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Buck Owens’ Career Was Never the Same After This

Buck Owens was one of the most influential country musicians of the 20th century. As the lead singer of the band Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, Buck pioneered what came to be known as the Bakersfield sound, named after his adopted hometown of Bakersfield, California. Throughout his 60+ years in the music industry, Owens and his band charted 21 number 1 hit songs on the Billboard country music chart.

The band’s material and signature sound revolved around simple storylines, infectiously catchy choruses, twangy electric guitar riffs, a steady drumbeat, and two-part vocal harmonies featuring Buck and his guitarist Don Rich.

Just as Mick Jagger would arguably have been nothing without Keith Richards, Buck Owens wouldn’t have been able to accomplish all that he had without Don. Both musicians were instrumental in developing the band’s distinct sound, and Rich was particularly adept at playing the fiddle and guitar.

While Owens, without a doubt, left his mark on the music industry, his life story was marred with hardships, relationship issues, controversy, and tragedy. From his beef with Merle Haggard to the death of his best friend and his later health problems, this is the true behind-the-scenes story of Buck Owens – a man whose life and career were never quite the same after he went through what we’re about to discuss in this facts-packed video.

Buck Wouldn’t Have Made It Without Don Rich

Don learned how to play guitar and fiddle by an early age. By the time he was 16, Rich was already playing in bars in his hometown of Olympia, Washington.

Rich’s band, a three-piece rock ‘n’ roll outfit, eventually scored a regular gig in South Tacoma, Washington, at an establishment called Steve’s Restaurant. While playing a show there, Buck Owens, who also lived in Washington around this time, showed up one evening and witnessed Rich playing his fiddle.

Buck was so impressed by this young, talented musician that he invited him to play with him at local venues. The two musicians struck up a friendship and formed a formidable musical bond. Buck played guitar while Don put his magical fingers to use with his fiddle. Soon enough, the two became regulars on a local music show aired on KTNT-TV 13 called BAR-K Jamboree.

Buck’s career was already on the rise. With Don by his side, it seemed to pick up steam even quicker. After Owen’s track ‘Under Your Spell Again’ hit number 24 on the Country Charts in ’59, Capital record execs instructed Buck to return to Bakersfield.

Owens agreed to come back to Bakersfield and asked Rich to come back with him. Don, however, had other plans. Around this time, he had enrolled at Centralia Community College, where he began studying to eventually become a music teacher.

In the meantime, he helped tutor others in music while continuing to play local shows. After studying at the Centralia, Washington college for about a year, Don decided in 1960 that he would move to Bakersfield to resume playing with his old friend Buck.

The first track that Rich played on was ‘Excuse Me (I Think I’ve Got A Heartache’, which ended up peaking at number 2. For the next several months, Don and Buck played in grimy venues and dingy dive bars all up and down the west coast. The majority of the time, they would play with a house band, but on occasion it would just be the two of them playing together up on stage. While playing all of these sets together, the two continued to record singles back in Bakersfield. At this point, Don was officially employed by Buck and was earning $75 a week.

The duo’s track ‘Foolin’ Around’ spent eight weeks at the number 2 position on the charts in 1961. Over the next year or so, they began to refine their signature sound. Before this chapter in their collaboration, Buck had mainly stuck to playing in a ‘Texas Shuffle’ style, with Rich primarily playing his fiddle.

That all changed, however, in 1962 when Buck released the song ‘You’re For Me’. The song featured an upbeat 2/4 rhythm that Owens would continue to make use of extensively going forward. It became his trademark of sorts. Don once described it as sounding like a ‘runaway locomotive’ while Owens likened it to sounding like a ‘Freight Train’.

This unique style would ultimately come to be known as the ‘Bakersfield Sound’.

In 1963, Buck formed a full band to back him on tour and in the studio. Naturally, he asked Don to be the leader of this band. In the early days of their existence, the band was basically a revolving door of members who would come and go as they pleased. One of these early members was none other than Merle Haggard.

While Haggard only stuck with the band for a short time, during his tenure with the group, he christened the band ‘The Buckaroos’. After he ended up leaving, the name continued to stick.

Haggard Married Buck’s Wife

After Haggard left the Buckaroos, he and Owens spent the next 37 years trying to steer clear of each other. It was rumored that the two had a pretty big feud between them. This seemed to be confirmed when Haggard married Bonnie Owens, Buck’s ex-wife.

There is also quite a bit of evidence to suggest that the two had grounds for professional jealousy. Haggard was always envious of Owen’s talent for handling business, while Owen’s was jealous of Haggard’s more substantial reputation as a musician.

