BUCKING THE SYSTEM

After surviving a stroke, legendary California honky-tonker Buck Owens celebrates his 75th birthday in style.

Tonight Buck Owens' 75th Birthday is being celebrated with a big show at his Crystal Palace Steakhouse in Bakersfield, Calif. Brad Paisley is here to pay tribute to his hero, and so are Dwight Yoakam and Raul Malo of The Mavericks.

But the most remarkable thing, perhaps, is that Buck himself is here. After all, he suffered a stroke only a few months ago.

"First time in my life I ever thought I might be really taking the big plunge!" declares Buck backstage. "But I was lucky. The stroke left me with a slight speech impediment, and I lost some of my dexterity that's slow in coming back. But it could have been so much worse. I thought I was gone."

So determined was Buck to get back on his feet, in fact, that he left the hospital against his doctors' wishes.

"I went to a big heart clinic up there in Cleveland, and they used me for a guinea pig, I thought," he says. "So I got up and said, 'Well, boys, I'm leaving!'

"The doctor said, 'You can't check yourself out!' I said, 'Do whatever you want to do, but I'm still leaving.' And he went and got three other doctors and the four of 'em told me, 'You can't leave, Buck - you'll be dead within a week.' I said, 'Write my name down: 'He's been here and gone.' "

It may seem like a foolhardy move, but everything seems to have worked out for Buck. Here he is, clearly enjoying himself as he greets the stars and friends who have arrived for his party. Jim Lauderdale is clowning around, Raul's young son is taking pictures, and Brad and Chris Hillman are warming up on their guitars. John McCrea from the rock band Cake is talking shop and telling stories with Dwight.

Buck himself is eager to talk, and he's likely to fall into any subject, telling stories of his life, his childhood, his work, his feelings. He relates tales about his career, his problems with record companies, his fellow musicians - and eventually works his way into stories of his childhood and musical influences.

"I was raised by a Christian mother," he says. "She was one of those wonderful old-time piano gospel players, and she pounded that left hand - not many piano players can do it that well, but she was blessed with it." Just as Buck's music bears his mother's stamp, an entire generation of country singers and guitar-slingers have been influenced by him.

"His music belongs to everybody," says Raul. "Growing up in Miami, my parents barely spoke English, but my dad had Buck Owens records we listened to. For me, Buck's music is right up there with Sinatra, Elvis and The Beatles."

One by one, Raul and the other luminaries on hand tonight will take the stage to sing Buck's best-known songs before the man himself joins them for the grand finale.

Throughout the evening, greetings from admirers are shared with the audience. Telegrams from California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and superstar Toby Keith are read from the stage. "As an instrumentalist, television personality, songwriter and country-western singer, you have established an unsurpassed musical legacy," wrote Gov. Schwarzenegger.

Phone calls from Garth Brooks, George Jones and Terri Clark are piped over the house PA system. "When Buck Owens tells me to do something, I do it," says Garth.

Buck isn't giving anyone orders on his next album - he's playing all the instruments himself. He had five songs finished for the album when he suffered the stroke, and is now planning to complete and release it.

"I've been recuperating since February, but I'm getting back now," he says. "You can hear it some when I talk, but it's a good thing it didn't affect my singing any!"

- HENRY CABOT BECK

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