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Valley Public Radio Staff
Arts & Culture
Fri January 10, 2014
'Buck 'Em!' Brings New Insights Into The Life And Music Of Buck Owens
Buck Owens was one of the giants of country music, helping to define a rough and ready sound that will forever be linked with the city that Owens called home – Bakersfield. While Owens died in 2006, his legacy lives on. Now a new book titled “Buck 'Em: The Autobiography of Buck Owens” tells his story. The posthumous book is by Owens, with the assistance of Grammy nominated producer and author Randy Poe, who was our guest on Valley Edition.
Aided by hundreds of cassette tapes made by Owens in the late 1990's during an earlier attempt at an autobiography, Poe tells Owens' story largely through the country star's own words, and sheds new light on his relationships and struggles throughout his life.
Some highlights from our interview with Randy Poe:
On how Buck’s formative years as a child living in poverty during the Great Depression influenced his career:
I think it’s what drove his whole life. From the time he was a kid, he lived in poverty. He talks in the book about how he decided when he was very young that he was going to grow up and be somebody. That he wasn’t going to live in a world where he had to fix the holes in his shoes with old pieces of linoleum from the kitchen floor. He wasn’t going to have his mother cutting his hair anymore. He wasn’t going to have to have hand-me-down clothes, and clothes given to him by the local church and those kinds of things. He was going to be somebody, he was going to have money, he was going to be successful. Of course he didn’t have a clue how yet, or by what means, but that was his intention from the time he was a child.
Do you think Buck would have developed differently if he had not gone to Bakersfield?
Bakersfield for him was a place with a musical community, that was one where the musicians all seemed to look out for each other. Certainly the way that Buck tells it, when he got to town, if he needed a guitar, somebody would loan him a guitar. If he needed a nice shirt to wear to a gig, somebody would loan him a shirt. When his guitar broke, the fiddle player fixed it on the spot there at a club there in Bakersfield. And there were musicians like Ferlin Husky and Jean Shepard, who became successful, had number one hits, and the other people in Bakersfield, as Buck said, rather than feeling jealousy, they were rooting for them, because they thought, “if those people could do it, maybe I could do it too.”
As far as prior to his moving to Bakersfield, if he would have stayed somewhere else as musician, around Phoenix or Mesa, Arizona, I think he might have been a guy playing in a bar band all his life. I think it would probably have been something else that he did in addition to whatever he ended up becoming successful at, because he was definitely going to be successful.
On Buck’s relationship with the Nashville-based county music establishment:
The way that things were based there, you were expected if you were going to be a country singer, you were expected to live in Nashville, you were expected to record in Nashville, you were expected to sign with the Nashville division of the record label, even if the record label was based in New York or LA. You were expected to sign with a Nashville music publisher, you were expected to have a booking agent who was based in Nashville and your personal manager needed to be based in Nashville. And Buck had no interest in any of that. Buck liked being in Bakersfield. Buck got a recording contract with Capitol Records so he could go down to LA a couple of hours away to record. And then he’d go back up to Bakersfield which is where his headquarters were.
He had no interest in that whole scene that was going on in Nashville. He wasn’t interested in using their studio musicians. He wanted to use his own band, which was just unheard-of at the time. And so he did everything his own way. He had his own publishing company, hired his own personal manager to come live in Bakersfield and the two of them work out of Bakersfield together. And so everything that Nashville was doing, Buck was doing his own version of it on the other side of the county.
His anger and resentment stemmed from that the fact that those power brokers in Nashville therefore concluded he’s not really a country singer, because if he were a country singer he’s not really a country singer, because if he were a country singer, he’d be living here doing things the way we tell him to. And so he was ignored by those organizations that were giving out awards to country singers. And it hurt him and it angered him, and he continually proved them wrong by having number one hit after number one hit, even though they paid no attention to him.
On how his appearances on the television show Hee Haw may have harmed his image and hurt his musical career:
It was one of those things that he had mixed emotions about. We have to put it in a bit of perspective. When he started the whole premise was, “we’re going to bring country music to the masses of America who have never heard country music, and have never heard of Buck Owens.” So, that part was good for Buck. The negatives parts were really obvious, really quickly. The first reviews that came out called him a buffoon, which hurt him deeply. But the reason he couldn’t pull the plug and say “I’m not going to do this anymore,” is because he was getting paid $400,000 a year in 1960’s and 1970’s money to go down to Nashville for a couple of weeks twice a year, and record all of his stuff for the show, and then show would be edited later to create the 26 episodes for the season. And so it was so little work and such huge money, we’re talking the equivalent of $3 million a year today, that he couldn’t bring himself to say, “no, please stop writing those checks for me.”
On how the 1974 death of Buck’s longtime musical collaborator Don Rich changed him:
It changed him permanently; it’s not something he got over. I can sort of understand it, especially when you hear the tapes. This was someone who was about the most important permanent figure in Don’s life. They had known each other since Don was a teenager. And musically they were a perfect fit. Don’s harmony vocals and Don’s guitar work, as Buck himself said, was as much a part of Buck Owens’ sound as Buck Owens was. A few years ago there was an anthology of Don Rich’s work that came out and Buck wrote a little thing at the beginning of that, where he said just as plain as day, “I never got over Don’s death.” He said “I tried to keep going and keep making music but after he died the fire was gone.” He certainly had his comeback with Dwight Yoakam and made some more recordings, but things were not the same for Buck personally or musically after Don passed away.
On the complex relationship between Buck Owens and Merle Haggard:
One of the old wives’ tales in the country music world was Merle stole Buck’s wife away from him. And nothing could be further from the truth. Buck and Bonnie Owens had been divorced for several years when Merle came along and the two of them became an item. They ended up, all three, being friendly to one another, and Buck didn’t care who Bonnie was married to anymore. But the actual relationship between Buck and Merle, I think was so complex because Buck had his own publishing company, and signed Merle to his publishing company. So there was a business relationship there that anytime Merle was making money, Buck was making money too. So that’s always a little complicated, with any relationship. And I think it was a case of they both wanted to like each other. It’s really funny, Buck says “you know, I really tried really hard to be Merle’s friend, but I just don’t know if he really wanted me to. But the funny thing is if you asked Merle the same thing about me, he’d probably have the same response.”
I do know that towards the very end of his life, Buck wrote a letter to Merle talking about how much Merle meant to him. I know this was something that Merle was very proud to have happen. They were the last of those giants of the Bakersfield scene, and I know that there had to have been some love between the two of them, as hard as it might have been for them to express.