If you were like me, you knew Buck Owens, if you knew of him at all, as the toothy guy from that sappy old show Hee-Haw. I say, “if you were like me”, because I’m not like that any more. I have a new appreciation for Buck Owens. And in our upcoming roadtrip to San Juan Capistrano, we’ll be dropping by Bakersfield to pay him homage.
Many scholars of country music (and yes, you snarky people, there are such things) believe that Hee-Haw tarnished Buck’s musical legacy, by recasting him as a corny comedian. Apparently that was a view he shared toward the end of that show’s popular run. So forget Hee-Haw and let’s talk about that musical legacy — and what a legacy it is.
Central to Buck’s importance in American music is his large part in creating the Bakersfield Sound, a hard-driving, Fender guitar-dominated, raw country that melded the influence of migrant Okies, Texans and Arkies with honky-tonk and even such diverse influences as Mexican Mariachi music. Buck himself described the sound as “Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys meets Little Richard”. He also didn’t like to call his music “Country” but preferred to call it “American Music”. I’d call it “Buck’s Music” as no one did more to create it, promote it and popularize it than Buck, with the possible exception of Merle Haggard, who is often considered a co-creator of the sound.
Let me put this all in context. When Buck Owens and The Buckaroos burst on the scene in the late Fifties, Country Music was dominated by the corporate suits in Nashville and stringed, almost Pop-y arrangements were the standard. Suddenly with Buck, Country was back as the raw, hard-driving music of hard-living working men. It was a blast of fresh air (well air that seemed to be tinged with cow manure, barroom sawdust and the sweat of a hard day’s labor). Buck was the real deal: a Texas Dust Bowl refugee, a truck driver through the San Joaquin Valley, and a honkey tonk musician who served his time in the Bakersfield bars. (Merle Haggard kicked it up a notch by robbing a Bakersfield honky-tonk which landed him in San Quentin.) Musicians from Gram Parsons to the Byrds to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones took notice and incorporated Buck’s influence.
The fact that the Rolling Stones were fans is fitting as Buck and his life-long friend and co-guitarist, fiddler and Buckaroo, Don Rich, were the Mick and Keith of Country Music (I mean in the sense of the tight musical partnership not in decadence). I’m sure Gram Parsons, of the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Byrds, who introduced Mick and Keith to Country Music, got the idea of wearing flamboyant Nudie Suits from his hero Buck Owens.
Wikipedia actually has a really good article on Buck and his influence. But for musical context, especially for music that features guitars, I always turn to my brother. Steve’s been turning out hot licks since the day he grabbed the guitar I’d saved all my babysitting money to buy and shamed me into never picking it up again when he banged out a perfect Who riff by ear. Here is Steve’s musician’s take on Buck Owens:
“The thing that really got me with Buck Owens was his his injection of humor in his songs along with his seemingly effortless guitar playing. He would give a little grin or sly smile as if what he was doing was some sort of joke or not really serious and two seconds later he would play a tight guitar lick that proved he was a cut above. When you watch him play he seems to draw you in to his world as if you were in Bakersfield with him and a few buddies just having a few beers and some fun.
He was very proud of the fact that he didn’t do what Nashville wanted him to do. He was told that if you didn’t move to Nashville and play the game he would never make it, but he stayed in Bakersfield and kept making all those hit records his way. Also all those outrageous clothes and guitars he had made a big impression. The other big thing were those great harmonies that he always seemed to have in the vocal lines. They are not always traditional form, but his own Bakersfield way of singing things. Tiger by the Tail is a good example of what I mean.
For me it always seemed to come back to those tasty guitar licks and trying to figure out exactly what he was doing to get his sound.”
My synopsis of Steve’s analysis: Buck does something few could duplicate or imitate and makes it all look easy.
So when Mom and I hit the road next week, one of our stops will be Buck Owens Crystal Palace in Bakersfield — the club and steak house where he played until the last night of his life. On March 25, 2006, Buck ate his favorite chicken-fried steak, then decided he didn’t feel up to his usual Friday night performance. But he met some fans in the lobby of the Palace who said they’d come all the way from Oregon to see him. Buck took to the stage saying, “If somebody’s come all that way, I’m gonna do the show and give it my best shot. I might groan and squeak, but I’ll see what I can do.” Buck finished the show, went home and died peacefully in his sleep.
Thanks, Buck, for your showmanship and your contribution to American Music. Mom and I will salute you, probably over a chicken-fried steak, as we watch the house band kick out the Bakersfield Sound.
Oh, and my favorite Buck Owens songs?
Streets of Bakersfield which gives a hint at the hard-scrabble life there and innovatively incorporates Mexican border music from Buck’s childhood in Texas.
Act Naturally which was famously covered by The Beatles and Ringo Starr. (Somewhere on YouTube is a clip of Buck and Ringo singing this together.)
And to get a sense of Buck’s sense of humor, Waitin’ in Your Welfare Line which includes the immortal lyrics:
Well when I first met you babe you nearly made me wreck my old 49 Cadillac
Yeah I knew at a glance that it was you for me I had to have your love by heck
Now I’m right back where that I started from but that ain’t gonna change my mind
I got the hungrys for your love and I’m waitin’ in your welfare line