Bakersfield Boy

"You Don't Know Me, But You Don't Like Me"

Buck OwensCredit: biography.com

You don't know me but you don't like me
You say you care less how I feel
How many of you that sit and judge me
Ever walked the streets of Bakersfield?
—Streets of Bakersfield*

 

Early rock ’n’ rollers loved him.  Casual AM radio listeners of the Sixties and early Seventies loved him.  More modern indie artists loved him.  And television loved him.

The one group that didn’t love him, though, was the industry in which he chose to spread his particular brand of quirky, poppy, edgy, sardonic, sarcastic, and sometimes serio-comic Gospel.  That entity would be the juggernaut known as the Nashville-based Country music establishment. 

For a few decades this industry outsider made his disdain for the Nashville elitist scene’s snobbery palpable.  He also nearly single-handedly succeeded in superseding Nashville as the “home” of Country music in favor of one of the most unlikely places in the world to be the “capital” of anything, Bakersfield, California.  He was a musical “outlaw” before Waylon Jennings, et al, ever thought of co-opting the title for themselves.

This is the story of one of music’s greatest (and perhaps unsung or uncelebrated) performers (of any genre) and songwriters, Buck Owens. 

The Buck Starts Here
Despite his association with the California no-man’s-land of Bakersfield, Alvis Edgar Owens, Jr. (no less), was born in Sherman, Texas (only a few miles due north of Dallas), on August 12, 1929.  Texas spawned many innovators among his cohort—Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly (born Charles Hardin Holley), though both slightly younger, were among the more notable.

The story of his nickname, “Buck”, is probably apocryphal.  The boy was born on the family farm where Alvis, Sr., owned a mule named “Buck”.  According to the legend a roughly three-year-old Alvis, Jr., toddled into the farmhouse one day and announced his name was now “Buck” (after the family mule), too. 

Regardless, the baby boy later known as “Buck” Owens lived a life of grinding poverty.  He was born just a couple of months shy of the stock market crash that plunged the United States into its Great Depression.  The family consisted of 10 people—his sharecropper father had no choice, once the Dust Bowl hit (engulfing the Great Plains states from Texas and Oklahoma all the way up to South Dakota), to become one of many migrants in the American southwest, moving to any place he could make a living.  The boy managed to complete first through third grade in Garland, Texas, about 56 miles (89.6 km) SSE of Sherman.Dust storm (Texas, 1935)Credit: wiki commonsThe Owens family then headed west when Alvis, Jr., was 8 years old. They made it as far as Mesa, Arizona (slightly over 1,000 miles from home), before their beater of a car broke down.  Out of options and money, Mesa was where Alvis, Sr., decided they should set down roots. 

Much like Country music icon Charley Pride (who lived in the same Depression-Era hardships in a similarly large sharecropper family) the Owens’ had to scrape by on what they could do to make a dollar and to survive.  Young Alvis had to drop out of school at the age of 13 (in the 8th grade) to help earn money to keep the family going by getting a job as a field hand (picking cotton) and by working other odd jobs. 

He managed to acquire a mandolin, and like many other Depression period children, he sought free entertainment where he could find it.  This meant learning to play his mandolin by following along with songs he heard on the radio or in those few instances where he could get his hands on 78-rpm records of hillbilly artists.  He later picked up the guitar and using similar homegrown methods learned to play it as well.

Bonnie & Buck
Alvin Edgar Owens, Jr., adopted the name “Buck” professionally.  At a local roller rink Buck met an aspiring 15-year-old girl singer named Bonnie Maureen Campbell.  She was born in Oklahoma City less than two months after Buck, and like his family hers had fled the Dust Bowl, too (when she was 12).  She was a yodeler, and she appeared on local radio where Buck also performed from time to time.

Months later the 16-year-old Buck Owens worked casually as a guitarist in Arizona in addition to his other manual labor jobs. By 1945 he was co-hosting a radio show called Buck and Britt.  Like many wartime youths (during WWII) with little education or life experience, Buck did what he could.  In his recollection:

“I remember thinkin’ that I could probably make about $5 if I’d go out and pick cotton all day.  And I could make $5 dollars bein’ in this honky-tonk—the guy will give me $5 a night, and I’ll be in here where it’s warm in the winter and cool in the summertime. That was my way of lookin’ at it.”

In Mesa there was a gas station owner who also thought of himself as a hillbilly music impresario. Every day in the afternoons for about an hour this man, “Mac” MacAtee, played hillbilly records over the P.A. system of his gas station.  The music from the gas station was simulcast over local radio.  Buck met and became friends with Mac.  When MacAtee formed a group (named “Mac’s Skillet Lickers”—a name he ripped off whole-cloth from an existing hillbilly band of the same name from Georgia that had been recording since 1924) young Buck was enlisted as a steel-guitar player.  The group began performing at the gas station.

