What better way to celebrate the launch of our redesign and the grand opening week of the new Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum than sitting down with one of the Hall of Fame’s most colorful members, Buck Owens.
Adding to his endless list of accolades, Owens was honored with the Country Radio Broadcasters Career Achievement Award on June 28, 2001. Brad Paisley presented the award during CRB’s annual Country Music DJ Hall of Fame Banquet at the Renaissance Hotel in Nashville.
The Country Music Hall of Fame, in tandem with Audium Entertainment, recently released Young Buck, The Complete Pre-Capitol Recordings of Buck Owens. The CD includes 21 tracks Owens recorded in 1955-56, including the rockabilly tunes — “Hot Dog” and “Rhythm and Booze” — that he first issued under the pseudonym Corky Jones.
You sent in your questions, and we selected 20 to pose to Owens. He took the time to answer many at length. He talks about his crush on Loretta Lynn, addresses his rumored shaky relationship with fellow Hee Haw star Roy Clark, gives his opinion of Garth Brooks and contemporary country, shares his plans for an autobiography and new album and recalls meeting Dwight Yoakam. The country legend reveals his biggest regret and proudest moment. He says he lives for twang. So do we. Read on.
1. In the past couple of years, we have seen new album releases by George Jones, Porter Wagoner, Hank Thompson and others. Do you have a new album in the works?
It just so happens that the last year and a half I’ve been writing songs again and I’ve come up with what I think are some real good songs. Don’t we always think that? I’ve shared them with other people and they think they’re really good songs. I have begun to work on a new album. I don’t know how many new songs it will have on it. … It depends on how the songs turn out. I have decided to call this album Buck Owens and His One-Man Band … Mistakes and All. I’m going to play every instrument that you will hear on the album: drums, bass, harmonica, fiddle, steel guitar, Dobro, rhythm guitar and so forth — maybe even the accordion. I thought it would be an interesting concept.
Dwight Yoakam, who was up the other day, suggested that we call it “Buck Owens and His One-Man Band, Mistakes and All, with the 21st Century Technology,” which might not be a bad idea. When someone plays more than one instrument, they have to do it with some kind of technology. It can’t be done all at once. I’m going to sing all the harmony; I’m going to play the piano. … My mother was a piano player, I can play the piano a little.
I must confess that I probably don’t play some of these [instruments] too hot. But I promise you I’ll play them good enough that you’ll like it and it’ll be to the best of my ability (being creative is very difficult). Otherwise, I’ll burn it in the fireplace.
2. I read somewhere a while back that you might write an autobiography. Is that still on? When will we see it?
Yes, it is still on. It is a long, hard, arduous process. I’ve never written a book before, and I’m going to have to get me some help, someone to write down what it is I want to say. Through the years, I have had many offers from big publishing companies to write a book, but I would have to write with a ghostwriter. And they [the publisher] would own the book and they would do with it and edit it and say what they wanted to say. I don’t want to do that. I want it to reflect exactly what I said and what my feelings were. So therefore, I’m probably going to hire a writer to take all these little stories, of which there are hundreds, and all these little facts, and have them all put into story-form, and put them in a book. It’ll have hundreds of pictures in it, probably. Pictures of me with people like Jackie Gleason, Dean Martin, some Presidents, various different people … Liberace, people that you wouldn’t think I had ever done anything with. John Wayne is another. So the answer is yes, but I don’t know when. The same to question No. 1. I don’t know when the new CD will be out.
3. How can a new kid on the block without connections make it in Nashville? My very talented niece has a demo CD but no one will even give her a chance. Any suggestions?
The only suggestion I can tell you is do it like I did it, like Merle did it, like Hank Williams Sr. did it, like Johnny Cash did it, like Jerry Lee Lewis and Ray Price did it. Most all of the people of my vintage started on a little label because they couldn’t get a big label interested in them. Now, on the small label, my feeling is, you have absolutely no chance whatsoever of obtaining international fame. What you hope to do on a small label is to attract the attention of a big label.
4. Buck, you’ve always been my favorite country artist. I was wondering what you consider the biggest achievement — or proudest moment — of your musical career?
Well that’s a tough one, you know. Was it playing the Grand Ole Opry, when I played the guitar for Tommy Collins in 1954? Was it playing the Palladium in London (and doing a live album)? I don’t have just one proudest moment; I have several of them, probably. But the one that sticks out so much in my mind is being chosen to perform at Carnegie Hall. I remember that they called October of 1965 and asked about us performing there in March of 1966. I said, ‘We’re taking that month off and tell them no thank you. I don’t want to book there. I don’t care how much they’re paying.’ [My manager] Jack McFadden says to me, ‘Buck, you don’t understand, this is Carnegie Hall, this is the pinnacle.’ I said, ‘Well, let me think about it.’
