Besides some of the greatest country music ever recorded, Country Music Hall of Famer Buck Owens, who died in 2006, left behind taped recollections that have now formed the basis of his just-published posthumous Buck 'Em! The Autobiography Of Buck Owens (Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Books).
Putting the unusual tome together was veteran music author Randy Poe, who originally pitched an authorized biography of Owens, among other things a key architect of California country music’s "Bakersfield Sound," to his son Michael, nephew Mel, and longtime Buckaroos band keyboardist Jim Shaw.
“They had all read Skydog—The Duane Allman Story, my biography of Duane Allman, which came out in 2006—the same year Buck passed,” says Poe. “They were open to the idea, and met with me at the Crystal Palace, Buck’s famous nightclub in Bakersfield. They wanted to see if I looked like the kind of guy who could handle the book.”
The meeting clearly impressed everyone, for Shaw took Poe into Owens’ office in the Buck Owens Productions building behind the Crystal Palace; Owens was also a successful country radio station operator, and the building housed his Bakersfield radio stations.
“It was everything you could dream a major country star’s office would look like,” recalls Poe. “There was a fireplace, bathroom with hot tub, and on his desk was a big pile of casssete tapes, and Jim goes, ‘Oh, hey! These might actually be useful.’ ‘What are they?’ 'Tapes Buck made telling his life story.’ ‘Well, yeah, Jim . Those could be helpful!’ And a light bulb flashed on over everybody’s head.”
Poe then proposed to turn the bio project into an autobiography.
“It’s what Buck wanted,” he says. “It was his words on the tapes, and I promised not to stomp over the whole thing!”
Putting it together was “really fun,” he adds. “It was the ultimate jigsaw puzzle: Buck didn’t think in a linear fashion. He’d hit the record button and start saying, ‘Is this thing on? I hope this thing is working,’ and he’d just tell whatever story came to his mind. Luckily it wasn’t a series of vignettes; he managed to tell the story of his life—or a great deal of it-- even though nothing was done in sequence. ‘I was born in Texas’ came on Tape 21!”
“Slowly but surely it came together,” Poe continues. “I was lucky Buddy [Buck's son Buddy Alan Owens], like Buck, had a memory like a steel trap. If I got stuck, he’d say, ‘I remember Dad telling me about that, and here’s what he said’—and he’d say it in perfect Buckese.”
And it came together despite Poe having met Owens only once—in the Vanderbilt Hotel lobby in Nashville.
“When all is said and done, I felt like I really knew the guy,” says Poe. “He intended to bring in a professional writer to work with him, and [the set of cassettes] was the guide to go by. He’d even say somebody’s name and spell it. So it felt like he was talking to me, he was so personal and personable. That’s why it ended up an 'authorized autobiography.'”
Assessing his subject, Poe notes, “One of the things about Buck is that he made everything look so simple and so easy in everything he did. On the surface he glided through life but in truth nobody was working harder than that man was. The others might be playing cards and drinking sodas at the Holiday Inn, but he was going to every radio station in whatever town he was in, plugging the latest single and show—and he never stopped working. One of his great lines was, ‘It’s a lot cooler in those radio stations than it is working in those cotton fields!’”
Musically, Owens was “always just a little ahead of whatever was going on in Nashville. He didn’t use Floyd [Cramer] and Chet [Atkins] and the same other studio musicians that were on all the Nashville records, and had the simplest concept in the world: He knew people were probably listening in their car with the AM stereo with booming bass and cranking up the treble to hear the high end as well. And as soon as [Owens' revered guitarist] Don Rich’s Telecaster started up you knew it was Buck.”
Owens’ unique sound also owed to Rich’s vocal harmonies, says Poe, and the fact that his records “always had something new and unique and exciting,” as in “Don's fuzz tone on ‘Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass,’” or “the way the chorus slows down to half-time on ‘Before You Go.’”
“He was doing everything the way he wanted to, and having hits while Nashville was trying to get another Eddy Arnold single to cross over to the pop charts,” Poe notes. “Buck came from Bakersfield and honky-tonks like The Blackboard, where people came in from the cotton and oil fields to get drunk, so they had to play loud. Go to YouTube and watch those old Buck Owens Ranch Show videos, and there’s never ever a single slip-up. It was all perfection.”
Poe is appearing this Saturday at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, which currently features an exhibit, The Bakersfield Sound: Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, And California Country. Poe will participate in a panel in the Ford Theater, The Buckaroos: Making Music With Buck Owens, also including drummer Willie Cantu, the only surviving member of the classic mid-1960s Buckaroos lineup, and current Buckaroos Terry Christoffersen (steel guitar), Doyle Curtsinger (bass) and keyboardist Shaw--all of whom backed Owens for several decades and still perform regularly at the Crystal Palace.
Buddy Alan Owens, who toured with the Buckaroos and had his own hits in the late ‘60s and '70s, is also on the panel, which will be moderated by music historian Scott B. Bomar. Poe will then read from and discuss Buck ‘Em! in the museum’s new Taylor Swift Education Center; afterward, at the CMA Theater, Buddy Alan Owens will perform his father’s hits, backed by the Buckaroos in attendance, and with guests including Chris Carmack (who plays Will Lexington of ABC-TV's hit show Nashville), James Intveld, Jim Lauderdale, Angaleena Presley and Sunny Sweeney.
Omnivore Recordings, meanwhile, has released a companion to Poe’s book in Buck ‘Em! The Music Of Buck Owens (1955-1967)—a two-disc, 50-track anthology set of riches to go with its previous Owens, Don Rich and Buckaroos reissues. Rock Beat Records also has Owens reissue titles in Bound For Bakersfield and Merry Christmas From Buck Owens & Susan Raye.
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