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 have ever made it look easier than the Buck Owens and his band, The Buckaroos. Buck Owens' died in March 2006, just hours after taking the stage at his Crystal Theater in Bakersfield, California, playing some of the songs that rocked Nashville in the 1960s. With the approach of Buck Owens' 78th birthday, VOA's Katherine Cole reminds us of his legacy and importance to country music.

When you hear "Act Naturally" today, it's hard to imagine that 44 years ago Buck Owens, playing his red, white and blue guitar, was considered quite the maverick of country music. Or that Buck, a man so closely associated with Bakersfield, California, never set foot in the town until he was 21 years old.

Buck Owens signed his first record contract in 1957. But it was two more years before he recorded "Under Your Spell Again," the song that started a more than decade-long streak of hit singles.

By 1963, Buck Owens' band featured not the banjos and fiddles heard on most country songs coming out of Nashville, but Don Rich on electric guitar and singing harmony, backed by a bass, drums and pedal steel guitar.

Soon, Buck turned his back on Nashville, and began making country records his way, out in California and backed by his own band, not Nashville studio musicians. The results sounded more like a Buck Owens concert, and nothing like the string-laden, smooth country-pop hit songs coming out of Nashville at the time.

While some in Nashville fumed over Buck Owens' new music, lots of people loved what we now call the "Bakersfield Sound." Buck inspired countless musicians, including Brian Hofeldt, founder of the hit country band The Derailers. In a recent interview, Brian 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."

You can judge the freshness for yourself by listening to The Derailers' new CD, "Under the Influence of Buck," a tribute to the man who invented the "Bakersfield Sound." But that's not the only Buck Owens musical tribute of note. Dwight Yoakam has one, due in October, titled "Dwight Sings Buck." A portion of the proceeds will go to the Buck Owens American Music Foundation, which serves to preserve the legacy of Buck Owens and his signature "Bakersfield Sound", like his longtime theme song "Buckeroo."