I didn’t know if I would like New Yorkers or if they would like me (although I had appeared at the old Madison Square Garden). Finally I said, ‘OK, I guess it’s important to do. Book the thing and we’ll do it.’ Capitol Records wanted to make a live album of the performance, to which I said, ‘OK, that’s fine, we’ll try that.’ I must tell you I was very apprehensive, no way to know how it was going to turn out. But as it was, the New Yorkers were at least as great as any audience I ever performed before. They said, ‘One thing about the New Yorkers, if they don’t like you, they’ll let you know pretty quick and you’ll see a lot of the folks getting up and leaving.’ I did the Carnegie Hall thing and I think it turned out to be my proudest moment. At least for country music, I presented it straightforward. Yes, we did some comedy, we always did comedy, but I presented the music in the same fashion I had all my life. Let me tell you what it is, it’s very simple — ‘It don’t mean a thang if it ain’t got that twang.’ I live for twang.
5. How important were Don Rich and Tom Brumley to the success of Buck Owens and the famous ‘Buck Owens sound’?
Well, Tom, of course, was important. He played a great steel guitar and I loved working with Tom. He was with me through the ’60s; a part of what many people [consider] the finest country band of its day. It included Don Rich, Tom Brumley, Doyle Holly playing the bass, Willie Cantu playing the drums. I played the guitar and whatever else. Many felt it was the finest five-piece country music band that had ever been put together. Don Rich was as much of the ‘Buck Owens sound’ as I was. I always felt as if I would have been a success, but Don Rich made it easy. He made it wonderful; it seemed like he could read what was in my head. It seemed like he could read whether I was going to sing a certain note in a certain way. I could write a whole book on Don Rich, his importance to music, his importance to the ‘Buck Owens sound,’ the ‘Bakersfield sound.’ Yes, how important were they? They were terribly, terribly important. Don Rich — I don’t know if I could express how important he was. I don’t know if there are words to say that.
6. Where did you get your red, white and blue guitar?
I designed it along with Simie Mosely. The idea came to me in 1965 from all the unrest and people burning the American flag. By 1966 I had designed the entire guitar and put it on the market for people if they wanted one. I also got Don [Rich] to paint his fiddle red, white and blue; and Doyle Holly had a red, white and blue bass. It was my way of saying I loved America. America might not be perfect, but let me tell you, by then I had traveled all over the world and there’s lots more freedom and lots more wonder, lots more great things happening here in America than any place else. If you know me at all you know that I am a patriot. … I’m not going to get up and say bad things about America, although the politicians have got this country in one hell of a mess because they serve their own selfish needs. I think they put those ahead of America. I think we would be better off if we didn’t have any [political] parties — where each person goes out and votes what his constituents want him to vote instead of trading votes, as they say in politics. ‘Well, you vote for my bill and I’ll vote for yours.’ You don’t like their bill and they don’t like yours, gee whiz, how awful.
7. How did you and Dwight Yoakam get together for “Streets of Bakersfield”? I never listened to country music until I heard that song. I hope you release another duet with him. Your voices really complement each other.
Well, I agree with that. I think Dwight and I do complement each other. One fall day in 1987, Dwight Yoakam came to my office. Dwight was just getting started then. He had “Guitars, Cadillacs,” “Little Ways,” which was a lot like “Under Your Spell Again,” but I knew Dwight Yoakam was a great fan. People had sent me newspaper pieces from all over the world that Dwight was extolling the virtues of Buck Owens music. So he came there, and that’s how we met and struck up a friendship.
We got together for “Streets of Bakersfield” right after that. CBS was doing a ’30 Years of Country Music’ special in January of 1988 from the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville. Merle [Haggard] and I were supposed to team up and represent country music from the West Coast. About a week before we were supposed to do it, Merle just up and cancelled. He said his steel guitar player had to have some sort of surgical procedure and so he wouldn’t be there. So, CBS asked if there was somebody else out there that represented the ‘Bakersfield sound,’ the ‘Buck Owens sound,’ that could [join] me. I said, ‘Yes, there’s a kid out here that loves that sound and he also presents that sound on his records. His name is Dwight Yoakam.’ They asked that I bring him and find a song we could sing together. … So I was going through my old records and I ran across “Streets of Bakersfield.”
