Monday, March 27, 2006

Act Naturally

Country music legend Buck Owens died over the weekend. He was 76, and he will be missed.

For many younger country fans (say, those under 40) Owens is best remembered as the co-host of "Hee Haw," the long-running music and comedy series of the 1970s and 1980s. But long before that television gig, Owens was instrumental in shaking country music out of one of its periodic funks, and opening the doors for other "outlaws" that followed.

When Owens first topped the charts in the early 1960s, mainstream country music had strayed from its roots. Lush, romantic ballads, sung by performers like Eddy Arnold, Ray Price and the recently-deceased Jim Reeves dominated the charts. One wag observed that the "violins were chasing the fiddles out of Nashville." Country seemed stuck somewhere between Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood. The music had become a little too sedate, predictable and comfortable.

Owens was having none of that. He was the leading proponent of something called the "Bakersfield Sound," a gritty blend of traditional country, western swing, Mexican and old-fashioned bar music that Owens perfected the hard way. The son of a Texas sharecropper who moved west during the Great Depression, Owens played his first professional gig at age 16. By the time he registered the first of 20 #1 singles, he had been performing in clubs for more than 15 years, many around his adopted home town of Bakersfield.

By challenging the Nashville status quo, Owens made himself a star, and opened the door for others. There were a lot of dissatisfied performers around Nashville in the mid-1960s, including Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. While their migration to Austin produced music that was much different from the Bakersfield sound, Owens had demonstrated that a talented outsider could take on the country music establishment and win, without surrendering his artistic integrity.

In 1969, Owens opted for a career change that some have described as a mistake. He signed on as co-host of "Hee Haw," the cornpone comedy and music series that ran for a single season on CBS, and another 16 years in syndication. The series made Owens a lot of money--he was paid $200,000 for each taping session, and the series averaged 4-6 a year, but it kept him out of the studio. His recording career fizzled. Capitol Records, his long-time label, eventually dropped him, and a contract with Warner Brothers produced no new hits.

When Hee Haw left the air--thankfully--in 1986, Owens devoted most of his time to business interests. Despite his lack of a formal education, he was a savvy businessman who owned radio stations in Bakersfield and Phoenix. In the late 1990s, he sold some his Phoenix properties to Clear Channel for almost $100 million. He still peformed occasionally, but Owens was almost an afterthought in country music circles.

It took a new generation of artists to rediscover Owens, and help give him his due. Dwight Yoakam literally dragged Owens on stage with him and back into the recording studio. Their duet of a early Owens song--""Streets of Bakersfield"--hit #1 in 1988. Owens continued performing until the end of his life; he died just hours after a final set at the club he owned in Bakersfield.

Asked to summarize his life, Buck Owens said he wanted to be remembered as someone who "showed up clean, sober, did his job, played his music and had a hell of a time." And in the process, transformed country music.

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