The Heart of Honky-Tonk
Buck Owens and Bakersfield, In the Middle of Our Country

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.

By the late '40s, Bakersfield, a booming farm and oil town heavily populated by Texas and Oklahoma transplants, had developed a thriving honky-tonk scene, and Owens moved there in 1950 to try to make a better living.

It was the Bakersfield jukes that shaped his hard-driving sound, which he once described as "like a freight train coming into your living room." To be heard in noisy venues, bands had to play loud and long, with an emphasis on danceable music.

That's when Owens replaced the hollow-body Gibson electric favored by country guitarists with a relatively new solid-body Fender Telecaster that gave him a sharper, tougher, twangier sound. "You played what it took to bring the people in," he explained. "They wanted rhythm, they wanted to dance. . . . That's more or less where the frenetic-type energy comes from in my songs."

At a time when country singers were expected to go to Nashville and sing over tracks laid down by stolid session players and saccharine string sections, Owens insisted on recording on the West Coast with his own band so there would be no difference between the sound of his records and the sound of his shows. Named the Buckaroos by short-term bassist Merle Haggard, they were considered the best little band in country music, in great part because of guitarist, fiddler and high harmony singer Don Rich, whose death at 32, in 1974 in a motorcycle accident, devastated Owens.

By the end of the decade, country music had changed again, or as Owens might have put it, "gone soft" again, and he wanted no part of it.

Thankfully, Yoakam invited Owens to join him onstage at a local county fair in 1987. The next January, they sang "Streets of Bakersfield" on the Country Music Association's 30th-anniversary television show, and the subsequent recording became Owens's first No. 1 single in 16 years.

Unlike many of his peers, Owens didn't focus on the drinking or fighting side of honky-tonk, but on matters of the heart. His longest-running No. 1 hit, "Love's Gonna Live Here," was not about maudlin regret over lost love but insistent affirmation of its return. His greatest ballad, "Together Again," was a joyful celebration.

That song's enduring grace was emphasized when Owens and Emmylou Harris enjoyed a 1979 duet hit with "Play 'Together Again' Again." Owens even revisited "Act Naturally" in 1989 with Ringo Starr, who'd sung it as a Beatle in 1964, a year after Owens's original topped the charts.

Still, even as new audiences got to see Owens not as the former "Hee Haw" star but as a pioneer and master of hard-country and honky-tonk, he never regained the heights he'd known. And Owens seemed quite fine with that, enjoying his status at 60 as a living legend and elder statesman, mentoring a new generation of singers and pickers in uncompromised art.

In 1996, the same year Owens was voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, he opened Buck Owens' Crystal Palace, a restaurant, nightclub and museum complex on Buck Owens Drive in Bakersfield. Most Friday and Saturday nights, Owens played two shows there.

Yesterday, a Crystal Palace phone recording still listed Buck Owens and His Buckaroos as appearing on the weekend. In Bakersfield, it might be down to memorabilia and collectibles now, but for more than four decades, Buck Owens was a main attraction like no other.

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