It stirred up quite a fuss. People were calling me and writing me saying we sounded good; that we might ought to consider doing a record together. The Academy of Country Music [invited] Dwight and I to do “Streets of Bakersfield” on its award show. My friend Bob Mitchell, who was a director of programming for KFRE in Fresno, asked me if he could play the song. He had taped it, so that’s kind of the way it started.
I got many other [requests]. There was a disc jockey up in Canada that wanted to do the same thing. So, Dwight decided he wanted us to do the song on his album. It turned out so well that I sincerely believed — and Dwight will tell you today if you ask him — it would be a No. 1 song. He never had a No. 1 song at that time. So, I worked at it pretty hard. I believed in it so much. He released “Streets of Bakersfield” as his next single and the rest is history. It did make a great hit; it had a great impact on Dwight and I was very happy to be a part of that.
8. Buck, how do you feel about country music today? Do you feel country is getting away from good traditional music?
Ha, ha, ha, that’s putting it mildly. That’s putting it very gentle. Yes. I think it absolutely has. I think one of the reasons is because people have sold millions and millions of records. Shania has had 10 million-selling albums. That’s unheard of, it’s the only time in history that’s been done. Look at Garth Brooks having sold a hundred million records. Although Garth Brooks is country — he’s as country as cornbread — was he a great singer? I think he’s a good, good singer. I think he communicates with the people and he has this wonderful openness about him. He has such an honesty and integrity about him. As I’ve often said, he reminds me of Will Rogers, another wonderful, good ol’ Okie. There’s Billy Ray Cyrus; he had an album that sold millions.
It’s hard to blame someone for wanting to sell all those records. … It is what people call ‘record company greed.’ Yeah, I think it’s record company greed, OK. But then had I been in the same situation, would I stick with that? Of course I would. It’s unfortunate for country music. Since that all happened, literally thousands of cuts have been done with the idea that maybe [record labels] could find somebody else that could sell that many records. … There’s enough blame to go around for everybody, but the record companies, they deserve most of it. If you find me somewhere by the side of the road with eight bullet holes in my head, why you probably know that somebody took exception to what I said.
9. What is your son Buddy doing now? Anything musical?
No. Buddy’s not doing anything special. He remarried two years ago. He’s semi-retired, just doing special things he always wanted to do.
10. Buck, last year you played with my absolute favorite artist, Gary Allan. Who was the most memorable person you have ever played with? And why?
The most memorable person I ever performed with was Don Rich; there’s no doubt about it. However, talking about other artists, I owe so much to Johnny Cash, because in 1960 Johnny Cash took me on a tour with him all the way across Canada, down through Seattle and Portland. Then Luther [Perkins, Cash’s guitarist] dropped me off at my house in Bakersfield after the tour. I got to play before tens of thousands of people. Johnny Cash was so hot, and he gave me that opportunity. I sang three or four songs each show. I always felt like I owed Johnny Cash that debt forever. I would never be able to repay him. So, my most memorable person is Johnny Cash. I don’t know anyone that has meant more to country music than Johnny Cash has meant. He’s the absolute champion. Although I’m a fan of many of the others, I’m a great believer in the great Johnny Cash.
11. Have you ever turned down a song to record and then it became a hit with another artist? If so, what was the song title?
Well, you know I did turn down a song. Nat Stuckey sent me a song one time called “Hungries for Your Love.” I changed it to “Waitin’ in Your Welfare Line.” Don Rich and I took that and wrote some verses about it and made a nice big song about it. Immediately thereafter, I got another song from Nat Stuckey. Nat Stuckey passed on some years ago from cancer. He sent me “Pop a Top.” I loved the song. I thought the song would be a hit, but I didn’t want to do a song at that time about drinking and all that. Jim Ed Brown put it out and made a hit out of it. I never regretted that, because it wasn’t that I didn’t believe in the song, it’s just I didn’t want to do a drinking song at that time.
12. Looking back on your great career, is there any one thing you regret doing or not doing?
Elvis Presley was appearing at the Hilton in Las Vegas. Bakersfield to Las Vegas in a plane is only 30 minutes. So, I set up [an arrangement] with Colonel Tom [Parker] for my two sons and I and my wife to see Elvis. At the last moment I felt bad and my wife and I didn’t go, but my two sons and their wives went. They had a big box, a special place. And nobody got the word to Elvis that I wasn’t there. In the middle of his show, Elvis made this great introduction to Buck Owens. … My sons told me they put the spotlight over on our box and folks were applauding. I was very upset. I never had another chance to meet him. I was a great Elvis fan. They were very kind. They sent back a couple of security people from the Hilton to take my sons and their wives backstage to Elvis’ dressing room. They said hello, got to meet him and had a couple of pictures made with him. I really do regret that I missed it.
