Buck Owens: The Country Cad Who Couldn't Quite Escape Hee Haw
Buck Owens (left) and the classic lineup of the Buckaroos: Don Rich, Willie Cantu, Tom Brumley and Doyle Holly
Buck 'Em! The Autobiography of Buck Owens By Buck Owens with Randy Poe Backbeat Books, 360 pp., $29.99
Music legend says that bluesman Robert Johnson made his deal with the Devil at the Crossroads. If that's the case, then country legend Buck Owens must have booked his date with Ol' Scratch in the cornfield.
As Owens (1929-2006) mentions numerous times in this autobiography -- drawn largely verbatim from nearly 100 hours of recently-discovered taped reminisces -- his 17 seasons as co-host of the cornpone country comedy/music show Hee Haw fattened his wallet and made him a household name.
But it also damaged his reputation and album sales among country fans who had sent him to the top of the charts almost 20 times in the '60s before the cameras rolled. He would have a total of 21 No. 1 hits, the last being Dwight Yoakam duet "Streets of Bakersfield" in the '80s.
"I just couldn't turn down that Hee Haw paycheck," he admits early in the story. Then, later, "I kept whoring myself out to that cartoon donkey."
But in this book, put together by music executive and journalist Randy Poe (Skydog: The Duane Allman Story, Stalking the Red Headed Stranger), money was not the only weakness for the boy born Alvis Edgar Owens, Jr. in Sherman, Texas.
"90 percent of troubles in life are due to women -- trying to have too many at the same time," he offers sagely. And Owens should know. After all, this was a guy who left his second wife for a mistress almost half his age, then almost immediately started a relationship with his fiddle player and married her in Vegas on a whim before filing for annulment after a few days and then marrying the mistress. Got that?
And while there is perhaps a little too much talk about recording sessions, players, and chart positions -- Owens had an amazing memory for details -- Buck 'Em is an unvarnished look by Owens at his own life and the development of the "Bakersfield Sound." Unlike the saccharine-country pop music popular in the '60s, it relied on ringing twin Telecaster guitars, an uptempo drum beat, high vocals, unabashed steel guitar, and a recording mix up on the trebly scale.
In addition to his own hits (including "(I've Got a) Tiger by the Tail," "Together Again," "Love's Gonna Live Here," "My Heart Skips a Beat," and "Waitin' in Your Welfare Line"), Owen's songwriting was introduced to massive new audiences when The Beatles covered "Act Naturally" and Ray Charles did "Cryin' Time."
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Owens also speaks eloquently about his musical other half, guitarist/harmony vocalist Don Rich, with whom he freely credits with helping his career and sound to no end.
At one point, Owens even (seriously) notes they may have been actual twins in a past life. He also admits that after Rich's 1974 death in a motorcycle crash, he just wasn't interested in making much music anymore on record or onstage, preferring to focus on his outside businesses (radio and TV stations, newspapers, publishing and booking companies).
But after a career resurgence with Yoakam, who gets somewhat backhanded compliments for helping introduce Owens to a new generation and taking him on tour, the performing bug bit again. Owens built his own Bakersfield club, The Crystal Palace, which allowed fans to come to him from all over the world and help at least stem the multiple health problems and painkiller/antidepressant pill addiction which marked his final years.
He mentions Houston's own Rockefeller's club as "one of his favorite places to play" and an inspiration for the look/construction of the Crystal Palace.
In fact, it was only hours after finishing up a show at the Palace -- which Owens was originally not going to play due to feeling ill -- that he died in his sleep of a heart attack. He had met a couple in the parking lot on his way out who told him they'd driven 700 miles just to see him perform, so Owens turned back around and played an hour-and-a-half show.
And, as is often the case, Owens's sheer longevity and a reconsideration of his music has made him a big name now in Nashville and "official" country music circles. Ironically, it is the town which he felt clearly rejected or ignored him for most of his career. To which he would probably say...Buck 'Em!
Buck Owens's old Bakersfield rival, Merle Haggard, plays Stafford Centre tonight with his band the Strangers. Doors open at 8 p.m.
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