BAKERSFIELD, Calif. -- Together again.
The title of one of Buck Owens' best-known songs became a subtle theme Sunday (April 2) as more than 2,000 family, friends, fans and fellow performers gathered at the Valley Baptist Church in Bakersfield to honor the Country Music Hall of Fame member who died in his sleep March 25.
The altar was covered with floral arrangements -- some of them recreating his trademark red, white and blue guitar -- but also featured a western hat with the words "Together Again" scrawled on a white brim. The event's music included the title track of Owens' gospel album, Dust on Mother's Bible, in which a departing parent promises, "Son, I'll meet you on the other side." The afternoon's speakers additionally noted that Owens is reunited in the afterlife with family, with God and with some of his former bandmates.
"He's probably with his best friend, [guitarist] Don Rich, up there right now and they're pickin' and grinnin' -- all of them together again," son Michael Owens suggested.
A number of artists came from out of town for the ceremony which lasted an hour and 40 minutes. Garth Brooks had a front-row seat. Ex-Byrd Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen, both former members of the Desert Rose Band, performed a convincing rendition of "Turn, Turn, Turn." John Berry offered a graceful a cappella take on "Blessed Assurance." Brad Paisley, who wore a chain with a symbolic cross over a black shirt, delivered a tender version of his gospel-themed "When I Get Where I'm Going."
The latter song -- in which a singer, contemplating his death, tells friends "Don't cry for me down here" -- nicely reflected the mood of the remembrance, which produced more laughter than tears.
"There's never been a better friend to young artists in country music than Buck Owens," Paisley said, to large applause, adding there's "never been a better businessman in the history of country music."
Paisley then proceeded to tell the crowd humorously how Owens often encouraged young artists to keep their costs down, particularly counseling them not to tour with more than one bus -- to avoid unnecessary fuel expenses. Thus, Paisley confessed, when he expanded to multiple buses, he would park all but one bus several miles away when he played Owens' Crystal Palace to hide the expense from his mentor.
"It's amazing," Paisley deadpanned, "how we'd fit 40 people on that one bus."
Paisley added that traveling from Memphis, where he performed the previous evening, provided a similar dilemma: Only one commercial flight to Bakersfield was available for Sunday morning, and it was inconvenient.
"I could've chartered a private jet," Paisley reasoned, "but [Buck] would be sitting up [in his casket] right now, and there would have been two funerals today."
"In that spirit," Paisley continued after the laughter subsided, "Buck would be proud to know that I had a free ticket on Southwest, and I used it today."
Owens became one of the wealthiest men in Bakersfield by being wise about his spending, but he remained generous with money for the right causes. Pastor Roger Spradlin, who conducted the service, recalled Owens donated an expensive, new van to the church when his mother suggested it. Son Buddy Owens (who used the name Buddy Alan as a recording artist in the late-1960s and '70s) also said his father supported the local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, to whom fans were asked to send donations in lieu of flowers.
The career advice Owens gave to younger artists was often followed. Brooks negotiated ownership of his masters away from Capitol Records after Owens suggested the move. Similarly, Trace Adkins remembered that Owens evaluated his career with extraordinary bluntness.
"He was so candid and frank," Adkins noted before the funeral. "He said, 'That low note that you can hit, you need to do that in every song, 'cause that's really all you got goin' for you.'"
Adkins apparently took that to heart. At Sunday's service, he infused a performance of the haunting gospel piece "Wayfaring Stranger" with several basement tones, including one on the song's very last word.
Dwight Yoakam, who joined Owens on the 1988 duet "Streets of Bakersfield," likewise said the late legend "chastised me a lot" for career missteps.
The balding Yoakam comically captured Owens' voice in recreating one specific conversation:
"Dwight, you know, you look good in that hat. You know, I wouldn't take it off as much as you're doin'!"
As a result, Yoakam asked to be forgiven for wearing a hat in a house of worship, then donned a tan one before singing a lonesome version of "In the Garden."
Yoakam is a direct musical descendent of Owens, who injected an energetic drive into country music during the 1960s. At the time, the Nashville Sound was in vogue, flavoring country radio with string sections and pop-flavored ballads. Owens' rollicking numbers such as "My Heart Skips a Beat," "I've Got a Tiger by the Tail" and "Above and Beyond" captured the spirit of the Bakersfield honky-tonks in which he honed his sound that was flavored with a little of rock music's rebellion.
"He really liked the Beatles," Buddy Owens noted. "You know, I think a lot of it was the fact that a lot of it was a little raw and a little raunchy."
The Beatles, in fact, remade Owens' 1963 hit "Act Naturally" and featured it as the B-side of "Yesterday." Ringo Starr eventually earned a country Grammy nomination by recording yet another version of the song with Owens in 1989.
But music wasn't the only thing in Owens' life. He was spiritually motivated, a friend to his community and an inspiration as a parent.
Michael Owens called him "a wonderful, sometimes tough, father," relating that during his own teen years, he once borrowed Buck's brand new Corvette while the senior Owens was on tour and proceeded to get a speeding ticket with multiple violations.
In court, Michael pleaded his case while his father sat at his side.
"I thought I'd smooth-talked this judge into just givin' me a warning and giving me a very, very small fine," Michael remembered. "Just as the judge was about to render his decision, Dad stood up and said, 'Your honor, I don't think this penalty is harsh enough.'"
In short order, the teen received a heavy fine, had his license suspended and, as a result, lost his job and had to change high schools. Buck Owens, who faced hardship as a youth during the Great Depression, obviously made sure his children learned firsthand about responsibility and about consequences.
If that experience put some distance between father and son at the time, it was clearly not a lasting circumstance.
"I used to look forward every Sunday night to my weekly phone call with Dad," said Michael, who managed Phoenix radio station KNIX before the family-owned Owens Broadcasting sold it, along with another station, in 1999 for $142 million. "The conversation would sometimes last five minutes, and sometimes over an hour. Well, today is Sunday, and I'll miss his phone call. I'll be talkin' to you today, Dad, it just won't be on the phone."
Owens became a familiar presence on television during the 1970s and early-'80s through Hee Haw. Series producer Sam Lovullo attended the funeral, which closed with a big-voiced rendition of "Amazing Grace" by cast member Lulu Roman. She recalled that when she first met Owens in Dallas, she was a drug-addled orphan. He saw her as a potential comedic star and brought her into the Hee Haw cast, ultimately influencing her to shed her chemical habit and become an ordained minister.
"I would not be who I am today without Buck Owens," Roman told the house.
After her performance, she rested her right hand on the podium and looked down at the open casket.
"I love you," she told her friend, "and I will see you again. And, oh my, we will sing together."