From Cotton Fields to Jets, Buck Owens Charted His Own Course (1999)
Originally published in the Aug. 10, 1999, issue of Country Weekly featuring George Straight on the cover. This story is presented here in its entirety.
Frank Sinatra may have immortalized the musical line “I did it my way,” but Buck Owens lived it.
“I haven’t done a thing I haven’t wanted to do,” says Buck, who’s celebrating his 70th birthday next week, Aug. 12. “I also get to speak my mind. Of course, I’ve never been accused of not saying what’s on my mind.”
Alvis Edgar Owens Jr. not only did it his way, he did it very well. He recorded some of country music’s most memorable hits, played the country’s most revered concert halls and co-hosted television’s long-running Hee Haw.
Along with Merle Haggard, Buck helped establish the Bakersfield Sound, which continues to influence country music. Over the past 36 years, the 1996 Country Music Hall of Famer has scored 21 No. 1 hits, including “Act Naturally,” “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail,” “Waitin’ in Your Welfare Line” and “Together Again.”
“What we did was different—it was raw and undisciplined,” Buck says. “I think a lot of people liked it because it was honest and had integrity. I did what I wanted to do in the way I thought it should be done.”
Sometimes people didn’t know what to make of Buck’s distinctive sound. “When I released ‘Johnny B. Goode’ and it went to No. 1, people said, ‘That ain’t country.’ I released ‘Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass’ with a big ol’ fuzz tone on it and people said, ‘That ain’t country.’ Well, it was the kind of country I did,” he says.
Buck almost never compromised with the music he played and says he gave in only a few times—but regretted it each time. His 1970 Top 10 hit “I Wouldn’t Live in New York City (If They Gave Me the Whole Dang Town)” should have been titled a tad differently, according to Buck.
“I wrote it as ‘whole damn town’ but the label told me we’d sell more records if I changed it,” Buck says. “It sounds more like you mean it when you say ‘damn,’ but I changed it and I’ve always been sorry for that.”
For the most part, Buck didn’t back down when handling business.
“If they had told me what to record, I would have told them to stick it where the sun don’t shine. They released what I wanted them to release when I wanted it released,” he says.
“These days they’d call my music ‘too country’ for radio, but you can’t get too country for me. I miss hearing Waylon, Willie, Johnny, George and the Hag.”
His preference for the music of his generation doesn’t mean Buck doesn’t like many of today’s stars. The first name he’ll mention is Dwight Yoakam. Hardly a surprise, since the 1988 duet with Dwight “Streets of Bakersfield” returned Buck to the top of the charts after a 16-year absence.
“When he first came out I said he’s going to be a big star. And guess what? He’s been a big star for a long time,” Buck says.
“I have been the world’s biggest Dixie Chicks fan ever since I first saw them. I said that on the Academy of Country Music awards show in May. Then I opened the envelope (award TK) and they won. I think they’re the most refreshing thing going right now. They’re going to be around for a long time because they’re young, they’re smart and they’ve got what it takes.
“I think a lot of that Brad Paisley boy, too. He came down here and spent a weekend with me and I got a chance to know him. He’s a great little guitar picker and a good guy, too. Mark Wills is another one who fits outside the Nashville mold.”
Though he’s cut back on his performing schedule, Buck still takes to the stage occasionally.
“Physically, I’m not always able to do what I want to do, but I still play two shows on Friday night and two on Saturday without any problem,” he says. “I remember when I worked at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas in the early ’60s. We’d do six 40-minute shows a night. It didn’t seem like anything then, but now they’d have to carry me on and off the stage.”
Most of Buck’s shows these days are at the Crystal Palace—the $7 million, 20,000 square foot concert hall, restaurant and museum he opened in Bakersfield, Calif., nearly three years ago. He’ll still plays the occasional festival date or show elsewhere.
“It’s fun to get away occasionally,” he explains. “If it’s something I really want to do, I muster up the courage and strength and go. If it’s not something special, I’d rather hang around at home, sitting in the shade of a tree and whittling.”
