Nashville, the center of the country music business, guards its power jealously. It gives nothing away for free, and it doesn't sell low. If you want to get some, boy, you'd better play by the rules, and then, if they like you, you just might get a bone or two tossed your way. It's a system that has grown strong during the last fifty years, and swimming upstream is not the way a young dishwasher with a golden throat should expect to get ahead.
But ultimately you've got to give the people something that they'll pay for, and, for all their power, the cigar-chomping good ol' boys in the music-making boardrooms down in Nashville can't always control what happens outside of Tennessee.
The country audience distrusts city slickers and loves rebels. So it's a kind of proletarian justice that has made a good number of True Country Legends of Nashville outsiders. The tradition began with America's first country star, Jimmie Rodgers, who did his most important recording in Camden, New Jersey. And Hank Williams courted Music City but never really fit in.
By the 1970s, Nashville was so corporate that it embraced John Travolta. When Urban Cowboy hit the theatres, Nashville saw that adding a little Saturday Night Fever to its sound could open up its markets in a big way.
The coffers were full in Nashville, but out in Bakersfield, California, modern-day rebel Buck Owens was seeing, hearing and smelling more manure than money in the Music City movement.
"One of the things that all of that sweet stuff that they were producing during the late Seventies and through the early Eighties enabled me to do is to focus in on that and say, `Okay, if they don't want to hear my kind of thing, good-by,'" Owens says from the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, where he recently was the keynote speaker at a country music seminar. Any time you sacrifice your values. So I took a ten-year respite, you know, and I enjoyed it, although I've got to admit the last few years in retrospect were more than likely very boring for me. As a matter of fact, my wife said, `You're gonna have to get something to do, or you're gonna drive us all crazy.' And that's true."
Aided by late sidekick and fellow multi-instrumental ace Don Rich, Owens had developed a twanging Telecaster-jazzy steel guitar ensemble sound that has been emulated by the likes of Emmylou Harris, and Rodney Crowell. The Buck Owens Sound turned out to be a huge success, and so did Hee Haw. Owens hasn't exactly been starving to death. (He's also the owner of Phoenix country titan KNIX.) Owens wasn't making much music. In September 1987, a transplanted left-coaster from Kentucky named Dwight Yoakam started spreading Owens' name around the industry again.
"All my young friends in the music
world, they got in there
just in time to get my interest, and of
course, Dwight Yoakam being the catalyst, the detonator, you can't set off dynamite if you ain't got a dynamite cap," says Owens. "All of a sudden one day about a year and a half ago, who walks into my office but Dwight Yoakam. And he was at the fair, and he and I got on so well, and I went out with him to see him perform, and Dwight asked me to get up. . . . Everybody in the world asks you to go up when they come to town--I'd never gotten up with anybody before. But he and his band knew a lot of my songs, and so I just jumped in there, and there was something electric with Dwight and me right from the beginning. I mean, something happens when we sing."
That led to an appearance by the two on a Country Music Association TV show called Thirty Years of Country and eventually to the duo re-recording a little-known Owens tune, "Streets of Bakersfield."
Asked about his "sound," Owens explains: "I tried to research that, and I tried to look back in my mind on many different times, and I gotta tell you something. I worked in the same honky-tonk from 1951 to 1958, at the Blackboard in Bakersfield. And you've gotta remember that we played mambos and sambas, and tangos, and polkas--we played all those things. We even had strippers sometimes. But we also played the country tunes, and all of the rock 'n' roll tunes of the day, because that's the way we kept the job, by playing what the folks wanted to hear."
Influences? He mentions Bob Wills, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry. "I think those are my big influences," he says. "It was just something you did as a band in those days. We didn't have any of our own music to play!"
Eventually, Owens started writing his own music. "It was something that I had to learn how to do," he says. "I had learned how to play a little bit of several different instruments, and just another thing that I was thirsty for was to learn how to write songs. 'Cause people were always amazed if you could write songs. So wanting to amaze people, and also to make some money myself, I just started doing that."
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But on Hot Dog!, his first album in a decade and one that's fueling his revival, Owens wrote only one tune. He explains that "writing songs goes in cycles," adding, "I like music that's inspired. And I get against the cubicle-type writer--they have three or four guys get in a cubicle down here [Nashville], and the next thing you know, they're saying, `Let's put that
line here. . . . ' It may work, but to me, it's uninspired writing. They may be hits; that's not the way I know how to write."
Buck Owens and the Buckaroos will perform at Toolies Country on Wednesday and Thursday, March 15 and 16. Show time is 8 p.m.
"Any time you knuckle under to the establishment, you're in trouble.