So Long, Buckaroo

Owens' brand of twang and hokey lyrics ain't 'round no more.

By Steve Burgess 28 Mar 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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Every summer at the Continental Club, located on South Congress Avenue in Austin, Texas, they hold a birthday party for Buck Owens. It's a musical tribute night where dozens of top-notch Austin musicians gather to crank out their own versions of Owens favorites and celebrate his legacy. Austin might seem like an odd place for it -- Owens was famously from Bakersfield, California, and his distinctive style was known as the Bakersfield Sound. Owens was a long-time host of Hee-Haw, the trailer park Ed Sullivan Show that likewise seems a long way from Austin's outlaw country tradition. But the pickers who congregate at the Continental Club know their roots. And Buck Owens, who passed away last Saturday at the age of 76, was a man whose influence belied his cornpone image.

Owens was famous to different crowds for different reasons. Many Boomers know him primarily as the performer of "Act Naturally," which provided Ringo with one of his few vocal turns when the Beatles improbably covered the tune in 1965 (it was the flip side of "Yesterday," literally and figuratively). Others knew him from his long stint on Hee-Haw, playing up the yokel routine that would ultimately obscure the impact of his musical legacy.

Emmylou and Yoakam, too

But there are still some people around who remember his records. Thanks to supporters like Emmylou Harris and Dwight Yoakam, not all of those fans saw their salad days in the sixties. Harris dueted with Owens on his "Together Again," a song both singers had previously charted with. And in 1988, Yoakam teamed with Owens for a perfect jewel called "Streets of Bakersfield" that hit number one on the country charts and briefly made commercial country radio worth enduring.

Owens' own heyday came in the early sixties, before Nashville slickness had completely colonized mainstream country. His string of fifteen chart-toppers made him one of the genre's biggest stars, alongside his California rival Merle Haggard. (Haggard was an original member of Owens' band the Buckaroos, and eventually married Owens' ex-wife Bonnie. Whenever Haggard's tour bus would get into traffic disputes, the driver would flip the sign on the front of the bus from "Merle Haggard" to "Buck Owens.")

The Hee-Haw period

Owens' hits were not crafted as pop crossover material, the Beatles notwithstanding. His roundhouse twang, plunking guitar and occasionally hokey lyrics were a very far cry from the string-laden cosmopolitan records that would eventually come from artists like Barbara Mandrell and Kenny Rogers. ("I've Got the Hungries for Your Love and "I'm Waiting in Your Welfare Line" was never going to show up on Top 40.)

That lack of slickness is key to his lasting impact. Traditionalists like Yoakam championed the stripped-down honesty of the Bakersfield Sound in an era when country music had taken a detour up Faith Hill. To listen to records like Tiger by the Tail is to remember when country music sounded like it.

Owens later blamed Hee-Haw, and his increasing emphasis on comedy routines, for destroying his recording career. "Weekly TV, that's death for recording artists," Owens once said. "It's too much exposure. There's no longer any mystery."

Down in Austin, they don't have much time for the slick Nashville sound. Which helps explain why so many turn up at the Continental each year to celebrate the music of Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, decades after their prime. In previous years, participants always held out hope that the man himself might show up and jam. But next August at the Continental, the crowd will be there regardless. They're keeping a tradition alive.

Steve Burgess is The Tyee's at-large culture critic.  [Tyee]

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