributor to his best recordings.
The success of “Second Fiddle” led to another session, this one for “Under Your Spell Again.” It was his first Top 10 record, in the fall of 1959. In June 1960, riding that record’s success, Owens sold his share of the radio station and moved back to Bakersfield for good.
It was a great year. Harlan Howard gave Owens his share of Blue Book Music, a music publishing company that would later fetch huge returns. Don Rich, bored with college, joined Owens in December 1960. And Billboard magazine named Owens its “Most Promising Country and Western Singer of the Year,” based on a poll of country disc jockeys.
The Bakersfield Sound
It seems unlikely that Owens realized it at the time, but the Buckaroos were creating an appealingly raw, stripped-down sound — the Bakersfield Sound.
It was a hard-driving style, full of Telecaster twang, prominent steel-guitar leads and bold, dominant drums.
“The Nashville Sound was always more formulaic,” said Paul Wells, director of the Center for Popular Music, an independent music archive and research center based at Middle Tennessee State University. “There was always more of a self-consciousness about trying to reach a broader audience, about trying to make new (commercial) inroads. With Buck and Merle (Haggard), they were just doing what they did. Of course they wanted to reach a broad audience, but they did it on their own terms.”
Starting with “You’re for Me,” in 1961, Owens and Don Rich — by now the band’s lead guitar player — put to vinyl a clean, clear sound that hit listeners, as Owens liked to say, “hard as a freight train.”
“Their vocals were always up front, shoved along in two-by-four rhythm by regular doses of steel, nervy electric guitar runs, and more drums than anyone else in country music was using,” Dawidoff wrote in “In the Country of Country.”
“There was no thought put into it,” Owens told Dawidoff. “The sound just came about. I had a big old Fender Telecaster guitar, the walls of the buildings were hard, the dance floor was cement, the roof was sheet metal. There was considerable echo in there. ... It was just the sound that people wanted.”
Buck the TV star
By 1963, Owens was big enough to land guest appearances on national TV appearances — first on ABC’s “Jimmy Dean Show” and then NBC’s “Kraft Music Hall.”
In 1966, Owens forged a deal with two wealthy country music patrons, Oklahoma City furniture-store owners Don and Bud Mathes, to create a new, syndicated show. Dubbed “Buck Owens’ Ranch,” the half-hour program was taped before a Spanish hacienda backdrop at Oklahoma City’s WKY-TV. Owens developed a system: Starting in 1969, he and the band would record the instrumental tracks at Buck Owens Studios in Oildale, then do the singing in Oklahoma City, with the boys “air” strumming in the background.
At its peak, the “Ranch” show was in 100 markets around the country, 52 weeks a year. It ran until 1973 — some 295 original shows plus dozens of additional programs repackaged with new and previously broadcast performances, totaling 380 shows in all.
In Bakersfield on a late-’60s Saturday afternoon, a country-music couch potato could watch Owens’ “Ranch,” the Louvin Brothers’ show and then Porter Waggoner (featuring Dolly Parton), culminating that evening with “Hee Haw.”
“Hee Haw” eventually proved to be the undoing of the “Ranch” show.
When Owens renegotiated a new deal with Young Street Productions, which then owned “Hee Haw,” the producers made him quit. They’d noticed what everybody in the band knew all too well: Owens was playing the same thing in both shows — literally.
“It had become painfully obvious,” said Jim Shaw, Owens’ keyboardist. “Very often we’d do the same song on the ‘Ranch’ show and then ‘Hee Haw.’ We’d use the exact same instrumental tracks (usually recorded at Buck Owens Studios on North Chester Avenue in Oildale) and Buck would just sing them fresh at the taping. They got aggravated. They said, ‘Hey, you’re competing against yourself.’”
And of course they were right.
The legacy of ‘Hee Haw’
“Hee Haw,” first telecast on June 15, 1969, was more than enough for Owens anyway. Until he left the show in 1986 (it went on without him until 1993) the show in one way or another occupied a substantial portion of his life.
Owens signed with Warner Bros. Records in 1975. He had little success, however, and “Hee Haw” hadn’t helped; although it had been tremendously profitable (he earned $400,000 per year for just 20 days of work), Owens seemed to be increasingly viewed as a overalls-wearing caricature.
