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The Buck Stops in Bakersfield : Buck Owens has been thumbing his nose at something his whole life--poverty, Nashville naysayers and other demons. Now he’s building a measure of immortality back where it all began.

<i> Herb Benham is a columnist and writer for the Bakersfield Californian, which has published his most recent book of columns, titled "Sitting on My Fat Wallet." </i>

On a wall behind his vast, white $5,000 desk, a few paces from the door of the bathroom with the guitar-shaped red, white and blue tiles inlaid around the Jacuzzi, hangs a framed poster of an attractive woman leaning possessively against a black Rolls-Royce Corniche. Printed across the bottom are two words. The owner of the custom desk and custom bathroom sits with his back to the poster, but he knows the words by heart, like the lyrics to one of his songs. More than his 21 No. 1 country songs, more than his five radio stations, more than his $100 million fortune, even more than his godfatherly devotion to family, these two words are the fire and force that have propelled Buck Owens for most of his 66 hard-driving years:

“Poverty Sucks.”

It sure does. And whatever it takes to drive its weaselly little head back into the corrugated-steel shed in Sherman, Tex., that the Owens family once called home--whatever it takes to banish its pinched little soul, Buck Owens has spent a lifetime doing.

His museum will be the capper to prove it. Singing cowboy-movie star Gene Autry has his museum down the Golden State Freeway, the new mother road of the California heartland. Here in Bakersfield, on a piece of ground between oil-field service companies and just about the busiest truck stop in town, country star Buck Owens--the man whose “Hee Haw” television show made his a household face and household sound and put country music in the nation’s living rooms--is raising up a monument to the vanishing life he lived and sang about. By inference, it is also a tribute to the shrewd business acumen that lifted him from migrant camps to network TV, from the Bakersfield honky-tonks to Carnegie Hall--he, Alvis Edgar Owens, an up-from-nowhere Okie who once couldn’t have afforded a ticket in the cheap seats.

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Five million dollars he’s spending on this Western-facade museum, working title “Crystal Palace"--an acoustically advanced concert hall for 500, best on the West Coast, promises Owens. A museum to venerate Owens’ red, white and blue Fender guitar--the model for the those bathroom tiles--with showcases for Loretta Lynn’s wedding dress and display space for the Cadillac--its dashboard silver dollar-pave, each door handle a revolver--that the late cowboy tailor known as Nudie used to drive around L.A.

The museum will be a two-edged “I told you so” gift to the Valley town that Owens loves but which was never as grateful to him as it might have been. It is also a tribute to the Bakersfield Sound, a thumb of the nose to Nashville from the man who carried his music eastward over the Rockies and set it down triumphantly on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.

But when it opens next year, the museum will be foremost a monument to Owens. From a mauve-upholstered office chair as expensive as it is comfortable, he opens up like a scrapbook: “In the museum that I’m building, I’m going to have a 35-foot mural that’s 19-feet high that’s going to have the vignettes in my life. They are going to be in black and white. It was either black or white in my life. Never gray. That’s the way I was.”

Visitors will see his life as he saw it: the potato fields and oil fields, the bands he played with, the private jets that ferried him from gig to gig.

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There is more than ego to this; there is an undercurrent of urgency as well. Throat cancer has taken a big chunk of his tongue--and maybe his future. It was diagnosed six months after his good friend, singer Roger Miller, died of it. Surgery has made certain sounds, like S, tricky to enunciate. Yet, Owens has lately returned to the studio--partly as speech therapy but maybe for another run at the country charts. Every three months now, he charters a jet and flies up to Stanford to get checked out. Doctors recently found a lump in his back. “I’ve had a lot of cancer in my life,” he says matter-of-factly. His sister, Dorothy, “is sick bad with myeloma. My brother Mel died of cancer. And dad died of leukemia. You just wonder if we didn’t get touched by something in the fields.”

Has it ever been otherwise than tragic with country stars? The plane crash that takes Patsy Cline, the booze and pills that kill Hank Williams at age 29. Sorrowing is part of the music’s warp and weft. Even non-country fans know the joke: What happens if you play a country record backward? You get your wife and your job back.

And its stars need a story. If they don’t have one, they invent one, by generous autobiography or songs that patch myth to myth like an Appalachian quilt. If Momma was blind, Daddy drove a truck. If Daddy was honest, Momma drank. If Momma went to church, Daddy chased skirts. Country music comes with equal measures of the sacred and the profane: sweet kisses under the moonlight with crickets serenading, and the hard, sweaty grind of a honky-tonk like the Blackboard, the legendary bar and dance hall in Bakersfield that spawned a whole generation of country music--the Bakersfield Sound.

