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Remembering Buck Owens

Chris Willman explains why the country singer's legacy goes far beyond his hosting gig on ''Hee Haw''

Buck Owens
Image credit: Buck Owens: Paul Natkin/WireImage.com

There are country singers who can sing sad songs so convincingly that they drag you down with them to the utter depths of heartbreak and despair. Buck Owens was not one of those singers. To be sure, he had a fondness for tear-in-your-beer tunes and recorded some classic ones, but they were always rendered so cheerfully, and with such bordering-on-rock rhythm and panache, that you could never really believe Owens was in the emotional gutter. He was smiling on nearly every album cover, and chances are he left you chuckling — and toe-tapping — in the end, even if you were in misery and initially put on a song like ''Cryin' Time'' hoping to commiserate.

When Owens died, on March 25, there was nothing unduly tragic about the circumstances that would cancel out our image of him as country music's most upbeat-seeming legend. The night before he died, he sat down to his favorite meal, chicken-fried steak, at the Crystal Palace, the restaurant and club he opened in his hometown of Bakersfield, Calif., a decade ago. Owens played the club nearly every Friday and Saturday night, but he hadn't been feeling up to it, and was headed for the car to go home... when, according to reports, he ran into some fans from Bend, Ore., who'd driven south just to hear him play. Not wanting to disappoint them, the 76-year-old decided to stick around and sing for an hour and a half after all. He died later that night, at home, in his sleep, shortly after making some devotees' wishes come true — probably the way most entertainers would choose to go out.

For Americans between the ages of about 35 and 50, he's probably best known as the cohost of Hee Haw, the cornpone knockoff of Laugh-In, from 1969 through 1986 (the first two years on CBS, the rest in extremely successful syndication). Not everyone is thrilled at the thought of that being his primary popular legacy. ''I looked at CNN.com today and [the headline] said, 'Hee Haw Star Buck Owens Dies,' and it made me mad,'' current hitmaker Brad Paisley told the Nashville Tennessean over the weekend. ''This is a guy who influenced the Beatles. They covered him [with the Ringo Starr-sung 'Act Naturally']. He's one of the most important country artists ever. That headline should say, 'Music Legend Buck Owens Dies.''' Owens himself had mixed feelings about the show — positive enough to have stuck with it for 17 years, obviously, but negative enough to have later admitted, ''I just kinda prostituted myself for their money. My music, which I loved, had suffered badly and I knew what it was from: too much 'Phifft! You were gone.''' But though country purists thought the series gave the genre a black eye, there's been a reassessment, in recent years, with many agreeing that country's later resurgences and even artistic revivals wouldn't have been possible without so many kids being exposed to classic artists in the show's performance slots.

And what Owens accomplished prior to that is inarguable. When the pop-friendly ''Nashville sound'' was becoming country's industry standard in the 1960s (also known as ''countrypolitan,'' it represented a move toward slicker, smoother, and more orchestrated hits), Owens countered with ''the Bakersfield sound,'' characterized by an almost tinny-sounding Fender Telecaster, loud drums, fast shuffles, and Owens' own unapologetically accenting crooning. It's for this stripped-down sound and eagerness to rock the honky-tonks that Owens is venerated not only by oldsters who knew him as a star for a decade prior to Hee Haw, but also by younger generations of fans who never had a chance to have their first exposure tainted by the TV tomfoolery. It seemed unlikely during the hoary Hee Haw days, but Owens came back to being one of a handful of country legends — along with fellow Bakersfieldian Merle Haggard, George Jones, Johnny Cash, and Loretta Lynn — for whom any mainstream Music Row-hating rocker kid would have to profess a love, just to keep up an elementary coolness quotient.

For much of that, we can thank Dwight Yoakam, who was responsible for seriously helping reclaim Owens' career and image by asking him in 1988 to duet on ''Streets of Bakersfield,'' which landed the legend at No. 1 on the country chart for the first time since 1972. The veneration hasn't much stopped since then: Some performers even mimic Owens' patented halting-and-gulping vocal style, as Gretchen Wilson does in a fleeting homage on her latest album, and as Martina McBride does throughout her cover of ''Love's Gonna Live Here Again'' on her most recent album.

But most of all, thank Owens, who, though he was a multimillionaire businessman (reportedly Bakersfield's richest), never got so far above his raisin' that he couldn't play for a few hundred tourists at the club every weekend, taking requests and doing shout-outs for birthdays and anniversaries. In recent years, health problems (including throat cancer and a minor stroke) had made it harder for him to speak clearly, and visitors to the Crystal Palace could be heard wondering aloud if he were drunk. But his singing voice was, happily, unaffected, and those visitors from Oregon who compelled him to do his last show Friday surely got their money's worth. As for the rest of us: Perpetually grinning Buck Owens, for maybe the first time ever, has managed to make us genuinely sad.

Originally posted Mar 27, 2006