Buck Owens

From: Randy Poe
Subject: My Thoughts on Buck

Dear Bob,

Like you, I sit up half the night writing to get things off my chest and/or out of my system. Even though I suspect you’re not a big country fan, I thought I’d share this with you – from one late-night writer to another:

I was watching my son’s Babe Ruth baseball game today when the guy sitting next to me – knowing I was in the music business – asked me if I’d heard Buck Owens had died that morning.

I had to hold my emotions in check. Your kid’s baseball game is not exactly the place to start blubbering over the death of a country singer. But Buck was a lot more than just another country singer to me. In my heart and mind, he ranked as one of the most innovative – and one of the greatest – recording artists of all time.

Sadly, for most folks, he’ll always be remembered as Roy Clark’s sidekick on "Hee Haw." Sort of as if John Lennon – after the Beatles – had become a member of a very popular – but second-rate – British comedy show on the BBC.

Long before "Hee Haw" (and luckily, long after it as well), Buck Owens was one of the greatest singer/songwriter/guitar players to ever come along. "Under Your Spell Again," "Cryin’ Time," "Love’s Gonna Live Here," "Together Again," "Tall Dark Stranger," "Big In Vegas," and many other classics were penned by him. Within the music community, there was always much talk and admiration about how Buck made his fortune buying up radio and television stations. In truth, he could’ve lived off his songwriter royalties alone.

He was also savvy enough to enter into a deal with Capitol Records in which all of his masters would eventually revert to him. In his later years, he sat down with Garth Brooks and told Brooks he should demand the same thing. Garth didn’t think it was possible, but Buck told him, "If they did it for me, they’ll sure as hell do it for you." Sure enough, Garth ended up working out a similar deal – thanks to Buck’s innovation.

But it was Buck’s musical innovation that mattered most. His sound was HIS sound. And an awful lot of people followed in his footsteps. Without Buck there would’ve been no Bakersfield Sound – no Merle Haggard, no Wynn Stewart, no Ferlin Husky, no Derailers, no Junior Brown, no Dwight Yoakam, or any other acts out there who "Bucked" the Nashville system.

In all of his early hits, Buck had a secret weapon named Don Rich. They sang harmony vocals like nobody else. And they both played their Telecasters with a fiery zeal that no one had yet conceived of at the time they came along.

The end result was a hard and heavy honky-tonk sound that matched anything Webb Pierce, Faron Young, or Hank Thompson had done. In fact, just a few years ago, Thompson’s jealousy was still in evidence.  The year Buck got inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, he was stuck in rehearsals and missed a BMI dinner where he and past Hall of Famer’s were being honored. Later that night, back at the hotel, I mentioned to Hank that I noticed Buck had been a no-show. Thompson frowned and said, "Nobody missed him."

But I did. And I do now, more than ever.

In 1996, I was sitting around the house, trying to come up with ideas for compilation albums. I had developed a relationship with a number of labels looking for country compilations, and I seemed to be the only guy in L.A. who knew much about country music. In a moment of pure silliness, I came up with the phrase "Half-a-Buck" as the title of a collection of Buck Owens duets. I knew it wasn’t hip enough for Rhino, so I pitched the idea to K-tel. They ate it up. When word got back to Buck about the idea, he jumped in with both feet, suggesting tracks for the package. When I proposed that the cover be a 50- cent piece with Buck’s face on it, he loved the idea. When I said, "And let’s have it say ‘In Buck We Trust’ on the coin," I thought he might beg off. But he dug that, too. Maybe part of the reason I admired him so much was because he had an ego to match mine. Over a hundred albums later, my most cherished accomplishment is still the phrase on the back of "Half-a-Buck" that reads, "Compiled by Buck Owens and Randy Poe."

Not long after the CD was released, a package came in the mail from Bakersfield. It was an autographed photo of Buck in that famous cow-skin coat of his. He had also included the 3 CD boxed set Rhino had put out. Inside the box’s booklet he wrote, "To Randy – Hope you enjoy my work. I wish you love, health, and happiness." And then he wrote, underlined, "Come see us!"

It took me a while, but one day I got an email from a friend, asking me to meet him at the Crystal Palace because BR5-49 (a band, ironically, named after the phone number for Junior Samples’ used car dealership on "Hee Haw") was going to be playing there. I jumped at the chance – but not because of BR5-49, even though I was responsible for their current single at the time. I went to see the opening act.

Buck Owens and his Buckaroos were out of this world that night. I’d seen Buck on a double bill with Dwight Yoakam years before in New York, but it felt like being a part of history to sit and watch Buck and his band, right there in Bakersfield on a Saturday night, tearing through all of those hits. I was in heaven.

Buck Owens died on Saturday, but a portion of him left us when Don Rich was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1974. Buck’s music was never the same, and Buck was never the same. He admitted as much in interview after interview. And in a lot of those same interviews, he admitted what a mistake it had been to be a part of "Hee Haw."

It’s well beyond unfortunate that he’ll primarily be remembered as co-host of a cornball country comedy show that lasted for decades. But at least the TV exposure introduced his music to an audience that might never have otherwise tuned into a country radio station.

Years ago, he wrote a song called, "You Ain’t Gonna Have Ol’ Buck to Kick Around No More." Here’s hoping the obits will be kind and respectful enough to tell of his importance to the world of music rather than merely dwelling on his ability to pick and grin with Roy.

– Randy

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