Buck Owens invented that sound, but he didn’t have to invent his story. Unlike the air-conditioned generation of country stars with their $300,000 tour buses--the older guys derisively call them “the hats"--Owens knew the life, and when he and his peers later came to write songs about it, they did not write longingly of the heat and the hard work, the Dust Bowl stigma of migrant labor camps and salt pork and beans, the cold-water baths in the same No. 3 galvanized tub that his mother did the wash in. As fast as he could, he made money, so as to leave that life behind.

Owens realized that it wasn’t just a life but a style one Saturday afternoon when he was 10 years old, settling in for the matinee in Mesa, Ariz., one of the 15 towns that the Owenses lived in in as many years. On the screen were “a bunch of old people sitting on the porch. The next thing I knew, they were piling their stuff on top of the car. Hell, it was ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ I wasn’t going to watch that movie. I’d lived the damn thing.”

His own real mythology began in 1929 in Sherman, Tex., population 1,500, then the Dust Bowl hegira in the half-dead Ford with mother, father, aunt, two sisters, brother, grandma, uncle, cousin, “fruit tramps” bouncing around California and Arizona--grapes in Arvin, peaches in Modesto, cotton in Bakersfield. They followed the crops so faithfully that Owens hit four different schools in one year, and at the end of the year wound up back where he’d started. “We were always trying to find the milk-and-honey tree.”

Owens didn’t have to find that tree; he planted some himself.

*

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In this oil-and-ag town, where the big money lays low and the shallow pockets blow into town on Friday night and bankroll the bar tab, Buck Owens is virtually ignored. Like many small towns, when it comes to their own rich and famous, Bakersfield doesn’t quite know what to do with them. Bakersfield acquired a state university in the 1970s; oil-company transfers began bringing in people from sophisticated cities, Houston, New Orleans, from the Middle East. This Bakersfield doesn’t know much about country music, may not even like the sound that emerges from Bakersfield’s three country stations--all owned by Owens.

On the second floor of the echoing, high-ceilinged Kern County Museum, one small section honors the Bakersfield Sound. A throwaway concert bill advertises Lawton Jiles and the Valley Rhythm. A photo of Spade Cooley, the TV actor and singer who was convicted in 1961 of murdering his wife. The total exhibit space for Buck Owens is a corner of one case allotted to a Buck Owens and the Buckaroos playing card, and an early picture of Buck and the band.

In the 1970s, some city officials tried to name a street after Buck Owens. They tried it again in the 1980s, and in the 1990s. Owens was embarrassed by the fuss--and the resistance. But as Owens is beginning to feel his years, Bakersfield is coming to appreciate him. At a Rotary meeting this spring, Ray Mish, owner of a local funeral parlor who knows all about belated praise and posthumous honors, scolded his fellow Rotarians about the town’s foot-dragging over Owens: “We praise Caesar when he’s dead, instead of honoring him when he’s alive.”

By Owens’ own accounting, he “paid a big price not moving to Nashville.” But he figures Nashville lost something, too. He speaks as a musician and as a radio station owner when he says: “I have a problem with country because so much of it sounds alike. They all sing in the same places, have the same echo, use the same studio with the same engineer. . . . And it’s an image game now, governed less by talent than by the size of a man’s hat or a woman’s bust. I don’t think that the record companies want to allow any personality. It’s like the agent would say to you, How tall is he? What color is his hair? . . . The last thing he would say is, ‘Oh, by the way, can he sing?’ ”

*

It was Page 1 news when the town’s two local country luminaries, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, announced in June that they would play together for the first time in 25 years. Dwight Yoakam would join them. He’d had a big part in coaxing Owens back onstage once before. As a young devotee of the leaner, more traditional country sound, Yoakam was on his way up in 1987 when he showed up at the door of Buck Owens’ Enterprises. He was playing the Kern County Fair, and could Buck step up onstage and play a couple of songs with him?

This was no small request. Owens had abruptly retired from performing in 1980 and left “Hee Haw” altogether in 1986. He was tired, he was rich and he had nothing left to prove. But Owens liked Yoakam, so he consented and showed up at the fair with a little song he had first recorded years before, called “Streets of Bakersfield.” Owens darned near stole the show from headliner Yoakam. A few months later, they recorded “Streets.” It hit the top of Billboard’s country chart.

Owens was one of the first singers to own his own masters, having wrested them from Capitol Records in the early 1970s. He keeps them in “the room,” a humidity-controlled tape vault. The man who handles those masters--Jim Shaw, Owens’ keyboard player and aide--licenses out the masters to movies and “best of” compilation recordings. He estimates that the songs, titles such as “I’ve Got a Tiger By the Tail” and “Second Fiddle,” are worth millions. Controlling the flow means that Owens doesn’t have to wait for a check from some record label 2,000 miles away in Nashville.