Home is a 160-acre ranch 25 miles outside of Bakersfield, which he shares with his wife, Jennifer.
“We’ve been together for 32 years,” Buck says. “We dated six years, cohabitated for six and then we got married in 1979. I figured I wasn’t ever going to find anybody that would put up with me the way she did and I liked her style, so one morning I said, ‘Let’s go get married.’ ”
Jennifer told him, “I thought you were never going to ask!”
Along a wall at the Crystal Palace is a 30-foot mural that reveals the evolution of Buck’s career. It starts with a picture of an elderly couple picking cotton—a photo that once belonged to his mother. “I picked a lot of cotton when I was young,” Buck remembers.
Then there are photos of the Capitol Records tower, Carnegie Hall, The White House, a radio and a jukebox, and finally some Lear jets. “I went from the cotton field to jetting around the world,” he says.
The White House photo represents the time Buck played there for fellow Texan Lyndon Johnson. He was a bit nervous when he began his show for the First Family.
“I played ‘Act Naturally’ and it got a polite response,” he recalls. “It continued like that until the fifth song or so. We played ‘Truck Driving Man,’ which starts ‘I stopped at a roadhouse in Texas,’ and I heard some whooping and hollering. It was the president’s daughter. After everyone saw that she approved—they loosened up and everything was great.”
His Carnegie Hall show provided another big moment, which was commemorated on the 1966 album Carnegie Hall Concert (re-issued in 1989 with additional tracks as Live at Carnegie Hall). At the time, Buck didn’t understand the significance of being invited to play at New York’s famed concert hall. He remembers long-time manager Jack McFadden telling him about it.
“It was for a weekend we were scheduled to take off, so I told him to call back and tell them we’d come next year,” Buck recalls. “He explained that you don’t just play Carnegie Hall—to be invited is an honor. So I decided, what the hell, let’s make an album.”
Another honor Buck remembers is playing Grand Ole Opry for the first time, as a guitarist with Tommy Collins in 1954. “I still have some of the pictures from that show. I wish I was still that thin,” Buck jokes. Six years later Buck made his solo Opry debut.
“But you know what the high point of my career was?” Buck asks with a trace of excitement in his voice. “It’s not what most people think.” In 1964 he released “My Heart Skips a Beat,” which spent seven weeks at No. 1. On the B-side of the 45 was a song Buck thought was the worst one he’d recorded during that day’s session. It was supposed to be a throwaway.
“The song was ‘Together Again.’ Pretty soon it’s up to No. 2. Then it replaced ‘My Heart Skips a Beat’ at No. 1,” Buck continues. “The next week they flipped positions, and then they did it again the week after that. I never imagined it would be a hit. That shows you what I know about the music business,” he chuckles.
Buck also knows the TV business. While he starred in Buck Owens’ Ranch TV Show, which ran in syndication from 1966-73, it was his co-hosting duties with Roy Clark on Hee Haw, from 1969-1986, that made Buck a household name.
He left when the show’s producers told him they were changing its familiar down-home look and feel. “They said, ‘Next year we’re going to wear tuxedos.’ I said, ‘You are, but I ain’t!’ ” Buck remembers with a laugh.
The demands of a television career left less time for recording and touring. “Your record sales always suffer when people can see you every week,” Buck says, “but if they pay you enough money then you don’t need to record and tour as much.
“But it’s because of the television exposure more than anything that lots of people come to see me today,” he says. “Would I do it again? Yes, I would.”
These days Buck doesn’t have to perform to pay his bills. In addition to the Crystal Palace, he owns radio stations and Bakersfield publications, and he co-owns, with ABC Radio, the “Real Country” radio network, which is heard in more than 160 markets.
Though he doesn’t have plans for an album, Buck’s been recording, too. He recently cut songs with both the Bellamy Brothers and The Derailers. “I recorded a fun song with the Bellamys, ‘Don’t Put Me in the Ex-Files,’ and we’re filming a video for it at the Crystal Palace,” he says. “I’ll do fun projects with fun people.”
As Buck looks to his milestone birthday, he still has fun on his mind. “I am still having a hell of a time.”