Buck Owens died today in Bakersfield, California at age 76. Owens worked like a dog to earn the “overnight” success he enjoyed in his 30s, beginning with “Act Naturally” in 1963. “Act Naturally” was the first of his more than twenty number-one hits. In the long run of hits that followed, Owens put his own indelible all-American stamp on country music with the “Bakersfield sound” — the stripped down, updated honky-tonk sound anchored by a Fender Telecaster or two. In short order Merle Haggard followed in his footsteps.
His acolytes in the rock world of course included the Beatles and Creedence Clearwater Revival. John Fogerty put “listening to Buck Owens” among the pastoral fantasies he dreamed of “Looking Out My Back Door.” In 1968 Owens famously played two sold-out shows at the Fillmore West, becoming perhaps the least hip artist ever to tear down that particular house.
Emmylou Harris helped Owens to a late hit with “Play Together Again Again” in 1979, just before he cut back performing and touring. Dwight Yoakam studied him, imitated him, proselytized for him and enticed him into singing with him on a revival of “Streets of Bakersfield” in 1988, Owens’s last number one hit. His spirit lives on in Yoakam’s work as well as in the magnificent collaborations of former Byrd Chris Hillman and his sidekick Herb Pederson in “Way Out West” and “Bakersfield Bound.” Only last fall Hillman recalled receiving Owens’s benediction:
I know Buck [Owens] pretty well. I’ve met Merle and done a lot of shows with Merle. Merle’s a great guy. We go up and play Buck’s birthday every year when he asks us -— he’s a sweet guy. I got the greatest compliment in the world from him. We played his 75th birthday last year I believe it was, and Dwight Yoakam was there, and Brad Paisley, and Raul Malo from the Mavericks -– good people. I got up and sang “Above and Beyond” or something with Buck’s band and I came off stage. He grabs me by the arm and says, “Boy, Chris, you sing so good, man, you’re gettin’it! You’re gettin’ it!” That means more to me than any gold record, trophy, money, you know? Cause here’s a guy you’ve looked up to, and you listened to as a kid.
At Caught Up in the Fable, Tom Spaulding pays tribute in “The Buck stops.” The San Francisco Chronicle has posted a good AP obituary. The Allmusic biography of Owens from which I have freely drawn here provides an excellent overview of his career.