Born outside of Sherman, Texas, on August 12, 1929, Owens’ family was among the throngs fleeing the arid, impoverished plain states and looking for a rebirth out West. The Owens family hit the road with California on their minds, but only got as far as Mesa, Arizona, before their car broke down, so they settled there instead. Although his first instrument was a mandolin, Owens acquired a guitar in 1942, and began soaking up musical knowledge from family members, border radio, and local dances that featured Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.
“Bob Wills was my biggest musical influence, because of the musicianship I always found in his records,” explained Owens, who was partial to Wills’ guitarist Jimmy Wyble. “Bob always had good fiddle players and great guitar players.”
By the time Owens was in his mid-teens, he was playing the honky-tonks in the greater Mesa and Phoenix area. Owens and his first wife, Bonnie—who later married Merle Haggard—moved to Bakersfield, California, in 1951. Owens quickly became a staple of the Bakersfield live scene, as he joined Bill Woods & the Orange Blossom Playboys—the house band at the Blackboard, Bakersfield’s swinginest honky-tonk. Around this time, Owens began playing a Fender Telecaster, chucking his Gibson L-5. The slab-bodied Tele would become synonymous with the hard-twanging Bakersfield sound.
“The Telecaster was the first solidbody I ever owned,” said Owens. “In those days, you’d get laughed at for playing a Tele. People would say, ‘Those things will never catch on,’ or, ‘You bringing your two-by-four tonight?’ All I knew was I could make mine sound better than the next guy’s. And once I got my Tele, I never went back to anything else.”
During the ’50s, Owens played guitar on country and rockabilly sessions with Tommy Collins, Del Reeves, Wanda Jackson, Gene Vincent, and many others. Owens even cut some rockabilly singles himself for the Pep record label, but under the name Corky Jones.
“See, back in the ’50s, you were country or you were rock—you damn sure weren’t both,” he said. “I love country, but I love rock and roll, too, and, in Bakersfield, the bands did all of that stuff. You had to play music that was conducive to excitement in the honky-tonks. I especially like good old, get-down, get-on-with-it rock and roll. I used to sing Little Richard songs such as ‘Tutti Frutti.’ Obviously, I recorded enough Chuck Berry songs for people to know what a Chuck Berry fan I am. And if ‘Johnny B. Goode’ ain’t a country-rock song, what is?’”
Owens open-mindedness towards rock and roll never won him any friends with the ultra-conservative Nashville music establishment, who were more than happy to keep churning out the increasingly slick, string-laden country-pop albums of the day. Beginning in 1961, Owens embarked on an unprecedented hot streak, reeling off classic side after classic side of unadulterated honky-tonk—Bakersfield style. And with his band, the Buckaroos, firmly in place by 1963, Owens had the horses to keep the good stuff coming. Don Rich was Owens’ right-hand man—or “right arm” as Owens referred to him—in the Buckaroos. Not only could Rich handle a share of lead vocals, his voice blended wonderfully with Owens’, as the two belted out spine-tingling harmonies. Rich was also a hell of a fiddle player, and an amazing guitarist who contributed way more to the canon of Telecaster twang than he’s ever given credit for.
By the mid-’70s, Owens’ was known more for his slack-jawed antics on TV’s Hee-Haw than his music. And when Rich was killed in a motorcycle accident in July 1974, by his own admission, Owens’ musical career was never the same. He recorded up until 1976, before going into semi-retirement, though he continued to tape Hee-Haw until 1986. His career received a boost when the harder edged honky-tonk sound became popular again—thanks to a new breed of roots-conscious chart-toppers such as Marty Stuart and Dwight Yoakam. The latter even scored a hit with Owens’ 1972 track, “Streets of Bakersfield,” a tune that featured Owens on vocals.
Always an astute businessman, Owens owned television and radio stations all around Bakersfield, and even opened his own nightclub/museum/restaurant, The Crystal Palace, in 1996. Owens took the stage nearly every Friday night for almost ten years. The night before he passed away was no different.
The best way to salute the man and his life’s work is to go out and dig into his albums—of which there are tons. All of the reissues from the Sundazed label are essential, as they’re culled from Owens’ most fertile period, 1961-1971. Noteworthy albums include, The Instrumental Hits Of Buck Owens And His Buckaroos (Dig “Buck’s Polka,” “Country Rag,” or “Mexican Polka” for a taste of Owens’ formidable Telebilities), 1966’s The Carnegie Hall Concert, 1967’s In Japan!, and 1969’s Buck Owens In London. The live albums, in particular, really demonstrate that Rich and Owens made for a sick Tele tandem.
“As I grew as a musician, I feel Buck was kind of there as a teacher at every stage,” relates Marty Stuart. “The first song I ever learned was his tune, ‘Tiger by the Tail.’ Then, when I began making a living as a sideman, and later when I became a bandleader, I looked to him for inspiration, as well. He even inspired me as a businessman. I’ll never forget the first time I ever went to Bakersfield. I played at some joint out on the edge of town, and I barely had a record out. Buck showed up unannounced, and sat in with us. I took it as his way of endorsing me. He showed me the front door to ‘Buckersfield.’”