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Buck Owens - 1929-2006

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An obituary for Buck Owens, one of the most vital artists in the history of modern American music.

Buck Owens - 1929-2006

Buck Owens, one of the most important and dynamic figures in modern American music, died on Saturday, March 25th. He was 76 years old.

Owens came from Texas roots and learned his trade in the just-post World War II displaced-Okie culture of central California. At a time - the early to mid 1960s-- when mainstream country music was slipping comfortably into the smooth, slick Nashville sound, Buck and a crew of young western-rooted singers and musicians renewed and reinvented the classic hard honky tonk sound with un-self-conscious hints of rock‚n‚roll energy. Indeed, Buck Owens - along with artists like Red Simpon, Merle Haggard, and Bonnie Owens - might well be considered, even though he operated for many years before such phrases were ever imagined, as one of the original "new traditionalists", and among the first to create "alt. country." Almost certainly, without what came to be called the Bakersfield sound, the country rock of the Byrds, the Burritos, Son Volt, and beyond would not have been possible.

Those of us who love the American country music tradition cannot overstate the importance of Buck Owens and his Buckaroos, a self-contained unit that made some of the greatest country records of all time and performed live shows that were the epitome of twang and passion. Buck brought his showmanship, clever song-craft, crisply ringing guitar, and clean, cutting vocals to the front of the band; Right hand man Don Rich added chill-bump-raising tenor harmonies, fine fiddling, and some of the greatest Fender Telecaster picking ever executed . Then there was Tom Brumley‚s transcendent - and genre-defining - pedal steel guitar. Drummer Willie Cantu and, variously, electric bassists like Doyle Holly and Wayne Wilson built a foundation of solid rhythm that replaced the dominant swing and shuffle of the era with touches of rock and Latin music. And, most radically of all, the Buckaroos‚ records were mixed like rock records: with voices and instruments nearly equal in the balance, creating a driving, live-sounding, up-front sound that cut through and stood out on radio and jukebox.

While some may best remember Buck Owens as the grinning, affable long-time host of the TV show Hee-Haw, flashing his red, white, and blue guitar, others will conjure earlier images of twin silver-sparkle Teles and tight, matching shiny western-cut suits worn on a mid-sixties bandstand. Anybody at all remembering Buck Owens in performance will likely summon up the picture of a huge smile, the sense of an intense joy taken in singing, playing, and performing,

I never met Buck Owens, but I do have a not-quite-firsthand story about him that is always in the back of my mind when I hear his music. It was the early 1970s, and I was in my early teens. I was obsessed with country music: learning to play steel, listening to late-night AM radio for high-wattage signals beamed from the south and southwest. On a family trip to New Mexico, I found myself sleeping on the floor of a house on the Navajo Reservation. The house held, to my great excitement, a complete collection of every Buck Owens record in print at the time. (There were a lot of them!) When I asked about the records, I was told that the owner of the house was a country DJ on the Reservation radio station. Then I was shown a hand-written letter from Buck himself, thanking the DJ for playing his - Buck's - music, and offering the complete collection.

That was a long time ago, and my memory may have a few details wrong. But the story sure does fit the image of Buck Owens that comes to me when I hear his records. It's that of an artist who did things right and kept it real.

Right and real. That's pretty much exactly what I ask for from country music. And that was the essence of Buck Owens and the Bakersfield Sound.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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