Bonnie Maureen Campbell Owens (1929-2006)Credit: findagrave.comBonnie Campbell—the girl from the roller rink—and Buck Owens were enamored of each other, and he finagled a spot for her singing lead with the band he backed for the gas-station owner, the Skillet Lickers.

Bonnie was 4 months’ pregnant with the first of two sons (Alan Edgar Owens, better known as “Buddy”) when the couple (regardless of whether they “had” to get married or not) tied the knot on January 13, 1948 (Bonnie was 18 by then).  Buddy was born in May 1948.  Another son, Michael Lynn Owens, followed in March 1950.

Buck, meanwhile, was driving a truck as his musicianship was not earning enough to feed his growing family.  He still gigged in clubs where he could get a slot, and a life-changing moment occurred when he met a fellow truck driver and aspiring songwriter named Marty Robinson.  Robinson had a unique voice and a penchant for Eddy Arnold songs; he performed (where and when he could) under the truncated moniker “Marty Robbins”. 

Robbins was also a steel-guitar player (no mean instrument to master, it requires the use of hands and feet and knees to manipulate strings, slide, knee-levers and foot-pedals), and he sat in as a steel-guitar player for one of Buck’s shows in the Phoenix, Arizona, Astor Hotel.  Buck sang Hank Williams songs for his set.  Marty, who had appeared in Mesa area honky-tonks doing hillbilly cover tunes as well as starting to perform his own material, was impressed enough with the young Buck Owens the two became fast friends. 

Baked in Oil
Bakersfield, California, probably seems the least likely city to breed a Country music legend short of Beijing. 

It lies on the Kern River about halfway between Fresno and Los Angeles (110 miles or 176 km either way) in the San Joaquin Valley.  It is not an “old” city by American standards—it was founded in 1869 by a man named Thomas Baker.  The village had an economy based on agriculture until 1899 when oil was found in the area.  With the nascent automobile industry about to explode, any oil town—and Bakersfield was no exception—became a boom town (just as the California gold and silver boom towns earlier in that century had been).

In the wake of a major earthquake the city was hastily rebuilt in 1952.  Cultivation of its vineyards continued and about a fourth of the wine made in California comes from the Bakersfield region.

Truck drivers and hillbilly songwriter wannabes needed work, and with the Great Plains still not recovered from both the Dust Bowl and World War II’s labor drain (many fled to the American Northwest to work for aircraft manufacturers or to California to work in other war-related manufacturing jobs) the traveling men and women sought lives elsewhere.

Bakersfield, with its wine industry but more importantly its oil fields, beckoned for those with little or no education but with a willingness to work hard in the warm California sun.  Truck drivers and musicians always had their ears to the ground for better opportunities and Buck Owens was no exception.  While he probably did not think of Bakersfield as a great place to start a music career he more than likely saw it as a place for surefire and steady employment. As a truck driver his runs had taken him there on more than one occasion in the late 1940s and he was impressed enough to want to leave Mesa in favor of it.

He uprooted Bonnie and their two sons and made the move in 1951, just about in time for the July 1952, 7.3-Richter scale earthquake that hit the area.  While Bakersfield was relatively untouched, the quake was felt all the way from San Francisco south to the Mexico border.

Buck got work as a side man in a band called the Orange Blossom Playboys.  He also managed to sign on as a paid studio hand for Capitol Records, and he routinely made the trek to Hollywood to do studio work for some of Country music’s Golden Age greats of the 1950s: Tennessee Ernie Ford, Wanda Jackson, Sonny James, Del Reeves, Tommy Sands, Faron Young and rockabilly up-and-comer, Gene Vincent.  Many of the artists he played with had cross-over appeal; it was a time in America where a Country artist, such as Ferlin Husky, could have a pop hit with what most might consider a Country song.

Buckin’
Buck angled toward a career in the Country music genre, writing his own material, playing out when he could, and doing studio work for Capital Records’ artists.  However, his marriage to Bonnie was not working out so well, and the two called it quits in 1953. Young Buck (disc cover)Credit: livinginstereo.com

In 1956 he married again, to a woman named Phyllis Buford.  They would go on to have one child together, a boy.  

Buck’s personal career took off with his first sides under a small label, Starday, in 1956.  The “album” (not released until 1962, after his popularity had come to the fore) would come to be called The Fabulous Country Music Sound of Buck Owens, though of the 12 tracks on the disc, Buck performed only six (other artists, such as Dottie West, were featured).  Most tellingly, though, is that of the 12 tracks on this record, Buck wrote or co-wrote ten of the songs recorded.