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And Owens has added this story of Buck-in-charge to his stockpile of anecdotes. Two years ago, backstage at the Academy of Country Music Awards, he advised the up-and-coming Garth Brooks, “ ‘Get your masters. It’s your work.’ ” He said, ‘Buck, they would never do that.’ I told him that he was big and they would do it if he put enough pressure on them. I saw him later that year and he told me, ‘Buck, I got them.’ ”

This June reunion concert would bring all of that together: Haggard, the great raw talent; Yoakam, the current link to country; and Owens, sure of his place in the pantheon.

It is 5 p.m.--the concert begins at the fairly early hour of 7 to accommodate all that star power--and about 300 people are already waiting at the fairgrounds gate. Joe Gottlieb is second in line. For Gottleib and a lot of the people here, the headliners are not just names on an album cover; they are good ol’ local boys who made especially good. Gottlieb reupholstered Owens’ Excalibur, twice. Back in 1961, Gottleib got into a fight with Haggard down at the Four Queens after he asked Merle’s wife to dance.

The weather is cool; it had rained the day before, the first time it had ever rained on June 15 in Bakersfield, and almost until show time, promoter Danny Lipco was freaking out, pacing in his cowboy boots. Only a rogue rainstorm or Merle Haggard going on a bender could wash out the Dream Team concert.

The rain stopped. Haggard showed up. He even drove up unwontedly early and did his sound check in the camper shell of a pickup truck. “And not a very nice pickup,” said a fairgrounds employee disapprovingly. “We heard a car screech, and somebody came in and said Merle Haggard’s locked out of the fairgrounds and he needs to get in. I thought, Merle Haggard, right. But it was.”

By 6 o’clock, backstage was like a down-home wedding, or a funeral. Barbecue chicken, tri-tip, salad, beans, fruit and Arizona Cooler were laid out on long tables. Relatives ebbed and flowed among the buses, the sound equipment. Fifty years ago, their faces were dry, lean, angular. With a week of work under their ornately buckled belts, they were ready for Friday night at the Blackboard, dancing to the music of Buck Owens. Now they are plump and pink-cheeked in the sunset; the Tehachapi range that some of them crossed to get here softens and turns orange.

But for a while, it is the old town and the old crowd--almost. Tommy Collins, who used to play with Owens, got religion and moved to Nashville. Bill Woods, singer, deejay and talent scout for the Blackboard, is recovering from heart surgery. Billy Mize, the singer everyone thought would be bigger than Haggard or Owens, is here in tan polyester stretch pants, cowboy shirt and Stetson. He has had a stroke and has difficulty talking.

Owens is due onstage at 9. His band, the Buckaroos, is there precisely at 9, but Owens--unusual for him--goes on late. Word gets out that he has tripped on a backstage step and taken a header. Lipco, the promoter, looks as though he is close to needing CPR. Owens, the pro, slowly gets up and goes on. Fifty-five minutes later, Owens has finished, a creditable set for somebody who has only played about three times a year for the last 20 and who spends most of his spare energy sharpening his long drive.

What happened next says a lot about the way Buck Owens and Merle Haggard have circled each other for about 40 years--both Bakersfield Okies, both with hardscrabble lives and Nashville dreams, both having married the same woman, both stars in a town that ultimately wasn’t big enough for both of them.

For years, Buck and Merle were the talk of Bakersfield. Buck had run Merle out of town, people said. Merle stole Buck’s wife, and Buck has never forgiven him, they said. They couldn’t stand each other’s work, they said. It had all the makings of a fine soap opera. Pity it wasn’t true. Owens has heard it so often he laughs to hear it again. “People say that Merle stole my wife. Bonnie and I got married in January of 1948 and we divorced in 1953.” Bonnie Owens Haggard didn’t even meet Merle until 1960. “There’s never been a cross word or a cross thought between us.”

Certainly they’ve followed crossed paths. Where Owens is punctilious, punctual, businesslike and thrifty, keeping his nose clean and his head clear, Haggard is professionally casual, often tardy if he shows up at all; he’s been sued for a no-show. Everyone remembers that he served nearly three years in San Quentin for burglary. Seven years younger than Owens, he looks the elder by a decade.

But feckless Merle Haggard is enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Businesslike Buck Owens is not.

