Buck Owens: Celebrating the Baron of Bakersfield

by Jim Casey
(Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns via Getty)

The late, great Buck Owens was born on August 12, 1929, in Sherman, Texas. Well, actually, Alvis Edgar Owens was born. As a youngster, he reportedly renamed himself “Buck” after a mule on his family farm. Fortuitously, the moniker seems apropos now, as Buck bucked the so-called musical trends of his era on his way to a Hall of Fame career.

August 12, 2022, seems like a good day to revisit Buck’s lasting impact on country music, notably as the primary purveyor of the Bakersfield Sound.

Sacked by the Dust Bowl, Buck’s impoverished family moved from Texas to Mesa, Arizona, in 1937. They were actually on their way to California when their trailer broke down. Needless to say, Buck came from humble beginnings. But a Christmas present—a mandolin—as a 13-year-old changed his life. He taught himself to play, and by the time he was 19, he was gigging at local clubs.

In 1951, Buck moved to Bakersfield, California, where became part of the scene that germinated Merle Haggard and Johnny Paycheck, among others. In addition, Buck established himself as a session guitarist during the 1950s, appearing on recordings by Tommy Collins, Bobby Bare, and Wanda Jackson.

Using jangly electric guitars and a prominent drum rhythm, which were not prominent in country music, Buck fused Western swing, honky-tonk, and R&B to ignite the Bakersfield Sound of the 1960s. A decade before Waylon Jennings led the “Outlaw” movement, Buck was bucking the system out West. That style propelled him to 21 No. 1 singles during his career, including “Act Naturally,” “Love’s Gonna Live Here,” “My Heart Skips a Beat,” and “I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail,” among others. In addition, Buck scored more than two-dozen Top 10 hits.

Buck the System

With his backing group, The Buckaroos, Buck was one of the hottest country acts of the 1960s. In an era when the Nashville Sound was the rage with its lush productions and strings (think Eddy Arnold, Patsy Cline, and Jim Reeves, among others), along came Buck with his twangy Telecaster and banging drums. Of course, the uber-talented Don Rich played a significant role in The Buckaroos with his guitar work and vocals. (Don, 32, died in 1974 after a tragic motorcycle accident. Buck was devastated by his best friend’s death and didn’t speak of it for years.).

In addition, Buck co-hosted TV’s Hee-Haw from 1969 to 1986 with Roy Clark. Nearly every major country star of that era made an appearance in the Hee-Haw cornfield. Buck was instrumental (with his red, white, and blue acoustic guitar) in bringing country music to a national audience.

Buck also parlayed his stardom into numerous successful business ventures, including buying several radio stations and owning his own venue, the Crystal Palace, in Bakersfield.

Buck influenced a number of current country stars, notably Dierks Bentley, Brad Paisley, and Dwight Yoakam. Of course, in 1988, Buck famously teamed with Dwight for a remake of his 1973 song, “Streets of Bakersfield.” The duet was the final No. 1 single of Buck’s career.

In 1996, the Country Music Hall of Fame inducted Buck Owens.

Buck, 76, died in his sleep from heart failure on March 25, 2006.