Buck Owens (c. 1957)Credit: blogspot.comCapitol Records, on whose behalf Buck had worked as a hired hand, finally signed him to a contract in 1957.  However, he failed to set the world on fire out of the gate, and he moved with Phyllis to the state of Washington.  They briefly lived in Fife, Washington (a Tacoma ’burb).  Buck, while living in Washington, got a job as a radio deejay, and hosted a live television show at a Tacoma TV station.  He also sang with an outfit called the Dusty Rhodes Band during his brief stay in Washington State.

His first “real” record was a single released in 1957.  This helped cement Buck Owens as a Renaissance man in the world of Country music—it was a rockabilly tune he released under the pseudonym “Corky Jones” called “Hot Dog” for yet another small time label called Pep.  The reason for his use of the fake name?  Buck was afraid of harming his reputation as a Country music artist if it was found out he had delved into the rock ’n’ roll scene. 

Back on solid ground in Bakersfield once again, it was in 1959 that Buck’s personally-penned “Second Fiddle” (recorded by him in Washington under his own name) hit the #24 spot on Billboard’s Country chart. 

21-Point Buck
From that time forward, Buck Owens would do many things: record 39 studio albums, garner 21 Number One hit records, appear on countless hours of television, but most of all, he would alienate the Nashville Country music establishment.

Buck Owens (young)Credit: last.fmHe moved back to Bakersfield, and his follow-up single to “Second Fiddle”, “Under Your Spell Again” (with R&B rootsy basics, written by Buck Owens and Dusty Rhodes in 1959), stalled at #4.  But his next outing, “Above and Beyond”, made it to #3.  In early April 1960, he performed that tune on an obscure ABC network program, Ozark Jubilee.

But Buck Owens was not to be pigeon-holed or trifled with by the Nashville establishment.  Buck Owens fit right in with the budding rockers who were coming to the fore.  And his delivery (chirpy and chipper with a big, toothy grin) sat well with television viewers (though the smarter ones could perceive the subversion in some of his lyrics behind the façade).  Some of the material he performed was not meant to be presented in such a happy-go-lucky light.  One of the BEST examples of Buck’s sarcasm involved one of his earliest hits, “Act Naturally” (from 1963). 

Though not written by him, this tune totally captures the Buck Owens’ ethos—“I’m dying inside, but I’m gonna smile, and you won’t know any better.”

Irony: yes!

written by John Russell & Voni Morrison

“They’re gonna put me in the movies . . . ” Buck opens cheerily in “Act Naturally”. 

Buck Owens (early 1960s)Credit: americansongwriter.comThe song is about a man who is totally heartbroken, but is putting on a brave face.  However, he is in pain, and all he has to do to convey that angst in his imagined movie role is to “act naturally”.  The thin veneer of “aw shucks” brightness that Buck brings to the song is a classic case of irony in music—here’s a man so heart-wrenched that he has to only be himself to “act” his grief, living his heartache, but pressing his case with good cheer.  The song made a splash on Country charts, but did nothing on the pop charts though it got significant airplay. 

Buck’s take on music, unfortunately for the tastes of some in the late 1950s to early 1960s, was not that of a hillbilly purist.  Like his contemporary, Johnny Cash, and most certainly in the form of Glen Campbell several years later, Buck found inspiration in rock, soul, jazz, and other musical forms (even embracing mariachi as Johnny Cash would do in “Ring of Fire”).

And, like Johnny Cash, Buck not only wrote his own material he was not averse to covering someone else’s songs (such as “Act Naturally”) if he thought they were reflective of not only his personal tastes, but thought they would play well (live or in the studio).

Buck Owens was a master of irony (in what he wrote) and of sarcasm (in how he sang) or in bottom-line smart-assery (when he felt it was appropriate).  Buck’s first Country Number One song was a quintessential take on Buck Owens’ sense of irony. 

The song was “Love’s Gonna Live Here” (from 1963).

Is it?

written by Buck Owens

Mutha-Buckin’ Buckaroos
During his brief stay in Washington State, Buck had met a hotshot guitarist named Don Rich (full name Donald Eugene Ulrich).  This man would form the core of Buck’s crack band, The Buckaroos. Rich’s guitar work could be both subtle and brutal, the same as Buck’s songwriting. 

