Buck Owens - "I hope that they see me as absolutely honest"
Editor's note: Film producer Laura McCorkindale interviewed Buck Owens in September 2005 and January 2006 at his home in Bakersfield, California, and at his Crystal Palace nightclub. Other than a mid-March phone interview with a Long Island radio station, these are acknowledged by Owens' family and management to be the last interviews that Buck granted. In trying to paint a picture, a human picture of what it was like talking to the legendary Buck Owens just a few months before his death, I find myself at a loss for words -- something that doesn't happen to me often. But, hey, we're talking about a revolutionary musician and visionary businessman who made an irreplaceable impression on American culture. If you've forgotten about his monumental impact on country, rockabilly and rock 'n' roll because of his years hosting "Hee Haw", forget about that TV show. It was just a good paycheck. When I first met Buck, it was just a formality, a time for him to tell me in person that he doesn't do interviews -- or at least that he didn't want to do one with me. I drove the hundred-odd miles from Los Angeles to Bakersfield expecting this rejection, but went anyway for the opportunity to hear Buck at the Crystal Palace, performing his timeless songs that had recently captured my attention, stirring my senses like an exuberant reunion with a long-lost friend. But here's the thing about Buck -- he was always full of surprises. He did immediately tell me he doesn't do interviews anymore, as expected. But in the next moment, after sternly grilling me about my love for country music, my reasons for wanting to interview him, and my skills (or lack thereof) as a pedal steel player, he reluctantly agreed to talk. Not unlike good ol' mountain country music, Buck was a sonic paradox. Happy and sad, simple and complex, yielding and dogmatic, funny and serious, he had one eye on the future of what he still wanted to create, and both feet grounded in reminders of what he'd already so masterfully accomplished. There's a rare quality that my incongruous time with Buck Owens produced. I call it a lingering -- an interaction that got richer over time. Buck is like a song you enjoy on first listen, but come to love as it stays with you even in the moments you're not hearing it. BUCK: Let me just tell you one thing: Don't ask me something you don't want to know. LAURA: Let me process that for a minute. BUCK: Well, process it soon. LAURA: I may only discover that I don't want to know it after I hear the answer -- and then it's too late. BUCK: No, it's not. You haven't written it down yet. LAURA: Good point. Buck wins, as he should. Right out of the gate, his ability to banter exceeds my expectations. Our chat begins with all the standard background information: He came back to Bakersfield in 1951, where as a young boy he lived in labor camps picking fruit to make ends meet. We brush over his incredible streak of #1 hits, talk of the remarkable loyalty that has surrounded him with a handful of trusted employees for 30 years and counting. We debate which instrument is harder to learn: steel guitar or fiddle. Since he plays both, I'm not sure why I'm taking a stand, but it seems Buck's vibrant spirit just brings out my inner spunkiness. Since we're at his Crystal Palace, which Owens opened in 1996 after decades of contemplating such a venue in Bakersfield, it seemed fitting we talk about its inception. LAURA: Even though Bakersfield is one of the hometowns of country music, there's not much of that going on around here anymore, except for your Palace, right? BUCK: Nothing. The only live entertainment is here. Let me tell you why I built this place and how it came to be. I walked outside the Blackboard [a former club in Bakersfield] where I worked for about eight years. I'm not a Bible-banger or anything like that, but I am a born-again Christian. I'm a believer. So anyway, I walked outside the Blackboard. I have this thing -- I don't need anybody to introduce me to God. He knows who I am and what I'm doing. And so anyway, for some reason or another it came over me that when you wanted to hear our kind of music, you had to go to the outskirts of town and find the worst little place. So, I just kind of made a statement, more or less... LAURA: About creating the Crystal Palace? BUCK: Yes. This is 1958, and I just decided, I just said, "Lord, if you ever decide to let me be somebody or do something, I will build a place where people can come that you'll be proud of. I'm going to build the nicest dang place in this town." LAURA: So you envisioned it years back, consciously seeding the future? BUCK: Yes! It's a promise I made to the Lord. And it turned into a place of celebration, and I like it that way. LAURA: Speaking of good things you've made the choice to create, let's talk about your business empire. In the '60s you started building the publishing/real estate/radio businesses, which have been quite lucrative for you. I've read that people are astounded by these successes, because you don't expect musicians to be good at so many darn things. BUCK: Most of them are dumber than hell! (laughs) LAURA: OK (laughs)...or...in order to be as successful as you've been in music, most artists don't have the drive, stamina and focus to do something in addition to music, which can be quite encompassing in and of itself. So how the heck did you do it? BUCK: I'll rattle off a couple things, and you decide. As a kid I was cold a lot, and I was hungry sometimes. Sometimes all we had to eat for supper was cornbread and milk. I never had a toothbrush till I was 11 years old. As a kid I said, "I'm not going to be cold and hungry anymore." And I haven't been. I've had a lot of good things happen to me and for me, but I think it's simple: I put myself in a position for good things to happen to me. And, I was given great gifts from God. LAURA: Sure, but a lot of people are given gifts from God and don't use them. You obviously had a hand in the equation. BUCK: I never heard it put that any better than that. That's right! Because a lot of people don't make use of their talents. And I think and always thought: Use it or lose it. LAURA: You once said, "I was always afraid but never afraid enough not to try it."' I love that quote. Is there anything you've been afraid to try? BUCK: I'm not a fearful guy. I can tell you I've not had many failures in business -- and that's all luck, just pure luck. LAURA: So a lot of things came to you? You must be very good at receiving. BUCK: I think so! (laughs) My