HOT DISH: The Many Hats of Buck Owens

His Music Changed the Lives of Country Fans and Artists

(CMT Hot Dish is a weekly feature written by veteran columnist Hazel Smith. Author of the cookbook, Hazel’s Hot Dish: Cookin’ With Country Stars, she also shares her recipes at

When Buck Owens passed away in his sleep at his Bakersfield, Calif., home on March 25 at the age of 76, he’d reached plateaus most singing hillbillies will never see. And along the way, he’d made younger artists — Dwight Yoakam, Brad Paisley, Trace Adkins, Kenny Chesney, Garth Brooks and others — feel special. All of them loved Buck and his music and are devastated by his passing, including former band member Merle Haggard who said, “We were two outlaws together.”

The day Buck died, Brad called me from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Of course, I cried more than he did, but he was hurting. Brad spent four of the past five New Year’s Eves at Buck’s Crystal Palace restaurant and club in Bakersfield — not for pay but just to hang out with his friend. Whenever Brad performed on the West Coast, he always made a point to call Buck and go by the club to visit with him. Or when Brad’s actress wife Kimberly Williams-Paisley was working on the ABC-TV sitcom, According to Jim, Brad would get in the car and drive to Bakersfield. He and Buck would chat, maybe have lunch or dinner, but mainly just visit.

“Maybe you recorded ’When I Get Where I Am Going’ for Buck,” I suggested to Brad.

“Funny you should say that,” he replied. “We’ve added Buck’s picture to the video we play with the song during the concert. There’s Johnny and June [Cash] and Keith Whitley, and at the end, we placed a photo of Buck and Don Rich with [the words] ’Together Again’ under the photo.

“What a way to go,” Brad exclaimed. “Friday night, he played at the Crystal Palace, enjoyed his favorite meal — chicken fried steak. You know, Buck oversaw everything at the Palace — food, music. Everything was the best. He saw to it. He went home, went to bed, went to sleep and never woke up. If you’ve got to go, that’s the best way.”

Brad was bent out of shape with CNN.

“’Buck Owens, star of Hee Haw.’ That was the headline. Can you imagine? Buck was a great musician, great songwriter, great entertainer and great businessman, and CNN says the star of Hee Haw died. He was so much more than that.”

I’ll never forget the cold February night in 2001 when Brad was inducted as a member of the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium. Ever the spiffy dresser, Buck called Brad late Friday to ask what he was wearing for the Saturday event.

“If I had that yellow jacket out there in that glass case at the museum that you wore on the album cover of Carnegie Hall Concert, I’d wear that,” he joked. The next night, Buck’s right-hand man walked up to Brad at the Ryman. Brad turned ghost white, thinking something was wrong with Buck. The guy shoved a box at Brad and said, “Buck sent it.” It was the yellow jacket from the album cover.

Alvis Edgar Owens, the son of poor sharecroppers, was 3 years old when he said, “Call me Buck,” which was the name of his daddy’s mule. Leaving their dirt floor shack outside Sherman, Texas, in the dust, they headed west with California dreams. The family’s trailer hitch broke in Mesa, Ariz., where they had to stay during the darkest days of the Great Depression. Buck quit school in the ninth grade at age 13. A big boy, he went to work in the fields. That Christmas, he bought a mandolin and learned to play. By 16, he was playing the guitar.

Working honky-tonks and bars at 18, he met and married girl singer Bonnie Campbell and had two sons. Buck supplemented his music habit by driving a truck. In 1950, they moved to the oil town of Bakersfield, where Buck did club work as well as sessions as a guitarist at Capitol Records in Los Angeles where he recorded with stars and was guitarist in singer-songwriter Tommy Collins’ band. He signed with Capitol in 1957.