After effectively avoiding each other for decades, the two eventually reunited to play one last show in Bakersfield in 1995. By that time, Merle and Bonnie Owens were no longer together, but she was still performing with him as a singer.

But before we get too ahead of ourselves, let’s go back a bit to discuss Buck Owen’s and Don Rich’s rise to the top.

The Buckaroos Were A Hit Machine

On February 12, 1963, Buck and his Buckaroos recorded Johnny Russell’s ‘Act Naturally’. That summer, the song became the band’s first number 1 hit. It also marked the first time that Don Rich played lead guitar.

In the years leading up to the success of that song, Buck had taught Don his signature guitar-playing style, and by 1963, Rich was finally ready to set his fiddle down for a bit and pick up Buck’s trusty old Telecaster. Owen’s was more than willing to let Don pluck his strings. He knew that by relinquishing lead guitarist duties to Rich, he could concentrate more fully on songwriting and honing his abilities as a frontman of the band they both were members of.

From that point on, things really started to take off for the Buckaroos. Every track that they put out seemed to rocket straight up to the top of the charts. Songs like ‘My Heart Skips A Beat’, ‘Together Again’, ‘Before You Go’, and ‘I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail’, are just a few of the bands songs that managed to clinch the number 1 spot on the country charts. Even the track ‘Buckaroo’, which was just an instrumental, even went to number 1.

Don’s guitar work continued to evolve as he honed his own distinct sound while incorporating everything that Buck had taught him. The twang of his Telecaster would become the heart and soul of the Bakersfield sound.

In 1966, the Buckaroos recorded a live album at Carnegie Hall in New York City. To this day, many believe that that record is among the greatest live country albums of all time. They played such a tight set that there wasn’t even a need for the band to go into the studio for post-production to fix any mistakes, because frankly, they didn’t make any.

In a matter of just a few short years, Buck, Don, and the Buckaroos had become the hottest country music outfit on the planet.

The Buckaroos made waves in 1969 when they recorded the tracks ‘Tall Dark Stranger’ and ‘Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass’. The latter was recorded with Don using a heavy fuzz tone that, at the point, was only used by garage rock bands. Country music fans were irate that Buck would permit their beloved genre of music to be ‘defaced’ by such blatant use of a rock and roll sound, but he couldn’t have cared less about what people thought as he never was one to confine himself to the status quo.

Despite the backlash, Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass shot to number 1, where it sat for the better part of two weeks. Among Buck Owens fans, the song has gone on to obtain cult-status. Today, it’s generally regarded as being an innovative development in the Bakersfield sound.

The next song that rose to the top of the country charts was ironically a cover of Chuck Berry’s rock ‘n’ roll classic ‘Johnny B. Goode’. The last number 1 hit that Owens and Rich recorded together was ‘Made In Japan’, which topped the charts in ’72.

Tragedy Struck

On the 17th of July, 1974, Don left Buck’s studio in Bakersfield on his motorcycle en route to meet his family for a vacation in Morro Bay, California. Earlier that day, Owens had pleaded for Don to take his car instead of his bike, but Don just shrugged that suggestion off and left on two wheels anyway.

Later that evening Don hit the center divider going northbound on Highway 1. He was violently thrown from his motorbike and suffered severe injuries to his head and body. He was rushed via ambulance to the closest hospital, but sadly he was pronounced dead upon arrival.

Buck was nothing short of devastated when he learned of Don’s fate. Not only did he lose his biggest creative partner, but he also lost one of the best friends he could have ever asked for. Owen’s would later tell reporters that he viewed Don as his brother, son, and best friend all rolled up into one. He further revealed that when Rich died, it also felt like his musical life had ended as well.

While Owens continued to press on as best as he could, the magic that he and Rich had experienced together was gone – never to be recreated again. Don Rich was just 32 years old when he passed away. He’s largely considered to be one of the most innovative country guitar players that has ever lived, and his influence is still felt throughout the musical realm spanning numerous genres.

Buck’s Health Issues And Death

In the early 90s, Buck recovered from oral cancer, but he suffered from numerous health issues in the late 90s and early 2000s. In 2004, he had a minor stroke. These health issues forced him to cut back on his performances.

Owens passed away in his sleep at the age of 76 after suffering an apparent heart attack at his ranch home just north of Bakersfield in 2006. He died just hours after performing at his club, the Crystal Palace.

With that, we’ll go ahead and wrap this video up, but before you go, take a moment to share your thoughts with us in the comments.

Did you know that Merle Haggard ended up marrying Buck Owen’s ex-wife and that his guitarist Don Rich died of a motorcycle accident at the age of 32?

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