Bonnie Owens, a cocktail waitress-turned-singer who was married at different times to country music giants Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, died Monday in Bakersfield after a lengthy struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. She was 76.
Her death came four weeks after that of Buck Owens, but she may have been too deeply gripped by Alzheimer’s to know that he was gone, according to Jim Shaw, a close family friend.
A couple of years ago, Bonnie was brought to Buck’s birthday party at his Crystal Palace nightclub in Bakersfield and was coaxed onstage for a duet with him, recalled Shaw, a longtime keyboard player for Buck Owens and His Buckaroos.
“It was then that Buck realized that what was happening to her was for real,” Shaw said of her illness. “She got up there and didn’t know the words to her own songs. She had the same radiant smile, the same sparkling eyes -- she looked just like the Bonnie we’d all known -- but Buck was devastated.”
An award-winning entertainer in her own right, Bonnie Owens was a midwife at the birth of the Bakersfield Sound, the twangy country music that boomed out of the oil town’s honky-tonks in the 1950s. A waitress at a popular bar called the Blackboard, she would sing from time to time and jot original lyrics on cocktail napkins.
“She was there in the middle of it,” Shaw said. “She was kind of the glue for both these guys, right from the beginning when they were just nobody.”
She and Owens were married in 1948, but their relationship crumbled several years later. Her marriage to Haggard lasted from 1965 to 1978, but they continued touring together as recently as 2000.
Despite the divorces, she remained friendly with both men.
In a 1999 interview with the Orlando Sentinel, Haggard praised her both as a performer and as a person.
“She’s got a real unusual voice,” he said. “Once you hear her talk, you’d know her in the dark 300 years from now.”
Haggard said his former wife “sort of dropped the torch of her own career to stoke mine.”
Born to a sharecropping family in Blanchard, Okla., Bonnie Campbell moved with her parents to Arizona when she was 12. Always musical, she became known in her teens as one of the state’s best yodelers.
She met Owens at a roller-rink and sang with him on local radio shows, appearing with a group called Mac MacAtee and the Skillet Lickers. They married when she was 18 -- perhaps too young, she told an interviewer years later.
The couple had two sons, Buddy and Michael. By 1951, they had settled in Bakersfield, but the exciting music scene did nothing for their marriage.
“We had one good thing in common,” Bonnie told the Bakersfield Californian in 1997. “That was Buddy and Mike. We both wanted to make sure they had adjusted minds. It was a friendly parting.”
Bonnie sang in clubs and on local TV and released several successful records, including “Why Don’t Daddy Live Here Anymore?” and “Don’t Take Advantage of Me.” But she became best known after teaming with Haggard, whom she met at a Bakersfield bar in 1961.
The two recorded “Just Between the Two of Us” in 1964, and the song remained a hit on the country charts for more than six months. She was named best female vocalist by the Academy of Country Music in 1967.
After her marriage to Haggard dissolved, she served as a bridesmaid at his next wedding.
At the time of her death, she was separated from her third husband, Fred McMillen. She had moved to Missouri with him in the 1980s but returned to Bakersfield alone about three years ago.
According to Shaw, she belted out country songs even when she was living in a nursing home.
“I love to perform,” she told an interviewer in 2000. “I’m a ham-and-a-half.”
A public memorial service is set for 11 a.m. Thursday at Greenlawn Southwest Mortuary in Bakersfield.