n the Sixties, Buck Owens was country's top artist by a substantial margin. In the Seventies, as his hits became increasingly silly and then stopped coming, Buck's image was dominated by his role on television's Hee Haw.
In the Eighties, with his classic records out-of-print, Owens was either a national joke or a forgotten man. Then, Dwight Yoakam came along to make Bakersfield music fashionable again and even brought Owens back briefly to the top of the charts in 1988.
In the Nineties, Owens has become an icon to people on both sides of the country music fence. A recent reissue of five albums from the Sixties hasn't hurt.
But this man who never had much to do with Nashville (or it with him) stays in Bakersfield. He runs a major corporation that includes radio stations and his new pride and joy, Buck Owens' Crystal Palace.
That's "an all-in-one restaurant, museum and theatre," preserving Bakersfield as the real-country alternative to Nashville by honoring both the past and the present.
Owens performs at the club himself every weekend and also brings in performers that include elder statesmen like Bobby Bare and Johnny Paycheck and new keepers of the flame such as The Derailers and Sara Evans plus mainstream acts like Michael Peterson.
Owens does not do a lot of interviews. He has a fear of being misquoted. He indicates that he has been burned in the past, but won't specify who or what upset him. In Owens' case, the fear is particularly well-founded. He speaks in a rapid-fire delivery, equivalent to the "freight train" sound of his classic records. He often jumps to a different topic without warning, and his anecdotes are too long to be quoted in entirety.
Questions like "What is the Bakersfield Sound?" or "How do you define a country song?" seem to annoy him greatly. Perhaps it's for the same reason that Owens, in his weekend shows at The Crystal Palace, avoids playing any of his own hits unless they're specifically requested.
Perhaps for the same reason he confounded people in the early Seventies by recording "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and an entire album of modern folk songs.
Owens not only has always done things differently, he's always wanted to keep doing different things.
"Bakersfield sound" has become almost a cliché today. But what is it really?
Owens does eventually give his own take on the Sound.
"To me, it's the raw energy. I just played my music, and people started calling it the 'Bakersfield Sound,'" says Owens. "I just wanted to make sure it had some excitement. The one thing you have to do - you've got to get on top of the beat. It came natural to me, because I was nervous. To make good dance music, and good records, everything has to be on the positive side. You need driving drum beats, driving bass and driving guitar riffs, either steel guitar or Telecaster. The lyrics can be driving as well."
Owens was no overnight sensation. Before he had his big breakthrough in 1959 with "Under Your Spell Again," he spent years working in Southern California (he settled in Bakersfield in 1951) and in Arizona before that. He was in Tommy Collins' band from 1953-1956 and did hundreds of sessions, mostly for Capitol in Los Angeles.
He played not only on records by country artists like Wanda Jackson and Faron Young, but on records of every style. He's on some of Stan Freberg's rock 'n' roll parodies including "Rock Island Line" and "Heartbreak Hotel" and also did sessions for "over a hundred different people I never heard of before or since."
In those more informal days, musicians called to a session didn't know what they would be doing. Owens usually played guitar, and sometimes did harmony vocals, but other times "I would go and not play or sing a note, just carry coffee." Once he was asked to play ukulele on a tune called "Hawaiian Sea Breeze." After fibbing by saying he could play the instrument, Owens was sent out to buy one. But "I didn't know you couldn't play it with a guitar pick. I had to use a match holder."
One session Owens did reminds him of modern times. He played on Tommy Sands' "Teenage Crush," which reached Number Two on the pop charts. Sands was marketed as a teen idol and budding movie star, but his shortage of talent soon made him a forgotten man.
"Like the Fifties," says Buck, "we now record people for how pretty they are rather than how they sing."
Earlier, Owens had told a long joke whose punchline was that "Can you sing?" is asked by labels nowadays after they've signed an artist, rather than before. He criticizes Nashville's assembly line system.
"The band don't change, the engineer don't change, the producer don't change," and he talks about "nice-looking young men" being told when and how to sing.
"Some of the groups in the last 10 years, they call themselves things about Texas. They're doing their best, but that ain't country to me. I like to hear some twang. Some guys try to sound like they're not twangy."