Born Alvis Edgar Owens, Jr., 12 August 1929, Sherman, Texas
Singer, songwriter, guitarist.
Buck Owens ruled the country music scene for much of the 1960s. In a survey of the Top 100 country artists 1944-1996 (in Joel Whitburn's "Billboard Book Of Top 40 Country Hits"), he occupies position # 8. Along with Merle Haggard, Owens is the main exponent of the so called Bakersfield Sound, which can be seen as a reaction against the smooth 'Nashville Sound' that had thrown the fiddle and the steel guitar out of the window. The Bakersfield sound is identified by its sharp guitar-driven honky-tonk beat with no gimmicks.
Buck's parents were sharecroppers who moved from Texas to Arizona in 1937, barely making ends meet. At a young age Buck made a pledge to find some better way of life. Music provided a new world of possibilities. At age 16 Buck got his first paying job in the music business, playing guitar in a Phoenix honky-tonk. In 1947 he met Bonnie Campbell with whom he worked in a group called Mac's Skillet Lickers. The two were married in 1948 and three years later they moved to Bakersfield, California, where there was a growing country music scene. Work in Los Angeles as a session guitarist was the next step in Owens's musical education. He became a favourite of Capitol producer Ken Nelson, who used Buck on many sessions by Capitol artists (Tommy Collins, Sonny James, Gene Vincent, Tommy Sands, Wanda Jackson and many more). In 1955-56 Owens recorded five singles at a local Bakersfield studio for the small Pep label. These included the rockabilly number "Hot Dog", which was issued under the name Corky Jones so that Buck's country credibility would not suffer. "Hot Dog" was not distributed nationally, but gained a second life when it was reissued (with guitar overdubs) in 1961 by the New Star label in Tennessee, this time credited to Buck Owens. This is the version that I prefer and that I have selected for the recommendations below (YouTube).
Ken Nelson signed Buck to Capitol as a singer in the summer of 1957. The initial recordings were uninspired and unsuccessful. Then, in October 1958, Owens was allowed to use a steel guitar and a fiddle, resulting in the single "Second Fiddle", which became Buck's first country hit (# 24, May 1959). The follow-up, "Under Your Spell Again", climbed to # 4, beginning a streak of Top 10 singles that ran more or less uninterrupted into the 1970s. Around this time Owens struck up a musical and personal friendship with a young fiddler, Don Rich. Their partnership was crucial in Buck's career, and Rich stayed with Owens as a guitarist, fiddler, harmony singer and leader of Buck's band, the Buckaroos, until his death in 1974.
Owens's first # 1 hit, which began a string of six years in which he had at least one # 1 and usually had three, was "Act Naturally", in 1963, later covered by the Beatles (LP "Help!"). "Love's Gonna Live Here", also from 1963, spent no less than 16 weeks at the top of the country charts. His biggest pop hit, peaking at # 25, was "I've Got A Tiger By the Tail", another country number one. Its B-side, the ballad "Cryin' Time", went mostly unnoticed until Ray Charles recorded it and scored a # 6 pop hit in 1966. For the follow-up, Charles selected another ballad by Buck, "Together Again", which went to # 19 (pop) in Ray's version. Other chart toppers by Owens (there were 21 of them altogether) included "My Heart Skips A Beat" (1964), "I Don't Care" (1964), "Waitin' In Your Welfare Line" (1966) and "Sam's Place" (1967). "Buckaroo" became the only instrumental ever to top the country charts (1965). (It was covered by the Champs for their farewell single.) Until 1968, there wasn't too much variation - in tempo, song structure and accompaniment - in all these hits, but you can't blame Buck for playing it safe after he had hit upon a winning formula. He would virtually always record with his road band, giving his records both a distinctive sound and a live feel. Throughout his career Owens covered rhythm and blues, rock n roll ("Johnny B. Goode", recorded live in London, was another # 1 in 1969) and rockabilly tunes, never seeing it as conflicting with his status as a country performer. It was all country to Buck.
Owens was the first bona fide country star to emerge from Bakersfield. He offered an edgy alternative to the string-laden country-pop that was being produced during the 1960s.
Beginning in 1969, Owens co-hosted the TV show "Hee Haw" with Roy Clark. It was very successful and Buck stayed with the cast until 1986. The accidental death of Don Rich, his best friend, devastated him for years and affected his career both commercially and artistically. There were still plenty of hits in the 1970s, but no more chart toppers. Meanwhile, Buck kept quite busy with his many business interests and with "Hee Haw". He was coaxed out of retirement in 1988 by Dwight Yoakam, who helped him return to the top of the charts with the duet "Streets Of Bakersfield". Two new albums followed - "Hot Dog!" (1988) and "Act Naturally" (1989), the latter including a duet with Ringo Starr on the title track (a # 27 hit, his last chart entry).
The 1990s saw a flood of reissues of his Capitol recordings on compact disc. In 1996 he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Buck Owens died in his sleep of an apparent heart attack on March 25, 2006, only hours after performing at his Crystal Palace restaurant in Bakersfield. He was 76. His autobiography, "Buck 'Em!" (with Randy Poe as co-writer), was published posthumously in November 2013 by Backbeat Books. (Two other biographies, by Kathryn Burke in 2008 and Eileen Sisk in 2012, are not quite satisfactory.)
More info :
Discography / sessionography :
- Acknowledgements : Mark Fenster, Richard Loyd, Thomas Erlewine, Wikipedia.
Dik, March 2014
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