“I kinda just prostituted myself for their money,” he told Kienzle, the biographer. “My music, which I loved, had suffered badly and I knew what it was from: too much ‘Phifft! You Were Gone.’”
The rest of his life, of course, was business. He bought KUZZ radio (named after Cousin Herb Henson, the singing TV show host who had served as general manager of the station, then at 800 AM) in 1966. A year later he purchased 107.9 FM, which he turned into KBBY, a rock station. The FM station went country in 1969, reverted back to rock in 1977 and finally became KUZZ’s primary dial location in 1988.
Over the years Owens owned several radio stations playing various formats, and some of them earned him millions.
In 1999, Owens’ family-owned company sold its two Phoenix stations to Jacor Communications for $142 million.
Owens dabbled in television in the early 1990s, too, with Bakersfield’s KDOB-TV, Channel 45, named for his late sister Dorothy Owens, the station’s original general manager. (It later became KUZZ-TV and now, no longer connected to the company, it is KUVI-TV). Today, his broadcast empire is just KUZZ AM, KUZZ FM and KCWR FM.
Another run at the big time
In 1986, a newcomer named Dwight Yoakam had his first hit with a driving revival of Johnny Horton’s 1956 hit “Honky-Tonk Man.” A revival of interest in Owens’ music was starting to rumble.
“People would be sending me interviews from newspapers where they interviewed Dwight,” Owens told Kienzle. “I kept seein’ these things and he would say, ‘All you guys forgot about Buck Owens. Do you know who Buck Owens is?’ Then all of a sudden he releases a song called ‘Little Ways,’ sounded exactly like me. It started takin’ off here.”
The two singers met and they performed at the Kern County County Fair in 1987. Then they sang Owens’ 1972 recording of “Streets Of Bakersfield” together on a 1988 CBS-TV special. They toured together that summer and for the first time in years, audiences saw Buck Owens as the honky-tonk singer he once was. The two re-recorded Owens’ “Streets Of Bakersfield” and it hit No. 1, Owens’ first time there since 1972.
Owens’ dinner club-museum, the $6.7 million Crystal Palace, opened in October 1996. The concert hall, with its huge collection of photos and country-music artifacts, helped put Bakersfield back on the country music map.
In 2001, Owens appeared on two recordings that were nominated for the Country Music Association awards as “vocal event of the year”: “Alright, I’m Wrong,” Owens’ tejano romp with Yoakam; and “Too Country,” Paisley’s tribute to tradition, featuring George Jones, Bill Anderson and Owens. Paisley’s song won.
Owens was married to Bonnie Campbell (1948); Phyllis Buford (1956); and Jennifer Smith (1979). He was also married for 16 months in 1977-78 to Jana Jae, a fiddle player in his band. Buck signed an annulment petition two days after their marriage, had it rescinded two weeks later, then was divorced from Jae in August 1978. He married Smith, his fourth wife, less than a year later but was divorced at the time of his death.
Owens had two sons with his first wife: Alan Edgar “Buddy” Owens, a country singer himself who used the stage name Buddy Alan, and Michael Lynn Owens; and one son with his second wife: Johnny Dale Owens. He also raised a stepson and stepdaughter with his second wife.
Owens gave generously to charity, especially local charities. He established a nonprofit that gave scholarships to music students at Bakersfield College’s music program. For years he sponsored a Toys 4 Tots event at Bakersfield Convention Center. He hosted the annual Buck Owens Rodeo and a celebrity golf tournament that attracted people like John Wayne, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Efrem Zimbalist Jr., all for charity.
“The golf tournament was tremendously time-consuming,” said Shaw, Owens’ longtime keyboard player and company lieutenant. “The thing people may not realize is, when these people agreed to come in, Buck then owed them. He’d have to go out on the road to appear at their events. He had staff working out all the arrangements six months out of the year.
“One time I said to him, ‘Gee, Buck, wouldn’t it just be easier if you just wrote a couple big checks and forgot all this hassle? What’s the difference?’
“He said, ‘The difference is, the whole community is involved this way. Hundreds of people are getting involved and feeling like they’re part of it.’ He thought that was far better than just writing a check.”
As significant as the community contributions were, though, it’s the musical legacy that will last.
“That’s the beauty of this,” Paisley said. “We are left with so much. That’s the great thing about a music career. It’s eternal. It’s up to us to make it eternal, anyway. Buck’s done his part.”