For a time, Buck moved to Puyallup, Wash., where he bought into a radio station, worked as a radio disc jockey, hosted a live TV show and was the first person to put Loretta Lynn on television. In Washington, Buck met teenaged fiddler Don Rich who became his closest friend, co-writer and a key band member as his lead guitarist and harmony singer. The Buckaroos — with bassist Doyle Holly, drummer Willie Cantu and steel guitarist Tom Brumley — were the hottest honky-tonk band that ever faced a full house.

Buck stayed away from drugs and drink and preferred recording with his solid road band. He wanted his records to sound like his stage shows and vice versa. He showed up for work on time, dressed neatly and was nice. He co-wrote songs with his friend, Harlan Howard.

After a few singles, Buck landed his first No. 1 single in 1963 with “Act Naturally,” which the Beatles covered. His follow-up, “Love’s Gonna Live Here,” topped the chart for 16 weeks, and 20 more No. 1 singles followed. Buck and the Buckaroos sold out Carnegie Hall, the London Palladium and nearly every coliseum in North America and also played the White House. I was blessed to see them in Winston-Salem, N.C., and was never the same.

Along with Haggard, Collins and Wynn Stewart, Buck was an architect of the Bakersfield Sound. Beginning in 1966, he hosted the syndicated TV program, The Buck Owens Ranch Show. He ran his own music publishing company and also owned a booking agency, recording studio, newspaper and radio stations. He was smart with his money and made every penny count.

In 1969, he agreed to co-host Hee Haw with Roy Clark on CBS-TV. In the beginning, Buck said he’d never wear overalls, but he did — and even wore them backwards. The show later went into syndication, and the entire nation came to know and love Buck Owens.

Buck was devastated in 1974 when Rich was killed in a motorcycle accident. He continued to perform, but he lost that gleam in his eye and soon scaled back his concert dates. After leaving Hee Haw, he spent most of his time managing the empire he’d built.

In September 1987, Kentucky native Dwight Yoakam meandered into his office and talked Buck into joining him onstage that night at the Kern County Fair. The crowd went ballistic as the mentor and student sang Buck’s hits. The highlight of the CMA Awards that year was Buck and Dwight singing “Streets of Bakersfield.” Buck and Dwight had a No. 1 single with the song — Buck’s last chart-topper. God bless Dwight Yoakam, wherever you are!

Buck survived cancer in 1993 and was elected into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1996. After opening the Crystal Palace in 1996, Buck would listen to and share words of wisdom with up-and-coming country talent. And if they were good enough, he’d tell them what he told Kenny Chesney, Trace Adkins, Brad Paisley and others: “You are three minutes away from being a big star.” With what little brains I’ve got, I know the great Buck Owens was telling his flock, “You are good enough. You just need to find a three-minute hit.”

God rest his soul.

Hollywood Calls for Billy Ray’s Daughter
It doesn’t seem like it was 13 years ago when Destiny Hope Cyrus was born and Mercury Records publicist Sandy Neese called me to say Billy Ray Cyrus had a baby girl and was thrilled beyond words.

“Her name is Destiny Hope, but Billy Ray calls her Miley,” I was told.

“Surely you mean Smiley,” I chided.

She became Miley to her dad, and now she is to the rest of the world, too, as Disney’s star wheels turn. She recently made her singing and acting debut the new sitcom, Hannah Montana. She’s writing songs, and I’m told she already has a six-figure recording contract with Disney’s Hollywood Records. By the way, the man who swore he’d never be involved in another TV series — Billy Ray — will play Miley’s dad in the series.

Other Notes
After church, my family was chowing down on catfish and the trimmings at Jaybirds in Hendersonville, Tenn., when we realized the couple watching the television at the next table were the parents of Diamond Rio bassist Dana Williams. His mama, Louise, is the sister of the Osborne Brothers.

Tim McGraw Reflected airs April 7 on NBC-TV.

Alan Jackson’s Precious Memories, the only gospel album to top the country chart, has bolted back to No. 1 in its fourth week of release.

See the new Hot Dish recipe of the week: Fried Green Tomatoes.