The Heart of Honky-Tonk

Buck Owens, left, with co-host Roy Clark on the
Buck Owens, left, with co-host Roy Clark on the "Hee Haw" set in 1986. (By Mark Humphrey -- Associated Press)
By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 27, 2006

Buck Owens, who died early Saturday at his ranch north of Bakersfield, Calif., at 76, was on the crest of a late-blooming second act when he came to the Birchmere in 1989. One of country's biggest, most charismatic stars in the 1960s and early '70s, he'd stopped recording and touring for a decade before his No. 1 fan, newcomer and neo-traditionalist Dwight Yoakam, helped pull him back into the spotlight with a chart-topping duet of "Streets of Bakersfield."

It was in Bakersfield's blue-collar juke joints that Owens and his onetime bass player Merle Haggard had fine-tuned a hard-core honky-tonk sound informed by the energy and edge of rockabilly and rock-and-roll and defined by their authoritative, emotion-drenched vocals. Dubbed the "Bakersfield sound," it was a flat-out rejection of the smoothed-out, string-laden, pop-driven "Nashville sound" that ruled in the '50s as country music eschewed its rural roots to go uptown.

When Owens stepped away from performing in 1979, one of the main reasons had been that country music was once again softening in its eagerness to court pop and rock crossover audiences.

Fortunately, Owens wasn't hurting financially. As he'd piled up the hits -- including 20 No. 1's and 30 more that entered the Top 10 -- Owens had made smart investments in real estate, music publishing and management, a recording studio and television station -- as well as a pair of radio stations, one in his adopted home. Problem was, listeners were calling and asking those stations to "play less Buck Owens, Dwight Yoakam, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Hank Williams Jr. and other artists like that," Owens recalled with glee during his 1989 stop here. Apparently those listeners had no idea who owned the stations.

So, Owens asked, "Do I play raucous honky-tonk music, raw with that edge and gusto, or do I take the edge off, soften up the songs, change the instrumentation and be something that I ain't?"

For the man whose first No. 1 had been the insistent "Act Naturally," to be something he "ain't" was never an option. "We ought to get those people rockin' chairs, put 'em out back with some old Eddy Arnold records and say, 'Here you are, baby, now turn my radio station off. Don't be listening to me. I don't want to play for you.' "

"Act Naturally" (written by Johnny Russell) was about a poor soul who envisions becoming a big movie star by being cast as "a man who's sad and lonely, and all I gotta do is act naturally. . . . Might win an Oscar, you can never tell."

Ironically, it would be the smaller screen of television that impacted Owens's life, and not necessarily for the better. In 1969, he'd already scored his most important hits -- "Love's Gonna Live Here," "I've Got a Tiger by the Tail," "Together Again," "Waitin' in Your Welfare Line," "Before You Go," "My Heart Skips a Beat" -- when he teamed with singer-guitarist Roy Clark to host "Hee Haw," a country-style "Laugh-In" that mixed music and corny hayseed humor. CBS, embarrassed by the "hillbilly" connections of that show and sitcoms "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "Green Acres," dumped "Hee Haw" after two years, but it continued in first-run syndication until 1993 -- the longest-running syndicated show in television history.

Sadly, "Hee Haw's" popularity, in many ways, would diminish Owens's musical credibility, which he conceded in his Washington visit.

"Early on, I was doing three songs in an hour, and at that time all my songs were hits. It slowly gravitated to the point where I did a hell of a lot of comedy and hardly any music," Owens recalled. "But they paid me a lot of money to do that show, so I more or less looked the other way, winked and thought, 'Well, I don't have to be out in some lonely little hotel room tonight, I'll take the money and run.' "

In fact, he kept clowning on what he called "a show of fat old men and pretty young girls" until 1986.

Born Alvis Edgar Owens in Sherman, Tex., Owens grew up in Mesa, Ariz., mostly because that's where the family trailer broke down in 1937 during the Dust Bowl migration. As a child, Owens worked cotton and maize fields, taking the name Buck from a well-liked mule and proving almost as stubborn in teaching himself various musical instruments, although it would be guitar that provided Owens's calling card and entry into the music business.

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