The recently-published Buck Em'!: The Autobiography of Buck Owens feels like sharing a pint of whiskey with rascal charmer, who had 21 #1 hits and his song “Act Naturally” covered by The Beatles.
Owens died in 2006 of a heart attack, but since the 1990s he had been meticulously talking his memories into a tape recorder. After Owens' death Randy Poe, music producer and author of Duane Allman's biography Skydog, compiled the recordings for this book.
Owens' story begins in Texas, specifically the back seat of the Model A Ford Sedan where he was born in 1929. His given first name is Alvis, after his father, who worked as a nomadic sharecropper. In the early 1940s his family took a journey to California that bears an uncanny resemblance to The Grapes of Wrath. They lived in labor camps, were deemed “Okies,” and listened to sad songs sung at night on porches, which Owens says much of his musical background came from.
Owens' early life seems ripped straight from the annals of classic American legend — his family was arrested for “stealing” a sack of oranges left on the roadside by a cop as bait for hungry travelers. Even Owens' stage name rings of pure Americana, as Poe says in the introduction: “If all of the novelists, screenwriters, playwrights, and poets in the world were given an infinite amount of time to convene in an effort to construct the best possible name for a country star, they would never come up with one so perfect as 'Buck Owens.'”
Owens claims to have deemed himself “Buck” at age three, taking his name from an old mule on his family's farm. He would be ubiquitous on the country charts from 1960 to 1974, with scores of top 10 singles. The wandering kid, who'd dropped out of school at the age of 13, eventually ended up in Bakersfield, California in 1951, after an incident in Phoenix where he almost got killed over another man's woman. Owens claims to be innocent, or, “…maybe not totally innocent — but still innocent enough.”
Owens put in almost a decade in the trenches in Bakersfield's growing country scene. He started out playing a supportive role in bands in honky-tonks like The Blackboard. “In those days, I wasn't looking to be the center of attention all the time,” he says. “I guess you can tell I got over that problem.”
What's so incredible about Owens is that he created an idiosyncratic, pared down sound that would come to dominate the charts far away from the country music hub of Nashville. Much has been made of the Depression-influenced “Bakersfield Sound,” but in the book Owens is more concerned with the sound he and his band's guitarist and best friend Don Rich created.
“I'm not going to try and tell you when the Bakersfield sound started,” Owens says. “but I can tell you exactly where and when the Buck Owens Sound started… right before Christmas of 1959, in a 1957 Cadillac, on a long lonely stretch of California highway.”
Don Rich died in a motorcycle crash in 1974 on Highway 1, effectively ending Owens' run on the charts and destroying him personally. The latter part of the book deals with Owens' response to Rich's death, and it seems that he never really got over it. But his voice, even at its gravest moments, remains spirited, and full of spit and vinegar.
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