Buck Owens, a pioneer in California’s honky-tonk country music scene who gained considerable celebrity as co-host of TV’s “Hee-Haw,” died Saturday at his home in Bakersfield. He was 76.
Owens had performed Friday night at his concert hall and eatery, Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace, and after returning home had died in his sleep.
Owens has had a number of ailments since suffering a stroke a few years ago. He had cancer surgery in 1993.
A musical maverick, Owens created a style of country music that rebelled against the syrupy, string-laden style that was in vogue in Nashville. Combining twang, honky-tonk and the rawness of rock ‘n’ roll, Owens helped forge the Bakersfield Sound, which would influence artists such as Gram Parsons of the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, Emmylou Harris and Dwight Yoakam.
Owens had a string of more than 20 No. 1 records, most released from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. The Beatles and Ray Charles, among others, covered his hits. The Fab Four did “Act Naturally” with Ringo Starr singing lead; Charles had a hit with “Crying Time.”
Among his biggest hits were “Together Again,” “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail,” “Love’s Gonna Live Here,” “My Heart Skips a Beat” and “Waitin’ in Your Welfare Line.”
In 1969, Owens joined Roy Clark as the front men for the TV show “Hee-Haw,” which featured country music and rural humor. Owens, who always appeared with his red, white and blue guitar, played the role of a hayseed, which tended to overshadow his artistic contributions to country music.
Owens’ musical star was reignited in the 1980s as Yoakam’s career was starting to flourish. The two performed together, and Owens was held in high esteem by a generation of country performers raised on the rock ‘n’ roll that Owens inspired.
Born Alvis Edgar Owens Jr. in 1929 outside Sherman, Texas, his family left a life of sharecropping to move to Arizona when he was 8. He dropped out of school at 13 to haul produce and harvest crops, and by 16 he was playing music in taverns.
He moved to Bakersfield in 1951 and spent eight years performing at the Blackboard, which billed itself as Central California’s top country dance hall. Bakersfield was full of the juke joints that catered to locals and truck drivers traveling between the Bay Area and Southern California. Ferlin Husky, Merle Haggard, Marty Robbins and Tommy Collins were among the future stars sharing stages with Owens at the time.
In 1953 in Los Angeles, Owens backed Collins on a recording of “You Better Not Do That,” impressing Capitol Records’ country staff, which led to him being hired regularly as a studio musician. In the mid-’50s, he started writing songs with Harlan Howard, which led to his first solo recording in 1958.
In January 1961, Capitol released his self-titled debut album, which yielded the hits “Foolin’ Around” and “Under the Influence of Love.” Two years later, “Act Naturally” would be his first No. 1 single. Soon thereafter, he would have significant success with the so-called “freight train sound.”
“Hee-Haw” ran on CBS from 1969 to 1971 and then went syndicated; in ’72, Owens had his final No. 1 with “Made in Japan.” He left the show in 1986 and two years later would be brought back into the spotlight via Yoakam.
Away from the music business, Owens’ business interests included a Bakersfield TV station and radio stations in Bakersfield and Phoenix.
Owens was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1996.
Married three times, one of his sons also became a singer, using the name Buddy Alan. He had a Top 10 hit in 1968, “Let the World Keep on a-Turnin’,” and recorded a number of duets with his father. In addition to Buddy, Owens is survived by sons Michael and John.