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Buck Owens

With his unmistakable honky-tonk sound and 15 No. 1 hits in a row, Buck Owens owned country music.

A decade before Waylon and Willie and the boys became revered as "outlaws" for shunning Nashville and basing their careers in Texas, Buck Owens changed country music and became its biggest star from a flat little oil town called Bakersfield, Calif.

He was a rebel without a dark side -- a polite, law-abiding, hard-working family man who invested his earnings prudently, stayed away from drugs and drink, preferred working with musicians who did the same and spent 17 years hamming it up as the co-host of the corniest show on TV, "Hee Haw." But he was a rebel nonetheless, insisting on playing his own music, his own way, with his own band and in his own town at a time when country singers were supposed to go to Music City and sing over sweet, canned backing tracks laid down by session players and string sections. They named the hard, guitar-driven honky-tonk sound that purists still call "real" country after his town, but the Bakersfield Sound is the sound of Buck Owens.

He was born Alvin Edgar Owens Jr. outside Sherman, Texas, on Aug. 12, 1929, the son of sharecroppers. The house had dirt floors and no electricity. The family had a mule named Buck, and at 3 Alvin announced that he was going to be called Buck too, and so he was. Like so many others, the family packed up a car and trailer and headed west in 1937 to escape the Dust Bowl. "It was like 'The Grapes of Wrath,'" Owens said, "except that we didn't make it to California." The trailer hitch broke in Phoenix, so the Owenses settled in nearby Mesa. Buck, a big, strong boy, quit school at 13 to go to work in the fields and hauling produce. "That was where my dream began to take hold," he recalled years later, "of not havin' to pick cotton and potatoes, and not havin' to be uncomfortable, too hot or too cold." Christmas that year brought his first musical instrument -- a mandolin, which he taught himself to play. Over the next few years, if a local band needed a player, Buck taught himself how to play the instrument: steel guitar, sax, harmonica. The work ethic and perfectionism he would later be famous for were already in place. He was 16 when he figured out the guitar.

In 1945 Owens hooked up with another guitar player named Theryl Ray Britten for a local radio show called "Buck and Britt." He also started playing pedal steel for the wonderfully named Mac's Skillet Lickers, who had a singer named Bonnie Campbell, who soon became Bonnie Owens.

Around this time Buck began driving a produce truck between Mesa and California's Central Valley. He was impressed by Bakersfield, a booming farm and oil town. The hard-drinking oil workers made for a thriving honky-tonk scene, and a pair of musician uncles who lived in Bakersfield told Buck he could make a living there playing music. So in 1950 Buck, all of 20, moved his wife and two young sons to California.

He went to work as the guitar player for a house band, first at a place called the Corral and then, for seven years, at a joint called the Blackboard. The goal was to get the rough crowd to dance. The result was a musical education: "We played rhumbas, we played sambas, we played tangos, we played polkas. Whatever the crowd wanted to hear."

They also, eventually, began to play some rock 'n' roll. Early in his time at the Blackboard, Owens switched to a newfangled instrument -- a solid-body electric guitar called a Fender Telecaster, whose bright, twangy sound was better suited to the louder style coming into fashion than the old hollow-body electrics. Developing a distinctive, string-bending playing style, Owens earned a reputation as one of the best pickers around, and he was able to supplement his $12.50-a-night income by driving two hours over the hills to Hollywood for session work at Capitol Records -- three hours of playing for more than $40. He played behind Tennessee Ernie Ford, Sonny James, Wanda Jackson, Del Reeves, Tommy Sands, Faron Young and Gene Vincent, among others. His best gig was playing guitar for a singer named Tommy Collins, whose "If You Ain't Lovin' You Ain't Livin'" would be a hit for Buck years later. Collins' "You Better Not Do That" was a No. 2 country hit in 1953. He toured with Collins for a while, even backing him at the Grand Ole Opry, but returned to his steady job at the Blackboard.

In the mid-'50s Owens recorded some sides for the small Pep label, including a rockabilly number called "Hot Dog" that he released under the name Corky Jones so as not to put off the country audience. These went nowhere, but they, along with his reputation as a picker, helped him land a contract with Capitol in 1957. Capitol A&R; man Ken Nelson had been reluctant to sign Owens, who he thought lacked vocal style. But Columbia Records began sniffing around, so Nelson signed him just so Columbia couldn't. Two early singles fizzled, and Owens, divorced, remarried, a father again and pushing 30, figured he'd had his shot. Rock 'n' roll had pushed country aside, and the Bakersfield honky-tonk scene was drying up. "I just didn't seem to be getting anywhere," he said. Offered a chance to buy a one-third interest in a radio station in Puyallup, Wash., he took it, moved his family north in 1958 and became a jack-of-all-radio-trades.

N E X T_ P A G E .|. Buck Owens' right-hand man


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