Dwight Yoakam Shares Stories of Buck Owens

New CD, Dwight Sings Buck, Honors Owens' Music and Their Friendship

Dwight Yoakam can elicit screams of approval for his own songs in concert, but when he tosses in a few Buck Owens covers, he says the crowd goes crazy.

“I think because it’s not just me playing my song,” Yoakam says. “It’s me and the audience being able to embrace Buck together.”

Dwight Sings Buck, the new CD to be released Tuesday (Oct. 23), is another way for Yoakam and his audience to continue their shared appreciation of the country music pioneer who died in 2006.

“That’s what Dwight Sings Buck is about,” he tells CMT.com. “I say in my dedication at the end of the [CD] booklet that I hope the audience is able to express their love for Buck and his music through listening to the record. Hopefully, that’s what we’re affording the audience the opportunity to do.”

During a recent interview at CMT’s offices in Nashville, Yoakam recalls his introduction to his musical hero in Bakersfield, Calif., their enduring friendship and the reason why the country audience stayed true to Owens.

CMT.com: When you approached Buck to sing with you initially, he was already done with Hee Haw, so what was he doing at that point?

Yoakam: He was being a gentleman rancher and broadcast entrepreneur. Buck Owens was one of the most successful broadcasters in country music history. His company still owns KUZZ in Bakersfield that he first bought, but he owned KNIX in Phoenix. During the years he owned it and his sons, Michael and Buddy Alan, ran it, it was the most successful county music station in the United States. That’s what he was doing when I met him in 1988. He owned some TV stations, and he was broadcasting country music. Buck had been in radio before he was successful as a performer, and he owned ranch property north of Bakersfield. That’s what he was doing the day I found him. He was wearing that rancher’s straw Stetson and behaving like Buck Owens. He was busy being Buck Owens, and it’s a full time job because there’s only one Buck.

You were in Bakersfield for a concert at the fair that day. How did you ask him to sing with you?

I didn’t know that he had not sang with anyone live in years and never had gotten up and sat in with anyone in Bakersfield until he got to the fairgrounds. I asked him at the station, “Are you coming?” and he said, “Well, I think maybe I’ll come out and see ya tonight.” And I said, “We know a few of your songs if you wanna get up.” And he did. I’ll be always grateful that he took a shine to me because he became a dear, dear friend to me.

It was a relationship that was complicated and convoluted, which is my nature and Buck’s. It was part friend, part sibling and part parent. At various times it was hard to tell who was being the parent and who was being the child — most cases it was me the child and him the parent. He was truly, uniquely one of a kind.

The first time I heard “Streets of Bakersfield” was when you did it as a duet. Did you ever consider including a solo version on this record?

Never considered that for a minute. I would never have that song any other way in my life except with him. It’s one of the reasons I never re-recorded any of Buck’s material when he was alive and never thought I would. I felt like Buck’s versions are too good, and I wouldn’t want to touch them. I wouldn’t want to, in any way, disrespect his right to own them completely.

What goes through your mind now if pull out one of his classic albums, like Live at Carnegie Hall?

When I hear something like Live at Carnegie Hall, I know that he meant what he said when he finished those concerts and hollered out in that enumerable fashion, “It takes people like you to make people like me.” … He meant it. He really did mean it.

I don’t know if you know the story of the last night that Buck lived. He went to the Crystal Palace and wasn’t feeling well after he got there. He decided to go home and not perform that night, and the Buckaroos had done their first set and he was leaving. He was in the parking lot, about to walk to his car, and some folks saw him, and he waved and said, “Oh, hi.” And they said, “Oh, Buck, you’re going home?” He said, “Oh, I’m not feeling too well.” They said “Aw, we drove down from Oregon just to see you tonight. We got a day off and we came.” He stopped and said, “Well,” and he thought about it.

That night, Buck turned around in the parking lot in Bakersfield and walked back in and performed a set so that those folks from Oregon weren’t turned away. … He didn’t let them down. We’re all human beings, and Buck was human and fallible like all of us, but Buck was true to himself and true to his audience, and that’s why people loved him.

Craig Shelburne has been writing for CMT.com since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.