Country singer, songwriter, guitarist, television personality, entrepreneur, producer, and booking agent Buck Owens was born Alvis Edgar Owens, Jr., on August 12, 1929, in Sherman, Texas. He was the son of sharecroppers Alvis Edgar Owens, Sr., and Maicie Azel (Ellington) Owens. Buck Owens helped forge the “Bakersfield Sound” in country music, and he also co-hosted the popular television show Hee Haw for nearly twenty years.
Owens grew up on a farm near Sherman, Texas, near the Oklahoma border. He was only three when he adopted the nickname “Buck,” the same name as the family’s mule. The Owens family had always been musical, and Buck’s mother played the piano and taught her children to sing gospel songs. Buck also listened to a variety of radio stations, and he eventually learned to play both mandolin and guitar. By 1937 the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl had hit North Texas and Oklahoma especially hard, and the Owens family, along with millions of other desperate farm workers, packed up their belongings and headed west. The Owens’s trailer broke down in Mesa, Arizona, so they decided to stay with relatives and settle there. In 1942 by the age of thirteen, Owens quit school and worked in the fields to help support his family. He found no shortage of work during World War II, and he earned money washing cars, loading fruit, and working as a Western Union messenger boy. He did find time to polish his musical skills and listen to border radio.
In 1945 Owens began performing with fellow musician Theryl Ray Britten on KTYL radio in Mesa as part of the Buck and Britt show, and they began playing local honky-tonks. By the late 1940s Owens was playing steel guitar with a band named Mac’s Skillet Lickers. On January 13, 1948, he married Bonnie Campbell, a singer in the band. During this time he was also driving a produce truck to and from southern California. Owens fell in love with the Golden State, so in 1951 he moved with his wife and their two young sons to Bakersfield, California.
Throughout the 1950s Owens performed at a variety of local nightclubs, including the Corral and the Blackboard, where he played with house band Bill Woods & The Orange Blossom Playboys. He also traveled to Los Angeles on occasion to play bigger gigs with such musicians as Tommy Collins. He had recorded guitar on Collins’s hit “You Better Not Do That” for Capitol Records in 1953 and traveled with Collins in 1954 to perform the song at the Grand Ole Opry. As his reputation grew, Owens played on other recording sessions for Capitol from 1954 to 1958 for such respected musicians as Tennessee Ernie Ford, Gene Vincent, Wanda Jackson, and Del Reeves. In 1953 he and his wife Bonnie divorced. In 1956 he had married Phyllis Buford, and they had a son. That year he met songwriter Harlan Howard. They eventually founded a publishing company, Blue Book Music. Owens also recorded a few songs with the Pep label, including a rockabilly single, “Hot Dog” and “Rhythm and Booze,” that he released under the pseudonym “Corky Jones.” In 1957 he had signed with Capitol Records, but this partnership yielded only limited success.
In 1958 Owens decided to invest his savings in one-third interest of a radio station in Washington State, and he moved to Puyallup, Washington. While hosting his own live television show in Tacoma, he met a sixteen-year-old fiddle player named Don Rich who would become Owens’s best friend and guitar player. Owens had achieved some success with his Capitol recording of “Second Fiddle” and his first Top 10 song, “Under Your Spell Again,” in 1959. He decided to move back to Bakersfield to start a new band. Rich soon followed.
Owens won Billboard’s “Most Promising Country and Western Singer of the Year” in 1960, and his first album, Buck Owens, was released in 1961. More hits followed when “Foolin’” hit Number 1 on the Cashbox charts and Number 2 on Billboard. In 1963 Buck’s band of musicians was finally given a name—the Buckaroos (dubbed by Merle Haggard). That year his career broke wide open with his Number 1 hit “Act Naturally.” Owens soon followed this with numerous other hits, including “Love’s Gonna Live Here,” “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail,” “Sam’s Place,” “Before You Go,” “My Heart Skips a Beat,” “Waitin’ in Your Welfare Line,” and “Think of Me.” His television appearances included the Jimmy Dean Show and Kraft Music Hall. He also hosted his own syndicated show, Buck Owens’ Ranch, which lasted until 1973. With fifteen consecutive Number 1 hits, Owens helped pioneer the “Bakersfield Sound,” a more hard-edged, no frills style of honky-tonk that included bright electric tones along with tight harmonies and twangy guitar licks. The high-energy and sparse instrumentation pioneered by Owens and other Bakersfield artists, including Merle Haggard, Tommy Collins, and Roy Nichols, was the antithesis of the heavily-orchestrated country music that dominated Nashville at the time.
The 1960s were very productive years for Owens. He expanded his publishing company, founded a booking agency, opened his own studio, purchased KTUF and KNIX radio stations in Phoenix, KUZZ in Bakersfield, and started KBBY in Bakersfield. He performed at Carnegie Hall in 1966, toured Japan in 1967, played at the White House in 1968, and signed on as co-host of the popular television show Hee Haw in 1969.
Tragedy stuck Owens in 1974 with the loss of his longtime friend and guitarist, Don Rich, who died in a motorcycle accident. Owens was devastated. His Capitol contract expired in 1974, and in 1975 he signed with Warner Brothers, but his recordings lacked their customary fire and were not as successful on the charts. In 1977 he married fiddle player and Buckaroo member Jana Jae Greif, but within days he filed for annulment. He still performed on Hee Haw until 1986, but Owens later assessed that this weekly television exposure actually diminished his stature as a serious performer and recording artist. He married his fourth wife, Jennifer Smith, in 1979. They eventually divorced.
By 1987 popular country singer Dwight Yoakam had convinced Owens to appear with him at a small fair. In January 1988 Owens and Yoakam performed “Streets of Bakersfield” before a live television audience for a country music special. Their recording of the song skyrocketed to Number 1 on the charts. In April they again performed together at the Academy of Country Music Awards. Owens signed with Capitol again in 1988 and released Hot Dog. He also recorded “Act Naturally” with Ringo Starr (who had scored a hit with the song when the Beatles recorded it) at Abbey Road Studios.
In 1993 Owens had a piece of his tongue removed after doctors discovered that he had throat cancer. In 1996 Owens was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. That year he also opened a restaurant, club, and museum in Bakersfield called Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace where he played every Friday and Saturday night. During the latter years of his life, Owens was recognized once more as the architect of a unique country sound, and he enjoyed a renewed interest in music.
Owens died in his sleep of an apparent heart attack after performing at the Crystal Palace on March 25, 2006. He was buried at the Greenlawn Southwest Cemetery in Bakersfield. He was survived by his ex-wives and three sons, Buddy Alan, Michael, and Johnny Owens. Buck Owens not only had a tremendous influence on a number of other artists, including Merle Haggard, Linda Ronstadt, Gram Parsons, the Eagles, Dwight Yoakam, Garth Brooks, Brad Paisley, and BR-549, but he also helped pioneer a new sound that would have an impact throughout mainstream country music. In addition he had songs recorded by a diverse group of artists ranging from Ray Charles to the Beatles. U.S. Highway 82 through Sherman, Texas, was named Buck Owens Freeway in his honor. In 2008 he was inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame. In 2014 Owens was honored by induction into the Texas Heritage Songwriters’ Hall of Fame; later that same year he received the prestigious Poet’s Award by the Academy of Country Music.