Buck Owens had one of the signature sounds in country music. His posthumous memoir, written with Randy Poe, includes introductions by Brad Paisley and Dwight Yoakam, contemporary country superstars inspired by Owens’ legendary music and showmanship.
But in a book full of triumph as well as tragedy, one of the greatest regrets is of a public image that overwhelmed that of the commanding musician. “If you were one of the tens of millions of people watching me on TV, you saw a guy who looked like a country bumpkin, wearing his overalls backwards and standing in front of a bail of hay. I mean, how do you take that guy seriously?”
In the last years of his life, Owens recorded more than 100 hours of personal recollections on audiocassette with the intention to work with an author to bring the material together. His health failed him before he had a chance to personally supervise his memoir, but author Randy Poe has edited Owens’ recollections into Buck ‘Em! The Autobiography of Buck Owens, a book that captures the man’s varied artistry as well as his many moods. Owens brought great joy to millions of music fans, and the book’s title points to his great sense of humor, but it also points to bitterness.
Owens grew up in Dust Bowl Texas during the Great Depression, and his rise from poverty to the top of the country music charts is a great American success story. He was dedicated to a life of wandering to the end of his days. In March of 2006, he played the last show of his life after meeting a couple in Bakersfield who had driven all the way from Oregon to see him. Owens hadn’t been feeling up to performing that night, but he did. Hours later, he was gone.
The country legend led the kind of life you’d expect a country legend to live. Owens was on the move from a young age, from Texas to Arizona to California as a child, then touring constantly during the height of his popularity. A typical stretch of six shows could take Owens and the Buckaroos from Florida to Virginia in six exhausting nights.
Success didn’t come easily, and Owens seems to remember every naysayer. “Buck really has no style. He’s an imitator. He sounds like three or four other singers. I don’t want him for Capitol.” Owens remembers the very words spoken by Capitol producer Ken Nelson, who went on to sign Owens for a lucrative stint at Capitol Records.
Listeners today may assume that the Owens sound is the very definition of country music, but there was a long rift between Owens and the Nashville establishment, which refused to recognize a country music sound that came out of California. In the 1950s and 1960s Owens personified the Bakersfield sound, driven by Fender Telecasters, steel guitar and a solid drum beat. Taken straight from the honky tonks, this sound went against the grain of the string-sections and syrup then in vogue back East. “When people heard a Buck Owens record, I wanted it to stand out from all of those records they were hearing that’d been cut down in Nashville.”
Owens admits that his vocal style came about from practical concerns: an early promoter asked him to sing in a higher register than he was used to. A country music club where he spent much of his early career didn’t provide stage monitors, so Owens had to sing louder to hear himself. His clipped delivery was a result of a childhood ailment that left him unable to hold notes for very long. It doesn’t sound like a way to find your voice, but that unmistakable voice led to classics like “I’ve got a Tiger by the tail” and “Act Naturally,” which took Owens career to a new and expanded level when The Beatles covered it.
An ecumenical musician, Owens found inspiration outside country music. He loved the Beatles, and recorded versions of rock staples “Memphis” and “Johnny B. Goode,” the latter of which led some disgruntled fans to burn their old Buck Owens records. It still hit number one on the country charts.
A string of successes in the 1960s tapered off into decline and finally a hiatus from recording and touring. Owens crossed over to a new audience with the highly successful comedy show Hee Haw, but he knew he was taking a risk. Owens cites singers like Jimmy Dean and Perry Como, whose record sales plummeted after they became television personalities. Owens guessed that the mystery was gone out of these men once you could see them in your living room week after week, and there may be some truth to that. It’s just as likely that musical tastes were changing.
In the late 1980s, country’s “new traditionalists” like Dwight Yoakam sparked a comeback, as did reissue programs from Sundazed Music and a Rhino Records boxed set. This era saw Owens play a music festival alongside such unlikely marquee mates as Social Distortion, X and The Cramps.
Owens had the flaws you’ve come to expect from career musicians. He had a bad temper and he liked the ladies a little too much. Colorful asides are tempered by reflections from the business side of music, Owens’ success sustained by smart commercial moves. All of this is told in the conversational, natural voice that he brought to his music. Buck ‘Em is essential reading for country music fans, and a lively read that should send the casual listener on a rewarding search for Buck Owens records.Powered by Sidelines