13. What song is most inspirational for you personally?
I don’t know if you’re speaking from a religious viewpoint or some other way, but I can tell you this. I don’t have any one song that personally inspired me more than the other. There were several of them. I was just so happy that all you wonderful people had made me a part of it. That’s inspirational for me.
14. As an owner of many radio stations, how do you respond to radio’s limited playlists? Do you think radio is to blame for country’s current blandness?
No, I don’t think radio is. Radio can only play what the record companies put out. And you have to have new music to play. If that’s the kind of new music they’re making, we don’t have a choice. We have to play it. You can’t continue to play the same old records all the time. People stop listening, when they stop listening, you stop getting ratings, you stop being able to sell advertising and being able to pay the bills. I want to say once again that the greed of the big record companies, their non-willingness to record anything with the great country heart, is the biggest part. No, I don’t blame the radio stations. They have to have music to play. But whether my radio station or someone else’s — I guess I blame us all, really. I think we’re all really to blame, we get caught in it together. Radio stations can’t do it by themselves, record companies can’t do it by themselves, publishers can’t do it, writers can’t do it, nobody can do it by themselves. There’s plenty of blame to go around and we all deserve part of it.
15. Buck, you worked with Roy Clark for over 20 years on Hee Haw. It is rumored that you and Roy didn’t get along too well, or for that matter, at all. Is this true?
Roy Clark and I never had a cross word, not one cross word. In Roy’s book, he says that he thought that I was a little bit of a prima donna and that upset him. Roy was a former boxer. He weighed about 260 and I weighed about 180, so I’m afraid I’d been over matched. The book said he thought about coming over to where I was and just laying a punch on me, but then he thought ‘what the hell, never mind.’ But I suspect that was the writers taking a little bit of license, as they call it, and I suspect that belongs to the writers. I don’t think Roy would ever have said that. So let me say again — Roy and I never had a cross word. We were friends then and we’re friends now.
16. My girls – ages 5 and 3 – just LOVE to listen to your music. Their favorite is the “Live at the White House” tape. They want to know what it was like for you to play at the White House?
It was a great pleasure and privilege to get to perform at the White House. It’s by invitation only. You don’t book the White House, but [it is an honor] to play for the President and his family and all of their folks. They had a couple thousand invitees there. It was a lot of fun. I couldn’t tell you how long it’s been since I felt as big a thrill as that.
17. Did you really have a crush on Loretta Lynn in your early years in Washington?
Yes, it is true. I had a crush on Loretta Lynn, ever since I first met her. I still think Loretta Lynn is a beautiful lady. Do I still have crush on her? Yes, the answer is yes. I still have a crush on Loretta Lynn. I still think that not only is she a great talent and a great lady, but I think she is easy on the eyes, yeah, easy on the eyes.
18. I have a 45 rpm of yours on the Pep label. Was that your first recording?
Yes, the first record I ever had out was on Pep Records. It was a little label with not one distributor, run by Claude Caviness down in Pico Rivera, Calif. The name of the song was “Down on the Corner of Love.” That was the song I used to try to get [a record deal]. I made several different songs in those times, in what we call dubs, to present to record companies to show them what my ability was. The Country Music Hall of Fame has released an album called Young Buck. In this album they have both the dub version and the Pep Record version that was actually released on one album. It’s really quite an interesting story. The booklet explains all of it to you.
19. Buck, I grew up watching your TV show on KTVT-11 in Fort Worth in the ’60s. The first words I ever read, at age 3, was your name, out of the TV Guide. I’d give anything to be able to buy VHS or DVD copies of the old Buck Owens Ranch TV shows, as many as you could put out. ANY chance of that happening [please!]?
Yes, there is a very good chance of that. We’re in the middle of approaching that right at this point. In the very near future, you’re going to be hearing lots about it. Watch www.buckowens.com.
20. I really enjoyed the recent Don Rich release that was put together on Sundazed and the Susan Raye collection on Varese Sarabande. Are there any plans to make the rest of Buck Owens Enterprises’ masters available again (such as Buddy Alan, The Buckaroos, The Hagers, Tony Booth)? Or at least a “best of B.O.E.?” What about the rest of the Buck Owens’ catalog through ’75 on Sundazed?
There are lots and lots of plans to release different things. Lots of talk. It’s all on the drawing board. Nothing specifically yet about The Hagers, The Buckaroos, Buddy Alan, Susan Raye, about those becoming available. Nothing has been set in cement yet — what the next project will be or when it will be. But one thing for sure, it’s going to be, so keep your eyes open and watch www.buckowens.com, and maybe that will be happening in the very near future.
Thank you very much.