Don Rich & Buck OwensCredit: rissystreasures.comDon Rich’s personality also married well with the ironies of Buck’s more “out there” songs.  In live performances, he could smile big and chuckle, putting on the same cheery face as Buck, or he could step back and brood.  His playing was spare (if that’s what a particular song needed) but it could also be elegantly filled with fret board runs not heard in Country music. 

Buck’s sense of musicality, in addition to his lyrics, made him a bit of an outsider by Nashville standards.  He and his band had style, too.  While not wearing the famous Nudie Cohn suits (famed for the sequined bolero jackets and tight pants) he and The Buckaroos wore good knock-offs by a competitor that Buck claimed were “half the price”.  The band was a tight-knit unit, with Buck and Don Rich sometimes simultaneously playing Telecasters to fatten up the sound.  The Countrypolitan movement was coming into dominance by the early 1960s (slick production with an eye toward cross-over success), but much of Buck’s material retained a grittier feel. 

“Love’s Gonna Live Here” was a shining example of Buck Owens’ mastery of not only performing style but arranging.  The song stayed at #1 on the Country charts for 16 weeks (being knocked out of the top slot for one week by an Ernest Ashworth tune, “Talk Back Tremblin’ Lips”).  The studio track (the one that was a hit) featured an opening acoustic guitar that was tepid, but which later evolves into a gritty electric solo that tends to fight against the chirpy, happy-go-lucky singing of Buck Owens. 

The tune is sung from the perspective of a man who has just gotten divorced and is looking forward to his new single status as something of a Paradise.  However, there is a darker subtext—when he sings that things will be the “way they were before” it begs the question: the way things were before must’ve been lousy, or otherwise why would the singer have gotten divorced?  Thus, the song looks forward to what probably won’t be a happy place or time for the singer.

In the meantime, just as Buck Owens and his Buckaroos were starting to get noticed, the face of pop music in America changed radically with the start of what came to be called The British Invasion.  Country music was an early casualty.  With few exceptions the genre did not expand its horizons by evolving, using other musical types as fodder.  Instead, it stayed the same. 

Except for people like Buck Owens.  Because he embraced rock ’n’ roll sensibilities his material generally sounded fresh and interesting.  As proof of his credentials as a songwriter, no less a personage than Ray Charles recorded and released Buck’s song “Crying Time” (from Ray’s 1965 seminal dip into Country music, Modern Sounds in Country and Western).  The tune hit #6 on the pop charts for Ray.Buck Owens (1960s)Credit: last.fm

And the newer rockers coming from both Britain and the West Coast started looking at Buck Owens as more than a mere hillbilly picker and singer.  The Beatles were early fans of his, and Ringo Starr did the lead vocal turn on a 1965 Beatles’ cover of “Act Naturally” (although in Ringo’s hands the song sounds more like a parody than a truly ironic piece of songwriting).

Folk-rock bands like The Lovin’ Spoonful and more particularly Creedence Clearwater Revival (whose lead singer, John Fogarty, was so enraptured by Buck Owens he gave him a shout-out in the 1970 song “Lookin’ Out My Back Door”) also embraced Buck’s rootsy, yet eclectic, take on music.

As for Buck himself, he tended to be an up-setter and contrarian.  He took out a full-page ad in a trade magazine saying he would play nothing but “pure” Country music from that day forward (in response to the criticisms he’d received from the Nashville establishment that he was too much invested in rock and R & B with his current music); almost immediately in the wake of that ad his next single release was a raucous version of Chuck Berry’s very rockin’ “Memphis”.

He continued writing and recording edgier material, one of the best being “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail”.

the best song EVER about bein' "whipped"

written by Harlan Howard & Buck Owens

Hemmin’ & Hee-Hawin’
CBS developed a comedy/variety series in response to the edgier (and more politically topical and controversial) Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In on NBC, and it debuted in 1969.  The program was called Hee Haw, and it was pure corn pone.

The show’s set was a rural cornfield with rustic buildings and straw bales strewn about. It featured voluptuous “farmer’s daughter” types as window dressing (among whom was Hugh Hefner’s main squeeze at the time, Barbi Benton).

Buck Owens was called up to co-host the show with another marginalized Country music artist, Roy Clark.  Buck generally played the “straight man” to Clark’s goofy scripted antics, but make no mistake—Roy Clark was no slouch as a musician, songwriter, and performer. It was during his run on the show that Buck began playing his trademark red-white-and-blue acoustic guitar.

The pairing of these two disparate characters—Clark’s affable fat boy to Buck’s more serious and brooding “outsider”—worked wonders for the network, and the show found mass appeal, even in large cities.  After two years on network television Hee Haw was put into syndication where it thrived for another 20 years. 

