January 2, 2014
During lunch recently with All Access Christian Editor Mark Giles, I mentioned that I was reading "Buck 'Em! The Autobiography Of Buck Owens."
Mark told me, "You know, when I hear Buck Owens' name, I automatically think of 'Hee Haw.'"
I'm sure a lot of people make the same connection, since Owens co-hosted the comedy/variety show for 17 years, far less than his five decades in show biz, but nearly twice as long as the most productive period of his amazing recording career.
That's an unfortunate baseline takeaway, because Owens was the biggest star in Country music during the '60s. In fact, he was one of MUSIC's greatest stars then, too. Way before the Internet, cable TV and multi-media as we now know it, Owens successfully transcended the format, overlapping into the mainstream on a grand scale with his unique, signature Bakersfield sound, album sales, television appearances and radio airplay, which helped him tally 21 #1 singles.
I mean, the guy played Carnegie Hall in 1966 with his band The Buckaroos. They were only the second Country act to ever play Carnegie up to that point. That was huge. Think seismic.
Owens died in April of 2006, but apparently he'd been storing recollections of his life and career on tape for years, dictating his famously photographic memories into a cassette machine. The recordings went on for hours - nearly 100 hours according to the book's background chapter, written by Randy Poe.
It was Poe who painstakingly went through all of this material with the blessing of Owens' family and friends, specifically sons Michael and Buddy, their cousin Mel and longtime Buckaroo band member Jim Shaw. The term "some assembly required" applies here, as none of the material originally dictated by Owens was done so in chronological order but rather, in a random compartmentalized fashion.
What Poe has done here in "Buck Em!" is weave together a cohesive tapestry of Owens' magnificent life and career, as told by Owens himself. The narrative is equal parts "aw-shucks" and self-assuredness, delivered in a conversational manner that makes for an easy, entertaining and compelling read.
Owens grew up poor, requiring him and his entire family to toil from an early age just to make ends meet. This framed his eventual professional work ethic, which became famous to anyone who ever joined his organization.
He had a natural, razor-sharp and dare I say Columbo-esque business acumen. It was ethical, honesty based and visionary. These instincts enabled Owens to build a small media empire consisting of music and print publishing, a recording studio, a TV outlet and two radio stations that continue to be iconic, legendary brands in the Country format: KNIX/Phoenix and KUZZ/Bakersfield, the latter of which is still owned by the Owens family.
When renegotiating his deal with Capitol Records in 1971, Owens gained control of all his masters dating back to the late '50s. This was a revolutionary arrangement, but typical of Owens' foresight and business savvy. As he says in the book, "They didn't stop to think the day might come when somebody would want to use my recordings in motion pictures or national commercials. They also didn't stop to think record buyers would be interested in reissues of older records. And they sure didn't think just about everything released on vinyl would be re-released on CD." Employing his "aw-shucks" approach again, in the next sentence Owens admits, "Of course, I didn't know the CD was coming, either. I just knew that I wanted my masters back."
This incredible acuity for business sense was counter-balanced with an admitted Achilles heel when it came to women. Owens repeatedly says in the book this was an area of uncontrollable weakness his entire life, creating personal challenges and tensions for him on numerous occasions.
Owens and his guitarist/vocalist Don Rich had a symbiotic musical relationship. They were separated by 12 years but may as well have been twin brothers. When Rich was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident on July 17th, 1974, for all intents and purposes, the music died for Owens, as did a large piece of himself. The emotions he describes include flat-out denial that Rich was gone; they also include, as Owens admits on page 261, "A deep depression that I didn't think I would ever come out of." To give you some idea of the bond Owens felt, 70 pages in the book reference Don Rich.
Although there was a long and successful business relationship with Capitol, you come away with the feeling that had Owens been calling the shots on single choices, B-sides and album release dates, what became a phenomenally successful track record could have been improved upon. An example repeatedly cited by Owens is the label's baffling habit of releasing album after album, none of which contained the hit singles receiving massive radio airplay. Oh, and he absolutely despised the label's standard 10% charge back to artists for something called 'breakage fees," meaning that if any vinyl was damaged during shipping, the artist paid. "Record company rules were arcane and draconian," Owens complained.
Buck Owens famously rebelled against the Nashville establishment and of course that theme resonates here, too, as Owens cops to on page 299: "I've had a lot of things to say about Nashville in this book and a lot of what I've said hasn't been particularly kind." He's right, but his anti-Music City stance doesn't come off as a rant. He simply didn't like the way Nashville produced records, preferring to use his own band, The Buckaroos, over studio players while headquartering his musical empire on his terms from his town, Bakersfield, CA.
Circling back to "Hee Haw," Owens describes being well aware of the risk he was taking by agreeing to appear on the show. He knew that historically, a constant TV presence killed record sales, citing Jimmy Dean as an example. Famous for the 1961 Country and Pop crossover song, "Big Bad John," Dean eventually had a weekly TV show that was successful, but that ultimately derailed his music career.
Owens hated the name, "Hee Haw," and wearing overalls backwards on the show but loved the idea of a network TV program that highlighted Country music. He also loved the paycheck, which was about $400,000 annually. Do the math on 1969 dollars and realize again how sharp Owens was when it came to business.
His instincts proved accurate again in 1976 when he and Capitol agreed to part ways. "Thanks to being on "Hee Haw" every week I was the most recognizable Country singer in the world," Owens remembered. "But as far as I'm concerned, it was also thanks to being on 'Hee Haw' every week that I was no longer wanted by the label I'd provided with 20 #1 hits."
To help my co-worker Mark Giles gain a more accurate perspective on Buck Owens' substantial impact on the history of Country music, I promised to pass along the book to him. And no matter what your awareness of Owens is, I highly suggest you pick up a copy, too.