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Magpie is a former journalist, attempted historian [No, you can't ask how her thesis is going], and full-time corvid of the lesbian persuasion. She keeps herself in birdseed by writing those bad computer manuals that you toss out without bothering to read them. She also blogs too much when she's not on deadline, both here and at Pacific Views.

Magpie roosts in Portland, Oregon, where she annoys her housemates (as well as her cats Medea, Whiskers, and Jane Doe) by attempting to play Irish music on the fiddle and concertina.

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Saturday, March 25, 2006

Buck Owens, 1929 – 2006.

Buck Owens and the Buckaroos

Buck Owens [left] and the Buckaroos.

I always had a lot of driving-type music in my bones.
I always loved music that had lots of beat.
I always wanted to sound like a locomotive comin' right through the front room.

— Buck Owens, 1992

Legendary country singer and musician Buck Owens died in his sleep early today at his home in Bakersfield, California. He was 78.

Although these days he is mainly remembered for his work as a cast member of the long-running country music TV show Hee Haw during the 1970s and early 1980s, Buck Owens was country music's biggest star in the 1960s. He had twenty #1 records on the US country charts, including 'Together Again,' 'Waitin' in Your Welfare Line,' and 'Act Naturally' — the last of which brought Owens to a wider audience when it was recorded by the Beatles. With his band the Buckaroos [which included guitarist and collaborator Don Rich], Owens crafted a rhythmic, hard-driving sound that audiences and radio listeners found irresistable. He was responsible for giving young ex-convict Merle Haggard his first big break [Haggard played in Owens' band briefly] and had a major influence on the sound of a generation of younger country musicians, notably Dwight Yoakam and BR5-49.

Owens was a product his Dust Bowl-era upbringing in California, and never fit in well with the Nashville style that came to dominate country music by 1960. Robert Price of the Bakersfield Californian fills in some details:

Elvis Presley changed the world in 1956, but by that time Owens, along with bandmates like Bill Woods, Henry Sharp, Oscar Whittington and Sanders, had been playing a loud, driving, danceable version of country music for a half-decade.

Fillmore West poster for Owens's show

Poster for Owens show at San Francisco's Fillmore West, 1968. [Artist unknown]

So it shouldn't have been a shock to Nashville or anyone else when, starting in 1965, Owens and his Buckaroos started cranking out rock and rock-pop songs such as "Memphis," "Johnny B. Goode," and even Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water."

Owens brought in a rock drummer for 1964's "My Heart Skips a Beat," and a fan wrote to tell him he was going to stop buying Buckaroos records unless Owens starting cutting back on the beat. Buck used a fuzz-tone guitar-distortion device, popular among rock bands of the era, for 1968's "Who's Gonna Mow Your Grass," and in the process started a similar revolt.

"People would get upset if it wasn't what they thought country was," Owens said. "And there's no latitude for deciding that. I've had different influences from time to time in my life, and I'm almost 70 years old, but as I look back, my biggest influences might have been (western swing fiddler) Bob Wills and Little Richard. What do you make of that combination? But that's where I was coming from."

When Owens' success came, it came fast and furious, like a Tulare dust storm. Starting in 1963, the No. 1 songs started piling up like junk mail after a two-week vacation. (Owens had 19 consecutive No. 1 hits from 1963 to 1967 alone.) He was making three albums a year and appearing on TV with Dick Clark or Ed Sullivan every other month, it seemed. As a result, Owens had increasing carte blanche with his style and song selection.

"Each time I would release one of those things, the label would shudder: ?Oh my God, all these weird things he's doin' ... Why don't he just do what he does?' But doin' what you do makes you stagnant. ... I was always afraid, but never afraid enough not to try it."

His confidence peaked in 1967 when he released "Johnny B. Goode" as a single. It went to the top of the country charts, but Owens won some enemies in the process.

"Man, there were guys burning me in effigy," Owens said. "Guy from a radio station, WPLO in Atlanta, sent me pictures of a bonfire - this is the truth - with the explanation, ?This is a bonfire we held last week, and we burned every Buck Owens record in the radio station.' They were really upset with me.

"But how could they say that song wasn't country? ?Way down in Louisiana, down by New Orleans ...' Go on, listen to his lyrics. If that ain't country, tell me what that is. My opinion was, and always has been, if Chuck Berry had been a white man, he'd-a been a country singer."

But the country music establishment wasn't ruffled merely because of Owens' electrified twang, or his tendency to push at the boundaries of the genre. It was the way he went at things in general, building his own mini-empire in California instead of buying a Nashville mansion like everyone else who was anybody.

"My problem with Nashville was simple," Owens said. "I don't like the way they do talent, and I don't like the way they cut records. ... I tried to record there two or three times and I never had any luck at it because I never had my band. I had a band that was good enough to make records, so I used 'em. The people in Nashville always wanted to pick the musicians themselves."

Owen's most productive period came to a halt in 1974, when Buckaroos guitarist [and Owen's arranging and songwriting collaborator] Don Rich was killed in a motorcycle accident. Without Rich at his side, Owens lost direction and enthusiasm, and his string of hit records came to a screaming halt. Although he continued on as cast member for Hee Haw until the mid-1980s, Owens' creative period had effectively ended — at least for the moment — and he was without a record contract after 1980.

Owens was persuaded to come out of retirement by Dwight Yoakam in the late 1980s, and their duet recording of 'The Streets of Bakersfield' was a #1 country record in 1988. Owens had another, smaller hit the next year when he dueted with Ringo Starr on a new version of 'Act Naturally.'

Owens recorded two final albums in the 1990s, one of which — Hot Dog — has moments which [in this magpie's opinion] can stand up next to the classic material from the 1960s.

The AP obituary for Owens can be found here. A much more extensive obit is here at the Bakersfield Californian. [Registration req'd, but you can get a password from BugMeNot here.]

Buck Owens honky-tonkin'

Buck Owens [left], Oscar Whittington, and Bill Woods performing
at Bakersfield's Blackboard Nightclub sometime in the 1950s. [Photographer unknown]

Salon ran an excellent profile of Buck Owens in 1999, which you can find here. A 1997 profile [with some cool photos] is here. Good short bios of Owens can be found at here at the Country Music Hall of Fame and here at CMT.

The homepage for Owen's Crystal Palace nightclub in Bakersfield is here, including several recent videos of Owens performing here. You can watch an excerpt [on a teeny tiny screen] from a 1966 performance on Buck Owens Ranch Show if you go here.

If you were only going to have one Buck Owens album in your collecton, the obvious choice is Rhino's Buck Owens Collection, a 3-disc set that covers his career from 1959 to 1990. But I'm partial to Buck Owens and the Buckaroos Live at Carnegie Hall, recorded in 1966 when Owens and his band were at the top of their form and fianlly made available in 1989 by the Country Music Foundation.

MusicMatch Guide has an excellent annotated discography (just click on any album title) here. There's another version of the essentially the same info [but organized more attractively] over here.

You can listen to audio samples of many Buck Owens hits here at Amazon.

For more on the 'Bakersfield Sound' — of which Owens was its foremost example — I highly recommend browsing the treasure trove of articles and photos here and at the Bakersfield Californian's Bakersfield Sound website here.

| | Posted by Magpie at 9:33 AM | Get permalink

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