Personalities | Buck Owens | West Coast Scene | Country

Although Bakersfield had already played host to a number of country-music artists, it was Buck Owens (1929–2006) who not only put it on the map, but also spread its name around the world. So great was his impact, some even called it ‘Buckersfield’.

The Road To Bakersfield

Hailing from Sherman, Texas, and born Alvis Edgar Owens on 12 August 1929, his family moved to Mesa, Arizona, when he was a child. There he learned to play the guitar, eventually performing on local radio stations and working the honky-tonks and clubs around Phoenix. He married Bonnie Campbell and, with two children, moved to Bakersfield in 1951, where he eventually became the lead singer and rhythm guitarist in Bill Woods’ Orange Blossom Playboys. With his reputation growing, he formed his own band, The Schoolhouse Playboys, and started playing on recording sessions for Capitol, commencing with Tommy Collins’ ‘You Better Not Do That’. More work followed during the mid-1950s, as producer Ken Nelson hired him to back up both country and pop artists including Wanda Jackson, Tommy Sands and Faron Young.

Owens made his recording debut in 1956, cutting tracks for the small independent Pep label, including rockabilly tracks under the name Corky Jones. Although unsuccessful, these recordings further increased the interest in Owens, and Ken Nelson, at first unconvinced of Owens’ vocal talents, eventually signed him to a deal. His first releases, country-pop and unsuited to the artist’s energetic styling, failed to impress. In the meantime, Owens – already a prolific songwriter – had become friends with another young songwriter, Harlan Howard, and together they created their own music operation, Blue Book Music, to publish their songs (and, later, Merle Haggard’s earliest titles). It was an Owens’ original, ‘Second Fiddle’, that finally gave him his first chart entry in 1959, with the follow-up, ‘Under Your Spell Again’ going Top 5 and opening the way for two decades of virtually non-stop chart activity.

The Buck Owens Empire

Buck Owens’ success was dependent on a combination of ear-catching songs and a distinctive, twangy approach to honky-tonk, assisted by longtime friend Don Rich (vocals, guitar, fiddle, 1941–74) who added infectious close harmonies. When the two started playing Fender Telecasters, the resultant rock-influenced sound put Bakersfield squarely on the map. It was around that time that Owens formed his own band, The Buckaroos, and thanks to the freewheeling approach of producer Ken Nelson, the group was soon accompanying their boss on his recording sessions. Owens’ first No. 1 came with the Johnny Russell-penned ‘Act Naturally’ (1963), though Owens carried writer’s credit on many of the 15 chart-toppers that followed, including ‘Love’s Gonna Live Here’ (1963), ‘My Heart Skips A Beat’ (1964), ‘Together Again’ (1964) and ‘Sam’s Place’ (1967). Nevertheless Chuck Berry did get a look-in with a revival of ‘Johnny B. Goode’ (1969).

Soon Buck Owens was empire building. By the mid-1960s he had clearly displayed his business acumen as the already successful Blue...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, consultant editor Bob Allen


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