Buck Owens, according to biographer Eileen Sisk, was a man inclined to change his mind on a whim without explanation. An admirer of her first book, he met Sisk, agreed to participate in this project, and exchanged chatty letters for almost three years. And then, out of the blue, his Business Manager called to say he wanted no part, and anything that came about would be “unauthorized.”
As a general rule, it’s not wise to annoy the author of one’s life story. Sisk has delivered what amounts to a hatchet job, painting a rather dark portrait that gleefully exposes Owens’ faults, while paying scant attention to his many achievements as both artist and businessman.
Born 1929, Owens always preferred making music to making hay, and his determination saw him rise to superstar status – the best-selling country artist of the ’60s, he enjoyed a phenomenal string of hits before signing on as co-host of television’s Hee-Haw, a campy celebration of corn that nonetheless ran nationally for many years. Along the way he romped through an indeterminate number of marriages (accounts, including Buck’s own, vary), and even posed nude for Playgirl Magazine. He virtually invented the so-called Bakersfield sound, a hard-driving style with a big beat that owed much to rock ‘n’ roll that provided a muscular alternative to the syrupy, string-drenched sound prevalent in Nashville at the time.
Music, however much we’d like to think otherwise, is a business – a cut-throat business, with winners and losers. Owens, for all his faults, was clearly a winner. Yet Sisk focuses almost exclusively the less savory aspects of Owens’ character. And despite exhaustive research and earlier access to the man himself, very few of Owens’ own words are included; instead, Sisk quotes colleagues, associates, and acquaintances – including a number of love interests – to paint an unrelentingly unflattering portrait.
Juicy details and sordid stories can be a lot of fun, of course, when they reveal major discrepancies between the public and private personas of the rich and famous. But despite a hard-nosed attitude for business and a rather messy love life, Owens simply doesn’t seem to deserve Sisk’s rather vindictive approach. It’s easy enough to find former associates who’ll complain about Owens’ frugality as an employer, and his practice of assuming ownership of songs supposedly composed by others. But Sisk doesn’t seem to have spent much time fishing for compliments, and Owens’ considerable musical influence and the positive support he provided to many musicians are here relegated to a brief epilogue – as though any good qualities he may have had are mere afterthought.
Sisk’s rather catty approach doesn’t help much, either. Too much of the book is focused on the personal feelings of those close to Owens – wives, lovers, and associates from both musical and business spheres. His tangled love life is subject to a great deal of scrutiny, but in truth his treatment of the women in his life – both casual and lasting relationships – isn’t all that unusual for his profession or the times. And the anecdotes Sisk includes are rather mundane – Buck, who rarely drank and didn’t do drugs, wasn’t prone to excess, and typically spent his time on the road in his hotel room, tending to whatever business (musical or personal) was at hand. We get the almost generic story of a band member accidentally left behind at a rest stop. We get details of the inevitable hirings and firings that come with a band’s longevity. But we also get a little too much innuendo and unsubstantiated allegations; hints at bisexuality, without a trace of proof, seem intended only to damage, not shed light on, the man’s legacy.
There’s little doubt he was tight with a buck (sorry – had to get that one out of the way), and could be a bit of a control freak – he supposedly had his manager watch Hee Haw with a stopwatch to ensure that he got his full share of screen time. But the chapter devoted to vague allegations that he deliberately destroyed the career of Dennis Payne, a singer-songwriter who never quite got a break – all based on Payne’s own accounts – is simply too unsubstantiated, calling into question Sisk’s own credibility.
Sisk’s style leaves a bit to be desired as well; quotes are often awkwardly inserted, and her frequent use of the colloquial (“the guys …“) drag her writing down to the celebrity profile level. But perhaps that was the goal; to Sisk’s credit, Owens himself, while involved in the project, avowed that he didn’t really want to talk about his music – “If I write a book I want it to be entertaining. I don’t want people getting bored.”
But Owens, for all his fame and fortune, is remembered for his music, not his business acumen, his sexual conquests, or his often-abrasive nature. Many of his songs – whether he wrote ‘em or stole them – have become standards, and his influence stretches far and wide to this day. By blending traditional country with rock ‘n’ roll and making music on his own terms, he charted a course for many artists seeking an alternative to the Nashville establishment. Yet Sisk rushes through the final decades of Owens’ career, the years in which his star power had faded but his artistic legacy solidified, with a scant chapter each, and turns his funeral into a bit of a soap opera.
Those not familiar with Owens’ life will learn much here, no doubt; Sisk has done her homework, and knows her subject well. It’s too bad he managed to piss her off, though. He was flawed, to be sure, but despite Sisk’s attempts at scandal, he really doesn’t seem too bad, at least in light of the excesses and foibles we’ve come to expect of celebrities these days. And in the end, it remains the music that matters most.