by Donald Jacobs
A common conversation regarding Country and Western music often goes something like this:
Person 1: “Ya know, I love Country music, I’m just not too fond of that “whiny, twangy” stuff.”
To which person 2 replies, “Then you don’t really love Country music.”
That familiar exchange describes well the sound crafted by the Country artists of Bakersfield CA in the early and mid 1960s. Leaders of that movement were none other than Buck Owens and The Buckaroos. Along with the likes of Merle Haggard and The Strangers, a sound was crafted that had far reaching influence in Country music. Influences that continue into the present day sound of many artists, and, in its time even influenced the likes of Graham Parsons, The Byrds, even the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
Alvis Edgar “Buck” Owens Jr. (August 12, 1929 – March 25, 2006) was born in Sherman, Texas on the farm of his parents (Alvis Edgar Owens Sr. and Maicie Azel Owens). He took the nickname Buck from a beloved mule on his family’s farm. The family soon moved to Mesa Arizona during the time of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Not very successful with formal school work, he satisfied many of his courses by singing and performing in school plays and other functions. Buck was a self taught musician and singer. Proficient on guitar, mandolin, horns and drums, when he acquired his first electric steel guitar he taught himself how to play it as well (after his father adapted an old radio into an amplifier for it). He eventually quit school in the ninth grade to work on his parent’s farm and to pursue a music career.
In 1951 Buck settled in Bakersfield California where he played in local clubs. He also took advantage of his proximity to LA to do studio work there for Capitol Records as a backing musician for acts such as Tennessee Ernie Ford, Gene Vincent, and Tommy Collins among others. He even recorded a “rockabilly” song called Hot Dog under the pseudonym Corky Jones.
In 1958 Buck met Don Rich in Tacoma Washington and immediately discussed collaboration musically. The partnership worked and eventually the Buckaroos came into being. Buck and his Buckaroos created what could be called without doubt a “blue collar” sound. A sound readily accessible to folks who “prefer beer over wine” so to speak. Unlike other country acts of their day, which often tended toward complex production in the studio as well as orchestration (such as Jim Reeves or Patsy Cline) Buck Owens instead insisted on recording with the same group he toured with. The Buckaroos, powered by Don Rich’s masterful style on the Fender Telecaster, produced many classic songs such as Streets of Bakersfield, Act Naturally (which was even covered by the Beatles with Ringo Starr on lead vocal), and the innovative Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass which was daring for its time utilizing a “Fuzz Box” on the guitar and illustrated quite clearly that not only did Buck influence the Beatles but that there was some “reciprocity” of influence as well since it is clear that the song has a distinctly “Beatlesque” feel. Their formula was so successful it eventually saw the Buckaroos play Carnegie Hall and even the White House.
From 1969 to 1986 Buck co-hosted the variety show Hee Haw on CBS with fellow musician Roy Clarke. After Buck left, the show itself continued to air until December 27 1997 and featured many established and “up and coming” country music acts over its 28 year span. Acts such as George Jones, Tammy Wynette, even Linda Ronstadt and in later years even the likes of Garth Brooks.
After the death of Don Rich in 1974, Buck was devastated and said in a late 1990s interview that his, “music life died when he (Don) died”. He continued to make music however into the early 2000s playing regular weekly performances at his Bakersfield club Crystal Palace.
Buck Owens died in his sleep of an apparent heart attack at his ranch north of Bakersfield on March 25 2006. But, though he has gone he has left us behind a legacy of music that will weather the tests of time.
So, love the “twang” I say. Sit back, pour a cold brew, and enjoy the accessible yet innovative music of Buck Owens, the titan of the Bakersfield sound.