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Buck Owens Biography

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Open Up Your Heart Album Cover Image courtesy of Capitol Records

Overview:

Buck Owens is one of the central figures of Bakersfield country. He recorded with his road band in the '50s, helping to inspire outlaw artists like Waylon Jennings who would do the same thing in the '60s and '70s.

Significant Facts about Buck Owens:

  • Buck scored a total of 21 No. 1 country songs during his career.
  • In 1965, Buck won the first ACM Award for Top Male Vocalist.
  • "Act Naturally," Owens' first big hit, was later covered by The Beatles on Help!
  • After Buck and his wife Bonnie divorced, she married Merle Haggard.
  • Owens served as co-host of TV's Hee Haw for many years.

Buck Owens' Early Years:

Buck Owens was born in Sherman, Texas, in August 12, 1929. He came from a family of sharecropper farmers who, in the mid-1930s, moved to Arizona to escape Dust Bowl conditions.

It was there that Owens began to play country music seriously, taking the stage at local clubs. From early on, Owens learned how to perform in a variety of musical styles -- including rock 'n' roll, R&B, and Western swing.

After meeting singer Bonnie Campbell in 1947, with whom he sometimes performed, Owens married her and the couple moved to Bakersfield, California, in '51.

Bakersfield:

Buck Owens cut his teeth in his new home performing at the soon-to-be-legendary Blackboard; the venue would become known as the epicenter for emerging Bakersfield acts including Merle Haggard and Wynn Stewart.

Buck originally worked as a guitar player for live gigs, and as a session player for Capitol Records in Los Angeles. Wanting a bigger piece of the pie, he signed with the label as a solo act in 1957.

"Act Naturally":

In 1963, Owens earned his first number-on country hit with "Act Naturally." It would become his best known song. Part of the success was surely due to Buck's phenomenal backing band, the Buckaroos. It featured, among others, guitarist and fiddler Don Rich who would become one of Buck's closest collaborators and friends.

Baron of Bakersfield:

As the hits kept coming in the '60s, Owens wasn't content with being just a musician -- he had aspirations as an entrepreneur. He formed a management agency, a music publishing company, and the Bakersfield radio station KUZZ-FM.

For this expanding business empire, Owens was given the nickname "The Baron of Bakersfield."

Less charitably, he was called by some "The Robber Baron Of Bakersfield."

Hee Haw and Retirement:

In 1969, Owens joined the variety show Hee Haw, where he served as host alongside fellow country singer Roy Clark. He had a long tenure on the popular program, only leaving it in 1986.

By that time, Owens had more or less retired from performing. As his stardom waned in the late-60s and '70s, Owens had increasingly turned to novelty songs like "(It's a) Monster's Holiday" and folk-rock covers including "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Also hampering his recording career was the devastating death of Owen's key guitarist Don Rich in 1974, from a motorcycle accident. Many considered him the soul of the Buckaroos and the heart of the Bakersfield sound.

Return with Dwight Yoakam:

But the mid-1980s signaled a return to music, largely due to the influence of Dwight Yoakam. He convinced Owens to join him in a duet of "Streets of Bakersfield" on his 1988 album Buenas Noches from a Lonely Room.

Reinvigorated, Owens followed this with three more albums of new material: Hot Dog! (1988), Act Naturally (1989), and Kickin' In (1991).

In 1996, Owens was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

The country music legend died in 2006 after a heart attack.

Key Buck Owens Songs:

  • "Act Naturally"
  • "My Heart Skips a Beat"
  • "Tiger by the Tail"
  • "Waitin' in Your Welfare Line"
  • "Streets of Bakersfield"

Recommended Albums by Buck Owens:

  • The Buck Owens Collection 1959-1990 (compilation, 1992) (compare prices)

This three-volume set travels the breadth of Owens' career in country music.

This concert album puts the spotlight on Buck's electrifying live show and, even more so, his crackling band The Buckaroos. From "Tokyo Polka" to "Adios, Farewell, Goodbye, Good Luck, So Long," it becomes clear that Owens owed much of his success to them. As a bonus, In Japan features Owens' fumbling attempts at communicating with an audience of Japanese country fans.

Books about Buck Owens:

Prepare to be taken to the dark side -- as you learn about how the Baron of Bakersfield cheated on his wives, cheated his fellow musicians out of their money, and bullied anyone who would let him. Talk about a dash of cold water! Nevertheless, Sisk talks with most of the major players in Buck's life and career, minus the Owens family who declined to be interviewed.

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