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Remembering Buck Owens


It's been said that the mark of a great artist is the apparent ease with which they perform their craft. In country music, few ever made it look easier than Buck Owens and his band, The Buckaroos.

"Act Naturally," recorded in 1963, started Buck Owens' streak of 15 consecutive Number One country singles, and 21 number ones in total. Buck Owens died at 76 Saturday, March 25, hours after taking the stage at his Crystal Theater in Bakersfield, California, and playing some of the songs that rocked Nashville on its boot heels back in the 1960s.

Listening to "Act Naturally" more than 40 years after its release, it's hard to imagine that song could annoy anyone, but, the man with the red, white and blue guitar was considered a maverick in country music in 1963.

Buck Owens is so closely associated with Bakersfield, California, it may come as a surprise to learn he first set foot in the town in 1951, when he was already 21 years old.

Determined to make it in music, he soon formed a band and started writing songs. To earn a few extra dollars, Buck regularly started driving 145 kilometers to Hollywood to play guitar at recording sessions for artists including Wanda Jackson, Gene Vincent and Faron Young. Although, he signed his first record in 1957, two more years passed before Buck Owens recorded his first Top 10 hit "Under Your Spell Again," starting a streak of hit singles that lasted more than a decade.

Buck Owens' early recordings featured the traditional sound of country music, with steel guitars and fiddles clearly out in front. But live shows from the same era found him routinely playing requests for songs by rockers Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran, along with classic country tunes by Hank Williams and Bob Wills.

By 1963, Buck's band featured Don Rich on electric guitar and harmony vocals, along with a drummer, bassist and pedal steel guitar. One of his first bassists was the now-legendary singer-songwriter Merle Haggard, who named the group The Buckaroos.

Soon, Buck turned his back on Nashville, and started making country records his way, using his own road band instead of Nashville players. The result was records that sounded more like a Buck Owens concert, and nothing like the string-laden smooth country-pop hit songs coming out of Nashville … and the Bakersfield sound was born.

While some in Nashville fumed over Buck Owen's new sound, lots of people loved what we now know as the "Bakersfield Sound." Brian Hofeldt, founder of the hit country band The Derailers, considers Buck Owens Bakersfield sound a major influence on his own music. In a recent interview, Brian Hofeldt explained why Buck Owens' sound is so important in the history of American country music.

"At its time, it was looked at as maverick, and out of left field, you know," he said. "Buck was in Bakersfield. He wasn't in Tennessee. And he was doing his own thing, and it was a really stripped-down, revved-up sound. And it just turned everybody on their ear. They loved it! And he was arguably the most successful country artist of the 1960s. His music, I think, still retains the freshness because it's pure, and soulful."

After a string of Number One hits, and sold-out concerts, including one recorded at New York's Carnegie Hall, Buck Owens soon found himself on national television, co-hosting the long-running comedy program, Hee Haw. Buck's career flourished, and he continued to record hit songs and perform sold-out concerts.

But then Buck Owens suffered a tragic blow, one that threatened to end his career. On July 17, 1974, his longtime musical partner, Don Rich, was killed in a motorcycle accident. Buck Owens admitted, "After Don's death, I don't think I ever quite recovered."

A year later, Buck Owens returned to the recording studio, but the magic was gone.

In 1980, Buck Owens decided he didn't want to continue the grind of constant performing and recording, and declared himself semi-retired.

In the ensuing years, country music has lost much of its edge, and returned to the softer sound that was in vogue before Buck Owens hit with the "Bakersfield Sound." His musical impact has been forgotten by many who simply remember him as a television star. Nevertheless, several generations of musicians, from Gram Parsons in the late 1960s, to Dwight Yoakam in the 1980s were influenced by his music.

For the past 15 years, musicians in Austin, Texas, have been celebrating Buck Owens' birthday with a party at the famed Continental Club. A few years ago, Buck Owens himself made a surprise appearance. At the end of the night, he took the stage, and performed a set of his own hits, including a version of "Love's Gonna Live Here."

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