Buck Owens, the flashy “rhinestone cowboy” who shaped the sound of country music with hits like “Act Naturally,” and helped introduce the genre to mainstream America on the long-running TV show “Hee Haw,” has died. He was 76. Owens died early today (March 25) at his home, said family spokesman Jim Shaw. The cause of death was not immediately known.
Owens underwent throat cancer surgery in 1993 and was hospitalized with pneumonia in January 1997.
His career was one of the most phenomenal in country music, with a string of more than 20 No. 1 records, most released from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. They were recorded with a honky-tonk twang that came to be known throughout California as the “Bakersfield Sound,” named for the town 100 miles north of Los Angeles that Owens called home. Outside the state, his music was known as country’s “California Sound.”
“I think the reason he was so well known and respected by a younger generation of country musicians was because he was an innovator and rebel,” said Shaw, who played keyboards in Owens’ band, the Buckaroos. “He did it out of the Nashville establishment. He had a raw edge.”
Owens’ aspirations, however, were less than that afforded by such lofty titles. “I’d like to be remembered as a guy that came along and did his music, did his best and showed up on time, clean and ready to do the job, wrote a few songs and had a hell of a time,” he said in 1992.
An indefatigable performer, Owens played a red, white and blue guitar with fireball fervor. He and the members of the Buckaroos wore flashy rhinestone suits in an era when flash was as important to country music as fiddles.
Among his biggest hits were “Together Again” (also recorded by Emmylou Harris), “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail,” “Love’s Gonna Live Here,” “My Heart Skips a Beat” and “Waitin’ in Your Welfare Line.”
And he was the answer to this music trivia question: What country star had a hit record that was later done by the Beatles? “Those guys were phenomenal,” Owens once said of rock music’s most famous band.
Ringo Starr recorded “Act Naturally” twice, singing lead on the Beatles’ 1965 version and recording it as a duet with Owens in 1989.
In addition to music, Owens had a highly visible TV career as co-host of “Hee Haw” from 1969 to 1986. With guitarist Roy Clark, he led viewers through a potpourri of country music and hayseed humor. “It’s an honest show,” Owens told the Associated Press in 1995. “There’s no social message — no crusade. It’s fun and simple.”
Owens himself could be rebellious, choosing among other things to label what he did “American music” rather than country. “I took a little heat,” he once said. “People asked me, ‘Isn’t country music good enough for you?’ “
He also criticized the syrupy arrangements of some country singers, saying “assembly-line, robot music turns me off.”
After his string of hits, Owens stayed away from the recording scene for a decade, returning in 1988 to record another No. 1 record, “Streets of Bakersfield,” with Dwight Yoakam.
He spent much of his time away concentrating on his business interests, which included a Bakersfield TV station and radio stations in Bakersfield and Phoenix. “I never wanted to hang around like the punch-drunk fighter,” he told the Associated Press in 1992.
He had moved to Bakersfield in 1951, hoping to find work in the thriving juke joints of what in the years before suburban sprawl was a truck-stop town on Highway 99, between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area.
“We played rhumbas and tangos and sambas, and we played Bob Wills music, lots of Bob Wills music,” he said, referring to the bandleader who was the king of Western swing. “And lots of rock’n’roll.”
Owens started recording in the mid-1950s, but gained little success until 1963 with “Act Naturally,” his first No. 1 single.
Alvis Edgar Owens Jr. was born in 1929 outside Sherman, Texas, the son of a sharecropper. With opportunities scarce during the Depression, the family moved to Arizona when he was 8. He dropped out of school at age 13 to haul produce and harvest crops, and by 16 he was playing music in taverns.
He once told an audience, “When I was a little bitty kid, I used to dream about playing the guitar and singing like some of those great people that we had the old, thick records of.”
Owens’ first wife, Bonnie Owens, sometimes performed with him and went on to become a leading backup singer after their divorce in 1955. She had occasional solo hits in the ’60s, as well as successful duets with her second husband, Merle Haggard.
One of her two sons with Owens also became a singer, using the name Buddy Alan. He had a Top 10 hit in 1968, “Let the World Keep on a-Turnin’,” and recorded a number of duets with his father.
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