The philosophy behind Buck Owens’ phenomenal success in country music was simple: run at full steam and hit everything head-on. Whether negotiating a six-figure business deal or delivering a supercharged ballad, Owens was unstoppable; through the mid-’60s, he was turning out No. 1 hits every few months, all of them blazing like fireworks with big guitars, bigger drums and tight, bright harmony vocals.
The Texas-born Owens developed his skills as a teenage aspirant on Mesa, Arizona’s KTYL and later at Bakersfield’s Blackboard Cafe. He became a session guitarist at Capitol in ’54, soon got his own deal, and made the Top 5 in ’57. After teenage guitar genius Don Rich joined him, Owens’ melding of influences — the flashy wardrobe and top-volume amplification of Maddox Bros. & Rose, the stark modern honky-tonk of Los Angeles’ Wynn Stewart — was complete, and nothing held him back. “Act Naturally” even got him covered by the Beatles.
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By ’66, Owens’ nightly price was a staggering $2,500, and until the TV demands of Hee-Haw sidetracked him, his brash, gold-lamé-clad creativity was staggering. Though he introduced the romping Bakersfield sound to country music, his later career took some remarkable twists: He recorded “I Wouldn’t Live in New York City (If They Gave Me the Whole Damn Town)” on a Manhattan sidewalk, and hit with a series of pop-tinged songs such as “Big in Vegas.”
With Don Rich dead, no record deal and Hee-Haw’s 1985 end, Owens just quit. A master of inequitable song-publishing fine print, he was by then despised throughout Bakersfield. But in 1988, prodded by Dwight Yoakam, he returned to the stage; in 1996 he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and opened Bakersfield’s Crystal Palace, where he demonstrated his consummate command, winning back even the most scorched detractors.
Owens died at home Saturday after a Crystal Palace performance. And chances are he wouldn’t have changed a thing — except he might’ve preferred to keel over midsong and center stage, with Don Rich at his side.