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This buck doesn't stop

By Joel Bernstein, January 1998

Page 2...

Yet, Owens as country radio station owner feeds off this system himself. He has owned Bakersfield's station for 31 years and also owns stations in Arizona. Owens' son runs them. "I don't want to spend my time and energy programming stations," says Buck, but he is clearly involved with them.

"We're not in the radio business, we're in the advertising business. If we can play some of the music we like, and still get advertisers, that's a plus for me. These (national ad) buyers want (young) demographics. The record companies know that."

On his last trip to Bakersfield, George Jones complained "'Buck, your stations aren't playing my music.' I said 'George, what record of yours do you think we've missed?'" Buck relented and added George's latest, "Johnny B Bad" to the station's playlist, but it then researched so poorly with the audience that it had to be dropped quickly.

Owens has not forsaken his peers. Buck Owens Productions is responsible for the Real Country format, which does play older country mixed in with the best of the new.

"We have a 170-station hookup. It's been quite a successful format." He adds, "the most encouraging thing I see today is people beginning to hear more good hit songs from the past."

In the highly politicized atmosphere of the late Sixties, while Merle Haggard cut "Okie From Muskogee" and Johnny Cash asked "What Is Truth?," Owens kept his records on the lighter side. He found another way to express his patriotic sentiments.

"I went to Oslo, Norway in 1966. I'd turn on the TV. There was one channel, and it went off at 11 p.m. The person at the hotel said 'The government thinks people have watched enough TV (by 11) and should go to bed.' The government was making the choice for you."

"Then I went to Amsterdam, to the Grand Gala. Representatives from 20 different countries performed, and we were the U.S. act. There were two TV stations. I was performing 19th out of 20, so I was watching it on TV. A lot of the performers were in foreign languages, so I went to watch something else. The Grand Gala was on both stations. Someone told me 'The Queen thinks this is a cultural matter, and everyone should watch.' Once again, the government is deciding for you."

"So I decided to make our guitars red, white and blue as a nice, quiet statement that we love America. We got some cat calls about it. Some people didn't want politics mixed with music. I agree with that, but I wanted to make my statement."

Owens does draw a line. "I was asked to campaign for (George) Bush in California. I like Bush, but I thought it was not the thing to do. I don't agree with entertainers campaigning for politicians."

And he says emphatically, "Social comment and social content do not belong in songs."

He also points out an ironic twist in his career. "Hee Haw came on as a replacement for The Smothers Brothers, who were doing too much social commentary."

Although Owens' artistic reputation was suffering, largely due to his stint on Hee Haw, he continued to have hits through 1974.

Nonsense like "Big Game Hunter" and "Monster's Holiday" still made the Top Ten. Then, in July 1974, Owens' was dealt a severe blow both personally and musically. Don Rich was killed in a motorcycle crash.

Rich had joined Owens' band in 1959, while still in high school. The frequent guitar and fiddle player (and sometimes singer and songwriter) was more than just an excellent musician and stage foil. He had a relationship with Owens that has been described as "almost telepathic." On stage or off, the two could finish each others thoughts, both musically and otherwise.

The importance of Don Rich in helping to create the sound so identified with Buck Owens is often overlooked.

Emotionally shattered by Rich's sudden death, as well as minus his musical right-hand man, Owens never had another solo Top Ten hit after 1974 and has said he essentially sleepwalked through the remainder of that decade before finally coming to grips with the loss.

Owens, now 68, has had his share of health problems. He survived a bout with cancer a few years ago that cost him a small piece of his tongue. More recently, he was hospitalized with pneumonia and has had respiratory problems since.

Yet, he continues to play weekends at the Crystal Palace. Owens spends most of his sets doing other people's songs because it's like returning to his bar band roots.

Although he has available the technological capabilities of making a record, either studio or live, there are no current plans to do so. However, he's recorded some duets when asked and will take on anything interesting that comes along. His spokesman Jim Shaw (who originally joined The Buckaroos in 1970), says, "He doesn't need money anymore. He just wants to do what's fun."

The relative lack of detailed interviews, as well as his legendary mercurial temperament, make Buck Owens more of an enigma than the other great stars of the Sixties.

For now, the best biographical source (as well as the quintessential source for his music) is the three-CD box set put out by Rhino. Owens owns all of his Capitol recordings, and that material is gradually being reissued.

The Sundazed label of New York put out five Owens albums from the Sixties in November, including "Sings Harlan Howard," "Sings Tommy Collins, "In Japan!", "Your Tender Loving Grace," and "It Takes People Like You to Make People Like Me."

Will he write the story of his life? "I am working on a book, but it's a slow procedure," Owens says.

If it ever comes out, it should be a dandy. "I'm not afraid of controversy. If you're telling the truth, you're never going to be boring."

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