For many Americans, he was the guitar-slinging comedian that co-hosted Hee Haw. But before he signed up for that popular show, he had already amassed a body of work that defined the sound of California country.
Owens was born in Texas and raised in Arizona, where he picked up the guitar from an early age. He played gigs in Phoenix and other Arizona cities until his late teens, when he relocated to the city that would be synonymous with his sound and style: Bakersfield, California.
Unlike many country stars, Owens didn’t first break through as a singer or a writer, but rather as a studio musician. He made some unsuccessful attempts at solo records in the fifties, including some under the handle Corky Jones, but he remained popular in the industry for his session work and also befriended Harlan Howard, who would become a frequent songwriting partner for Owens in the years to come.
His live shows grew popular enough to garner major label attention, and he signed with Capitol Records. His early work for the label was in the slick Countrypolitan style, a poor fit for the vibrant electric guitarist. Once he was allowed to emphasize the steel and fiddle alongside his guitar work, he quickly became very popular with country audiences.
He scored his first big hit in 1959, and would spend most of the sixties and early seventies at the top of the charts. His Bakersfield Sound was unlike anything else on the radio at the time, and at one point, he scored fifteen consecutive #1 singles. At one point, the lineup of his backing band, the Buckaroos, included Merle Haggard. Buck’s widespread notoriety was further solidified when the Beatles covered his hit “Act Naturally”, featuring Ringo Starr on lead vocals. Owens and the Buckaroos, were soon successful enough to have their own syndicated television show, which first aired in 1966.
Owens had become so well-known for his live shows that he was selling out venues around the world, and he recorded successful live albums in England and Japan. In 1969, he hosted his second television show, a countrified version of Laugh-In called Hee Haw. Alongside fellow star Roy Clark, the show ended up a smash, and would eventually run for 25 seasons, with Owen remaining in the cast for most of its run.
In 1974, the death of his longtime band member Don Rich sent Owens into a deep depression, and a year later, he left Capitol Records for Warner Bros. His commercial success declined quickly from this point on, though he remained popular on television and the road. By the eighties, he was semi-retired, although he had a surprise return to the top of the charts when Dwight Yoakam invited him to collaborate on a cover of one of his old songs, “Streets of Bakersfield.” It went to #1 in 1988, and Owens performed the song on national television with Yoakam, and also hammed it up in the song’s music video.
Owens was energized by this comeback and performed and recorded more frequently in the years that followed, until a throat cancer diagnosis in 1993 sidelined him. In 1996, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Owens performed regularly at his Crystal Palace theater in Bakersfield in his final years. On the eve of his death, not feeling well, he decided to skip that night’s performance. As he was leaving, he ran into a group of fans who had traveled from Oregon to see him, and it inspired him to go ahead with what would be his final show, as he passed away in his sleep that same night.
- Act Naturally, 1963
- Love’s Gonna Live Here, 1963
- My Heart Skips a Beat, 1964
- Together Again, 1964
- I Don’t Care (Just as Long as You Love Me), 1964
- I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail, 1965
- Before You Go, 1965
- Waitin’ in Your Welfare Line, 1966
- Think of Me, 1966
- Streets of Bakersfield (with Dwight Yoakam), 1988
- Sings Harlan Howard, 1961
- Sings Tommy Collins, 1963
- Together Again/My Hearts Skips a Beat, 1964
- I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail, 1965
- The Carnegie Hall Concert, 1966
- In Japan, 1967
- In London, 1969
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