Buck Owens

Lean, no-frills country singer

Alvis Edgar Owens (Buck Owens), guitarist and singer: born Sherman, Texas 12 August 1929; three times married (three sons); died Bakersfield, California 25 March 2006.

Buck Owens was among the most prolific country hitmakers of the past 40 years and enjoyed a string of chart-toppers, including "Act Naturally", "Together Again" and "I've Got a Tiger by the Tail". A major influence on successive generations of musicians, he will be best remembered as the principal architect of the lean, no-frills style that has come to be known as the "Bakersfield Sound".

He was born Alvis Edgar Owens in Sherman, Texas, in 1929, and at the age of three gave himself the nickname "Buck" in tribute to the family mule. In 1937 his parents were among the many sharecroppers who decided to escape the effects of the Dust Bowl by heading west. He later remembered: "It was like The Grapes of Wrath, except that we didn't make it to California." They settled in Mesa, Arizona, and it was there that he learned to play the mandolin before eventually graduating to saxophone, guitar and steel guitar.

In 1954 he joined the guitarist Theryl Ray Britten for a daily radio show, Buck and Britt. He also played pedal steel with Mac's Skillet Lickers and, in 1947, married the group's vocalist, Bonnie Campbell. By 1951 he had moved to Bakersfield, where he found work as a guitarist with the Schoolhouse Playboys. As the house band at the city's Blackboard club, the Playboys' repertoire encompassed honky-tonk, western swing and rock'n'roll and would play an important role in shaping the style for which he would become famous.

His prowess as a guitarist led to session work for Capitol Records in Los Angeles and his distinctive playing can be heard on discs by, among others, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Gene Vincent and Tommy Collins. In the mid-Fifties he recorded a clutch of undistinguished sides for the Pep label, including some with a rockabilly edge that were issued under the name Corky Jones, and in 1957 was himself signed to Capitol.

Owens's first few discs for the label fared poorly, but the success of "Second Fiddle" in 1959 kickstarted an impressive run of hits that would include some of the finest country records of the next two decades. In 1963 he reached the top of the charts with Johnny Russell's "Act Naturally" and followed it with the popular "Love's Gonna Live Here". In 1964 three of his singles - "My Heart Skips a Beat", "Together Again" and "I Don't Care (Just as Long as You Love Me)" - made it to the No 1 spot, and in 1965 he enjoyed crossover success with "I've Got a Tiger by the Tail".

His records eschewed the strings found on so much of the music then emanating from Nashville, in favour of a pared-back, driving honky-tonk style that was dubbed the Bakersfield Sound. He used his road band, the Buckaroos, in the studio to create an as-live effect and, with the stunning Telecaster guitar-playing of Don Rich to the fore, his recordings were instantly recognisable. A number of musicians would fall under their spell, among them an ex-con named Merle Haggard who briefly played bass in the band before going on to become an iconic performer in his own right.

Owens's hits continued throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, and included "Waitin' in Your Welfare Line" and "Think of Me" (both 1966), "How Long Will My Baby Be Gone?" (1968), "Who's Gonna Mow Your Grass?" and "Tall Dark Stranger" (both 1969) and "Made in Japan" (1972). He recorded duets with his son Buddy Alan and with Susan Raye and, in 1969, made the first of many appearances as co-host of Hee Haw, a long-running television show that successfully combined music and cornball humour.

The death in 1974 of his best friend and bandleader Don Rich, following a motorcycle accident, devastated Owens and, when his contract with Capitol expired in 1975, his interest in recording began to wane. He did sign with Warner Brothers and scored a number of hits, including a fine duet with Emmylou Harris, "Play Together Again, Again" (1979), but focused increasingly on his business interests.

In 1988 he was approached by a long-time fan, Dwight Yoakam, who asked if he would appear on a cover-version of one of his old songs, "The Streets of Bakersfield". He agreed and it became his final No 1 hit. A year later, a duet version of "Act Naturally" with Ringo Starr made it into the Top Thirty.

Owens was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1996 and, the same year, opened the Crystal Ballroom, a popular night-club and museum in Bakersfield. He remained, throughout, a modest man, once stating:

I'd like to be remembered as a guy that came along and did his music, did his best and showed up on time, clean and ready to do the job, wrote a few songs and had a hell of a time.

Paul Wadey

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