A man who works closely with Owens and has observed both men over the years says: “Buck thinks Merle’s the best singer and songwriter who ever lived. But the difference is, Buck is the consummate businessman and professional, and Merle’s a flake. Remember when he went to jail for breaking and entering? Merle’s a breaking-and-entering guy who happens to have this awesome talent he was born with. It just oozes out of him, but he’s still a mess.”

The difference also shows up in their work. Owens is commercially savvy; he knows how to structure a song and put a hook in it. Haggard is the brilliant renegade, the starving poet. Bonnie Owens Haggard, who has not only been married to both men but also sung backup to both, can attest: “Merle has one of the best catalogues of all time, better than Hank Williams Sr. Buck writes commercial, thinks commercial, and Merle doesn’t. Merle says ‘I like it. I don’t care if you like it.’ Merle thinks jazz.”

One night about three years ago, close to midnight, Haggard phoned Owens’ Bakersfield ranch from his Palo Cedro home near Lake Shasta, more than 450 miles away, to The ringing woke Owens up. “I asked him, ‘Merle, what are you doing up this late?’ He told me they were in the studio doing songs. And then he said, ‘Why don’t you come up here and we’ll get started on that album?’ ” Middle of the night, 300 miles away--not Buck Owens’ style.

But it is Haggard’s. Onstage, his band, the Strangers, revs up. Six songs into what should have been Haggard’s set, the crowd begins to boo. Lipco, the promoter, repeats, mantra-like, “Where’s Merle? Where’s Merle?” Bonnie Owens Haggard apologizes over the sound system. Sotto voce, one of Owens’ golfing buddies mutters, “I hope that f- - -ing Merle isn’t drunk.”

At the seventh song, Haggard bounds onstage with a mocking “Of course I’m here” smile, and begins to sing, phrasing words like a jazz master, modulating, caressing his songs. The audience is his in an instant. He plays for 40 minutes--a long time for him, and late for the crowd, for it is midnight when the vaunted reunion finally happens. Owens’ song “Love’s Gonna Live Here” rolls off three guitars, joyously. The fans are enraptured; here is the Big Three, the trinity, the Murderer’s Row of country music.

Then Haggard steps to the mike. “We’re going to do a video now of my new song, ‘Beer Can Hill.’ ” It turns out to be a hometown song about a Haggard hangout in Oildale when he was a kid. The song has bounce, but there is a problem. The trio laid down the vocals earlier. They are all lip-syncing. Goodwill dissipates like rain on a hot car hood. It deteriorates further when a long-haired producer with a doubloon’s worth of earrings in one ear confers worriedly with Haggard. Something glitched; they must tape it again.

By the third retake, the audience is streaming out. By the sixth retake, fans are saying, so this is Merle’s idea of a reunion. Get everybody together and shoot his new video. Haggard lost the crowd; Owens wouldn’t have. Here is a man who leaves nothing to chance, starting with himself.

*

The Owens family left Sherman, Tex., in 1937, owing $40 to a grocer, Truett Davenport. Before leaving, the elder Owens wrote Davenport a note, promising to pay him. Ten struggling years later, the Owenses returned to Sherman. Buck’s father went straight to Davenport’s house with the $40. Owens was middle-aged, and famous, when his father died, yet he says, “My daddy would try to whip me today, if I didn’t live up to my word. It was the Okie code.”

The Okie code believes in playing square, taking care of your family, immediate and extended. Owens’ own vision statement is a variant: “I’ve never been in jail, been arrested, stole anybody’s songs or taken dope. I’m respectful of the flag, and my mommy and daddy were my role models.”

He has never lost his poor-boy’s fascination with cash. On tour in the 1960s, Owens was about to go onstage when he handed rhythm guitarist Red Simpson a brown satchel “and told me to watch this for him while he went on. I was hungry, so I set it down on the bleachers while I went and got a hot dog. I came back, ate the hot dog and I was still hungry, so I went and got another one, leaving the satchel again. After the show, Buck said, ‘Hey, Red, lemme have that satchel back.’ He opened it and there were stacks of money inside. He had between $10,000 and $20,000 in that thing.”

Owens loves telling about what he did for six longtime staff members. He had $30,000 in cash sorted into six brown paper bags; “They made six pretty-good-sized bundles. We had a barbecue and called each of them on the stage. I knew that few of them had ever held $5,000 in cash before, and it was amazing to watch them open it.”

None of it would be possible without Owens’ feel for the art of the deal.

Forty years in the making, the Owens empire includes the No. 1 and No. 2 radio stations in both Bakersfield and Phoenix, a Bakersfield TV station that he has just turned down a $5.5-million offer for, and a weekly used-car shopping guide.

