The pride of Bakersfield
Nov./Dec. 2005 California Country magazine
By Jim Morris
Iconic performer Buck Owens was the pride of Bakersfield.
Not much for convention or conformity, country music superstar Buck Owens came into the world in a memorable way and he's been a trailblazer ever since. The son of Texas sharecroppers, Alvis Edgar Owens Jr., was born on Aug. 12, 1929, delivered in the back seat of the family car.
The name Alvis lasted only a few years, until the boy proclaimed he wanted to be named after Buck, a mule on the family farm. Growing up during a historic time in America, Buck's life and values were influenced by the Great Depression. Dust storms devastated thousands of farms in Texas and Oklahoma in the 1930s, prompting a massive westward migration, poignantly written about in John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath." Buck, four siblings and five adults packed into their car, pulling a two-wheeled trailer with all they could carry, to join the migration.
Buck Owens died March 25, 2006. We remember him in this story--one of his final interviews--published in California Country, November/December 2005.
Like so many that came before them, they settled in the West and made a living working the fields. Buck recalls his family traveling throughout the Central Valley as different harvests occurred--picking potatoes in Edison, carrots in Porterville, tomatoes in Tracy and peaches in Modesto.
"There's no way you could have imagined my story," said the 76-year-old iconic performer, as he surveyed his 160-acre ranch in Kern County. "The first dream I can remember having was that I planned to work really hard, so I could make a penny a minute. My daddy at the time was making a dollar and a half a day working 10 hours."
He said seeing the hard work in fields and orchards helped him appreciate the contribution farmers make. Building upon his past to educate future generations, Buck is assembling a treasure trove of antiques at his ranch, located north of Bakersfield. He has obtained dozens of antique tractors, wagons, branding irons and other equipment from a bygone era, and he plans to one-day build an Old West town and museum honoring the California farmer and pioneer.
"I have a great sense about history," Buck said. "This equipment helped people settle this valley, and helped make the cotton and the hay grow. It needs to be preserved."
The ranch also has a windmill, which has special symbolism for Buck.
"It reminds me of the days when I think I was the happiest as a kid, with all of those dreams," he said. "I got to live to see most of them come true!"
Family farmers who migrated over during the Dust Bowl days appreciate Buck's story. "His music is representative of the Dust Bowl era and those memories," said grower Clayton Camp, whose family immigrated to Kern County from South Carolina. "Our family worked with many families that had migrated during the Dust Bowl. Buck's music brings pleasant memories of tough times."
As a teenager, Buck took to music because it offered a solution away from field labor. He learned he could make $5 a day performing, the same amount as harvesters received. Buck's mother showed him a few chords on the guitar and he learned the rest.
His first gig was a non-paying 15-minute stint on a radio station in Mesa, Ariz. A move to Bakersfield in the early 1950s provided greater exposure and Buck's career took off.
Buck and the Buckaroos dominated country music in the 1960s, and during a decade at Capital Records he sold more than 16 million albums. He wrote and performed hundreds of songs, with "Act Naturally," "My Heart Skips a Beat," "Together Again" and "Tiger by the Tail" among the biggest sellers.
Critics hailed Buck's style as the freight-train sound, with heavy contributions from drums and guitars that broke new ground for country music and attracted throngs of new fans. He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1996.
His career peaked during the tumultuous Vietnam War era, and Buck showed his patriotism by making his guitar and all of the band's instruments red, white and blue.
"Some places we played the people would hiss, cuss at and spit on us but that didn't bother me," he said. "I'm proud to be an American and it was my way of showing that. If you could look inside my heart, I bet anything the color of it is red, white and blue."
With his good looks and country charm, Buck made a smooth transition to television, first appearing on ABC's "Jimmy Dean Show" in 1963. The "Buck Owens Ranch Show" followed in 1966. From 1969-71, he and Roy Clark hosted "Hee Haw," a country version of "Laugh In" that lasted in syndication for more than 20 years.
Now with millions of albums sold, adoring fans throughout the United States and abroad, a successful television career and a net worth well in excess of $100 million, Buck has left his first dream in the dust.
At his ranch in Bakersfield, Buck has surrounded himself with things from opulent to eclectic. There is a mansion complete with a priceless silver saddle and several colorful horse sculptures; a fleet of 37 cars, including a priceless white Bentley convertible; leased citrus groves bordering a lake with four large horse statues bursting from the water; and a pack of iron, life-size dinosaur figures flanking the water.
"Kids love dinosaurs," Buck said. "I admired them too and they still haven't satisfactorily explained to me how they met such a demise."
Unlike the triceratops, tyrannosaurus rex and others that have seen their heyday come and gone, seeing Buck in concert convinces audiences that he has plenty of picking and singing left in him.
In October 1996, Buck opened the Crystal Palace in Bakersfield, a $10 million museum, restaurant and concert venue. The Palace offers a crash course in country music history, hundreds of items of memorabilia and more than 1,000 historic photos don the walls.
"I love Bakersfield and all of Central California," he said. "People here understand what I'm doing and saying, and I understand them too."
Buck showed his civic pride by helping save and refurbish the famed Bakersfield sign. When he heard it was in ill repair and was about to be demolished, he bought the sign for $1, then spearheaded a $175,000 community effort to have it moved and restored.
"It's part of the history of this town," he said. "I remember seeing the sign coming up the 99 freeway and I'd feel like I was home, seeing an old friend."
When asked what he was most proud of, Buck said a continual thrill is the influential role he plays for many musicians.
"It's overwhelming to me when people tell me that I am their greatest musical influence," he said. "That's what I'm most proud of that I was able to bring forward a kind of music, a style and a system that the young entertainers remember where they learned it and where they heard it."
He also has golden memories of his musical career and where it took him. "I'm proud of being part of the movement that helped country music become more widely accepted," Buck said. "I never thought I'd ever perform at Carnegie Hall, but they called me and asked me to play. I'm proud of performing at the White House and playing all over the world. I'm proud that the Beatles did one of my songs and that I did a duet with Ringo Starr. I'm also proud of making it to the age of 76."
Buck's vitality remains despite several serious health problems, including cancer surgery on his throat and tongue in 1994 and a stroke in recent years.
At his home recording studio, he's working on his first album in a decade, and will provide all of the vocals and instruments. He's jotting down notes of his life story, as he considers a lucrative book deal.
Family and friends are a vital part of Buck's life. He's the last living member of his immediate family, but enjoys sons, Buddy, Michael and Johnny. He's close with his companion Karen Rotan, and thanks to his magnetic and giving personality, he's made friends that extend well beyond the Central Valley.
"I just think he's one of the country music stars that's legendary now as he lives," said Marty Raybon, lead singer of the country group Shenandoah. "When you think of Bakersfield, you think of Buck Owens and West Coast country music."
Buck said he hopes to continue doing just what he's doing--performing and enjoying the good life.
"I'm having fun. I made a lot of money and I'm spending it as fast as I can," he said with a wink and a grin. "Whenever it comes time and the big guy says time to go, Buck,' I'll have everything fixed up the way I want it … I hope. It'll all be up to Him, but I'm working at it, Lord!"
Jim Morris is a reporter/photographer in Sacramento. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.