When country music legend Buck Owens died in 2006, he didn’t leave his memoirs behind — at least not in book form. What he did leave were nearly 100 hours’ worth of cassette tapes recorded in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, in which he recounted the story of his life and thoughts on his career.
A few years after Owens’ death, producer and writer Randy Poe (Skydog: The Duane Allman Story) began the process of sifting through the tapes, piecing together Owens’ life story largely verbatim. The result is Buck ’Em! The Autobiography of Buck Owens, originally published in 2013 and now available in paperback from Backbeat Books.
Buck ‘Em! comprehensively spans Owens’ life, from his poor childhood migrating around Texas and Arizona, through his decade as one of the most successful artists in country music history, into his low-key comeback in the late ’80s and ’90s.
Owens’ personality shines throughout, not only in his wry sense of humor and folksy way of talking (Poe preserves Owens’ use of “‘em,” “goin’” and “gotta”), but also the professional, no-nonsense approach to country music. Owens never comes across as falsely modest when discussing his talents, but it’s also evident that he credits hard work for his success. Owens proudly describes his pre-fame years playing for 11 hours a night with no break, and the exhausting touring schedule he maintained at the height of his celebrity.
Some of the most exciting material in Buck ‘Em! depicts his struggle to make a name for himself as a young musician in the nowheresville of Bakersfield, California, a continent away from the Nashville scene. Owens, along with guitarist/fiddler/right-hand man Don Rich and onetime bandmate Merle Haggard, developed the Bakersfield sound, a much earthier, ragged style of country music inspired by honky-tonk and rock ‘n’ roll. This “freight-train sound,” as Owens dubbed it, was far removed from the strings-soaked, would-be crossover pop then pouring out of the country music capital.
Despite Owens’ distance from Nashville — geographically, musically, and philosophically — he not only managed to make his mark in country music, he became one of its brightest stars. Buck ’Em! is stuffed with Owens’ astonishing accomplishments, from his record-setting streak of 15 consecutive country #1s (starting with his signature tune, “Act Naturally,” in 1963), to playing such unlikely C&W outlets as Carnegie Hall and Japan. “After all those years of being told you can’t make a country record if you don’t record it in Nashville, and you can’t be a country star if you don’t live in Nashville, and you’re not considered a real country singer until you get invited to join the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville,” Owens brags, “we proved ’em all wrong.”
Buck ’Em! focuses far more attention on Owens’ career than his personal life — perhaps because his drive to succeed meant sacrificing family and relationships. Owens was married four times and freely confesses to cheating on most of his wives. (Regarding women, Owens says, “my problem was I liked ’em too much.”) He recounts not spending much time with his children until they were older, as he was often touring. Similarly, the ever-rotating line-up of his backing band, the Buckaroos, hints that Owens could be a demanding boss. “A lot of folks have accused me of being a businessman first and a musician second,” Owens writes, and it seems as he applied that approach to every aspect of his life, prioritizing what success over personal loyalties.
It’s this objective approach, however, that also lets Owens look back frankly at his less acute career moves. For many people, Owens is best known for his years on the TV variety show Hee Haw, which he co-hosted from 1969 to 1986. But while it raised his profile, Owens regards it as at best a mixed blessing, and more likely a career killer.
“With Hee Haw,” Owens says, “my whole image changed practically overnight. If you were one of the thousands of people who saw me on-stage live somewhere, you saw a man playing a Fender Telecaster, wearing a suit designed by Nudie Cohn or Nathan Turk, standing in front of a big row of amps and speakers. But if you were one of the tens of millions of people watching me on TV, you saw a guy who looked like a country bumpkin, wearing his overalls backwards and standing in front of a bale of hay. I mean, how do you take that guy seriously?” His fears were founded: by 1969, the year Hee Haw debuted, Owens had racked up 11 #1 country albums and 19 #1 singles. After 1969, he’d never again have another number-one album, and only one further #1 single on his own: 1972’s “Made in Japan.”
Owens doesn’t solely blame Hee Haw for his downslide, however. The 1974 death of Don Rich — “my partner, my brother, my best friend” — hurt Owens as at least as much creatively as Hee Haw had commercially. “No matter how hard I’d tried, making music just wasn’t the same for me after Don Rich died,” Owens writes. “The joy just wasn’t there anymore.”
This section of the book spirals by in an impressionistic swirl, both because Owens was presumably reluctant to document a painful time, and because his attentions were largely focused on running several radio stations he owned around the US. There is one bright spot, however: Owens, ever the businessman, became one of the first major musicians to regain control of his master recordings from Capitol Records.
The narrative perks up a bit with the the 1988 release of “Streets of Bakersfield,” a duet with the Dwight Yoakam on a song from one of Owens’ forgotten ’70s albums. (Yoakam also contributes Buck ’Em!’s preface.) “Streets of Bakersfield” gave Owens his final number-one hit, 16 years after his last, and instigated a minor comeback. Another late-career highlight is the opening of the Buck Owens Crystal Palace in the mid-’90s, a Bakersfield venue where Owens could continue to play weekly even after retiring from touring.
Owens’ recollections end on a mildly optimistic note: he’s aware the best years of his career are behind him, but he’s settled into a comfortable lifestyle. If you’re a person who prefers happy endings, however, you may prefer to skip Poe’s afterword. In the last few years of his life, Owens fell on hard times, contending with clinical depression, addictions to prescription drugs, cancer, a stroke, personality changes, and a divorce from his wife of 24 years. At least with his death, however, Owens found a way to go out on his own terms: in his sleep, after a dinner of his favorite meal (chicken fried steak), and a performance at the Crystal Palace.
Had Owens lived to see his autobiography published, an editor or co-writer might have prodded him to round out some stories and explore avenues that he glossed over in his tapes. Regardless, Poe does a remarkable job of blending Owens’ tape recordings with interviews and other archival material to paint a vivid portrait of the singer that feels as authentic as if Buck had penned every word himself. Besides, given the way he comes across in Buck ‘Em!, Owens seems like the type to know exactly what to say and how he wanted it said, and would freely tell an editor to go Buck themselves.
The paperback version of Buck ‘Em! is out now from Backbeat Books.