In Owens’ version of the music business, the difference between business and music is as wide as the distance from work-shirt Bakersfield to the spotlighted sequins of Nashville. Rogers Brandon, owner of a competing radio station in town, says: “You’ll notice that nobody wears cowboy clothes there. No one leaves early. The Owenses are all business. He has a passion to win that exceeds the profit margin. You can’t be Buck Owens and have the No. 2 country station in Bakersfield. It’s worth it to him to spend a disproportionate amount of money to defend his position. If you went after him with a bazooka, he’d come after you with an atom bomb.”

Like a character in a country song, Owens’ business shrewdness is tempered with sentimentality when it comes to anything family--and his definition of family is a generous one.

His sister, Dorothy, oversaw the Bakersfield operation. He bought her a Rolls-Royce and and kept her on the payroll through her cancer siege. His nephew, Mel Owens, runs Buck Owens Productions. Even though the Buckaroos play only a few times a year, Owens provides full employment for the band. Terry Christoffersen plays lead guitar and works in the research department, bass guitarist Doyle Curtsinger is the print manager for Owens’ publications, and keyboardist Shaw is his Owens’ right-hand man. “Buck’s band is well taken care of,” Shaw says. “We all live in suburbia and go to work wearing suits and ties. Merle’s band lives in a trailer park.”

Owens has had one manager, Jack McFadden, hired 32 years ago on a handshake and on Owens’ request that he be prompt and honest. “To this day, we’ve never had a contract,” McFadden says from his Nashville office. Owens has limited McFadden’s 15% commission to deals, concerts and appearances that McFadden negotiates. Owens has kept for himself everything from the records and songs and his recording rights.

With the cancer, now, there seems suddenly to be more to do. He is furiously engaged in estate planning so that his two sons will inherit his estate free and clear. And he has sketched out details of his last performance. “I don’t want a sad funeral. ‘Amazing Grace,’ bluegrass style, and a celebrating song like ‘Rolling Thunder.’ I’m thinking about getting a plot that will hold eight or 10 people. I want to move my mom and dad there, because they would want to be there with the rest of us. I want to move Don Rich because he’d want to be with me. (Rich--his lead guitarist, fiddle player and collaborator for 16 years--died in 1974, at age 32, in a motorcycle accident). And my sister Dorothy said to me the other day, ‘I want to be with you, Buck.’ ”

Owens has been so much the businessman, and for so long, that perhaps even he has lost sight of Owens the passionate, innovative young musician. But in that, too, he was in control, from the beginning.

In the 1950s and early ‘60s, Bakersfield underwent a country renaissance with singers like Bill Woods, Joe and Rose Lee Maphis, the Maddox Brothers and Rose, Tommy Collins and Cousin Herb Henson. They played to full houses, to field workers and roughnecks at the Clover Club, the Lucky Spot, the Barrel House, Trout’s, Sad Sack. Their families had brought a rough sound with them from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas; Buck Owens refined it.

Fond of the music of Little Richard and Elvis, and knowing that its popularity was more than a fad, Owens dropped the sappy violins that Nashville producers favored and added rock ‘n’ roll drums. He insisted on a good clean fiddle, an edgy electric guitar, and his own backup band instead of studio musicians. The new sound was raw but appealingly forthright, a sound honed on the backs of trucks, on hot front porches, in dusty migrant camps, in the shadow of Baptist steeples.

His music carried him from the clubs to record labels, to Carnegie Hall, to network television. And there it stalled. He was on “Hee Haw” for 17 years. It opened doors for new country performers, but it closed doors for Buck Owens. Rich and famous as “Hee Haw” made Buck Owens, it all but killed his music. Instead of being recognized as an innovative artist, he came across as a good-natured hayseed playing the same tunes over and over. He knew when it he took the job what it would mean, he says. “I saw what [TV] did to Perry Como and Andy Williams. When you come into someone’s home every week, it destroys the mystique.” But the money was too good to refuse; two 10-day production trips a year to Nashville made everything else possible.

When Owens placed one of his first songs, “You’re for Me,” and Capitol Records sent him a check for $500, he saw an ad for a little house in East Bakersfield. The price was $5,000. He put the $500 down and moved in. Years later, after he had moved into bigger quarters, he rented it out to a woman he called Grandma Watson. He charged her $55 a month. She had lived there for a dozen years when he raised the rent, to $64, and she squawked like a wet hen, he says. “I never raised her rent again. Everybody loved Grandma Watson. She became part of the family. One time when she thought I was going to sell the house, she marched into my office and said, ‘Buck Owens, you’re not going to sell this house until I die.’

He didn’t. When at last Grandma Watson did die, he sold the little house for $55,000--11 times what he paid for it.


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