With Johnny Cash on set of Hee Haw (1975)

During this period, Buck Owens had a chance to showcase most of his back catalog of material, and he regularly played and sang on the program.  One of his best and most poignant performances on the show was of a song called “Made in Japan”. 

The Buckaroos all sit around Buck while he quietly laments the loss of a Japanese girl he had met in that country; the transistor radio he listens to reminds him that while it is night here in America “over there it’s a breakin’ day”.  His somber delivery on television of this song raises it above the early 1970’s titillation factor of miscegenation (prevalent in songs like “Brother Louie”) to something elegant and heart-wrenching. 

The arrangement, too, is subtle—while the electric and steel-guitar and light fiddle work evoke Asian tones, they do not bludgeon the listener by lapsing into parody (such a song in the wrong hands could have come across as a novelty record, à la New Wave band, The Vapors, with their quirky 1980’s hit, “Turning Japanese”). 

Buck sits there with a very grave look as his heart aches for this girl he left behind—it is probably one of the best televised appearances of his career.

Because of copyright issues the broadcast video of this great performance is not available for re-use.  The song itself, however, is still pure magic, and worth a listen (in a different presentation).

deadpan heartache

written by Bob & Faye Morris

Sometimes he dueted with his older son, Buddy (himself, by that time, an aspiring Country singer).  One of the better performances between Buck and his boy on Hee Haw was on “Streets of Bakersfield”, a song Buck did not write but was made a signature song by him.

Like the televised performance of Buck doing “Made in Japan”, copyright issues prevent re-use of his Hee Haw duet with Buddy.  The studio version by Buck, though, still can grab one right in the guts.

semi-autobiographical

written by Homer Joy

Buckin’ AgainBuck Owens as panelist on Match Game (1970s)Credit: morethings.com
Buck Owens worked tirelessly through the 1970s, forging ahead with his own brand of Country music.  Sometimes he was in favor, sometimes not.  His album sales declined during his tenure on Hee Haw (probably because of over-exposure).  He became a TV “personality” appearing on the dubious game show Match Game as a panelist as well as being a frequent guest on other talk and variety shows.   

He and his wife of about 15 years, Phyllis, divorced in 1971.  Buck married a woman named Jana Grief in 1977, but they split in 1979.  He then moved on to wife # 4, Jennifer Smith, marrying her in 1979. Dwight Yoakam & Buck OwensCredit: abc.net.au

During the 1980s, Buck was treated less as an innovator and more of an elder statesman of Country music.  In 1988 Dwight Yoakam covered the song “Streets of Bakersfield” with Buck’s vocal assistance on a duet.  The song went to #1, and it was Buck’s first chart topper in almost 16 years.  Buck and Ringo Starr teamed up, also in 1988, to duet on “Act Naturally”.

In 1993, Buck was diagnosed with oral cancer.  Surgery cost him part of his tongue, though he learned to sing around the loss. He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1996. That same year he opened a music theater/restaurant in his adopted hometown of Bakersfield called Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace.  He and The Buckaroos performed there routinely (albeit without Don Rich who died in 1974).

The Buck Stops Here
Buck Owens and his last wife called it quits in 2001.  His first wife, Bonnie, was still alive, and the two remained friends all through the intervening years (with her having a minor Country music career on her own).

Buck had some other minor health problems after his bout with oral cancer in the 1990s.  He had pneumonia.  He also had a mild stroke in 2004.  These issues forced him to scale back his public appearances at the Crystal Palace.

On the night of March 25, 2006, Buck Owens ate dinner at the Crystal Palace with the intent of later playing there with The Buckaroos.  After eating, though, he told some of the band members he didn’t feel well and was planning on skipping the performance.  He made ready to leave the restaurant when a group of fans—saying they’d driven in from Oregon—accosted him.  Rather than be a source of disappointment, he went ahead and performed anyway.  Later at home, he died in his sleep, aged 77, from a heart attack, only a few hours after his last show.  [Bonnie died shortly after him of complications due to Alzheimer’s.]

Buck Owens' family mausoleumCredit: findagrave.com

Buck is buried in a family mausoleum, officially inscribed with the words “The Buck Owens Family”.  Beneath that is another phrase: “Buck’s Place”.

Alvis Edgar Owens, Jr., better known to the world as Buck Owens, was a truly great performer, songwriter, and non-conformist when it came to his music.  He wrote and sang the songs he wanted regardless of what others thought.  As such, he was a rarity among Country artists: an outsider willing to explore different genres and incorporate them into a music that had stagnated.

Buck Owens (elder statesman)Credit: upthedownstair.net

***

* (as sung by Buck Owens, written by Homer Joy, 1973)

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