whole life has been focused on being myself. And for years now, I've done exactly what I wanted to do. LAURA: So your motto might be, "If it's not fun, don't do it?" BUCK: Exactly! (laughs) LAURA: I came up with another one. BUCK: All right, let me hear it. LAURA: It's a line from a current song: "It's better to be hated for who you are than to be loved for who you're not." BUCK: Well, that's good! Now that would fit right in with me! LAURA: You tell it like it is pretty much, it seems. BUCK: Honesty is so important. There's nothing to take the place of honesty. You know, I've been drunk one time in my life. LAURA: Well, at least you tried it. BUCK: Well, it wasn't exactly just that. I got drunk and got married! LAURA: Ha! That's why I don't drink much. It's hard enough to navigate life without having your judgment altered. BUCK: I put my name by that, too. I sign up there! LAURA: Well, what happened? BUCK: I was just kind of lost, you know? And along comes this gorgeous little thing that played the fiddle, and she really played. And so, in a desperate effort to try to fill up that hole in my life, I know what happened. I got involved with her, got drunk, and got married that same night. The next morning I looked over at her, and there she was -- my wife. LAURA: I bet you never got drunk again after that. BUCK: I have not. (laughs) Buck has been married four times. This particular marriage ended quickly, lasting only two days. His first marriage to Bonnie Owens gave him sons Buddy and Michael. With his second wife Phyllis, Buck had his third son Johnny. He then married fiddle player Jana, and in 1977 he married Jennifer Smith, from whom he is now divorced. At the time of his death, he was living with Karen Rotan; they had just become engaged, as Buck had proposed to her two days before his passing. LAURA: Speaking of your wives, as part of your show at the Crystal Palace you certainly make a lot of cynical comments about marriage. BUCK: Yeah (laughs). LAURA: Is that how you feel, or do you still believe in true love? BUCK: Oh, I believe in true love. I believe love is the greatest thing. It's the biggest thing. LAURA: So you're not cynical about marriage and love? BUCK: No, but I am cynical about sex and love! (laughs) LAURA: Speaking of love, can we talk about Don Rich? Because the story of your relationship had considerable impact on me, and I'm sure others as well. You've described Don as a soulmate, a wife, a brother, and a son. To have that kind of loss when you've found such a rare and joyous alliance, it must have been devastating. BUCK: He was the heart and soul of everything -- he read my mind. I think in another life, if reincarnation happens, he and I were brothers, or father and son, or whatever. LAURA: Maybe you had many lives together. BUCK: Yeah, I think so. Don Rich was Buck's musical partner for fourteen years, contributing guitar, fiddle, and sublime harmonies that made the Buckaroos' sound complete. He was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1974 at age 32. LAURA: Did that kind of unfathomable loss make you more distant with people? BUCK: Yeah, absolutely. LAURA: Because you don't want to feel that kind of pain again? BUCK: No, no, I don't. It's hard to believe that it's been 31 years....I'm having a tomb for him built out at the ranch. LAURA: When you talk about the telepathic relationship you had with Don -- was it only the music you shared telepathically, or did you have it in other areas of your lives? BUCK: Yeah, in everything. LAURA: And also from a distance, when you were apart from each other? BUCK: Yeah, as close as anything you ever saw. And he knew it, and I knew it. And we seldom spoke of it, maybe a time or two. But we knew there was something there. We didn't know exactly how to describe it. We didn't know how to. LAURA: It was an undeniably sacred relationship? BUCK: Yeah, and everybody else knew it too. [He pauses for moment.] That's the kind of guy I lost. I lost him. To hear firsthand the emotion of Buck quietly murmuring "I lost him" punctuates the deep depression he admits lasted more than a decade -- a time when Buck largely stopped recording and performing. LAURA: Was it while you were still grieving and hadn't been playing or recording that Dwight Yoakam came to see you? BUCK: Well, let me tell you the story of Dwight. My secretary comes in and she says, "A guy is here, he says he's Dwight Yoakam." People had been sending me pieces out of the paper, reviews of his shows. And he's talking about me all the time. And so I ask her, "But is it Dwight?" And she says, "Well, he's tall and skinny, and he looks like him." (laughs) LAURA: Don't you think it's kind of funny he didn't call you first and say, "Hey, I'd like to come see you"? BUCK: Well if you know Dwight it's not. That's just him. That's called "BAU," business as usual. (laughs) And so Dwight was playing at the Fair here in Bakersfield, and he said, "Why don't you come out tonight and do a song with me, a song or two?" LAURA: Do you think that first encounter and performance with Dwight shifted anything for you, in terms of healing from your loss? BUCK: Well...yes. I'll tell you this: We went out there on that stage, and it was one of those electric moments that rarely happens in people's lives. I don't remember what song we sang, but actually, it's the only time that I felt that way, the only time. Where you could actually feel an energy in the air from those people in the stands. They just went crazy. And so which meant that Dwight and I meshed very well. And I had said, 'Well, I'll sing one song.' But we ended up singing four or five songs. LAURA: What was it between you two that made you mesh so well? Was it a kindred spirits feeling, like with Don? BUCK: Not exactly the same as with Don, but kindred spirits, yeah. It was a feeling that -- well, you see, I was accustomed to people admiring things I had done. But with Dwight, it was different. I just knew that I liked him. I liked him because he reminded me of me when I was his age. LAURA: You both had success outside of Nashville. BUCK: Yeah. LAURA: Do you like most of the music coming out of Nashville today? BUCK: No, most of it I don't like. But I'm very honest with them. It's too political. I mean what the hell does it mean if it has no honesty to it? LAURA: That's the paradox -- because the purest incentive to listen to country music is the authenticity. BUCK: Exactly! LAURA: Do you understand when it's been said that someone like yourself is too twangy for Nashville, too country for country music, or too far outside of the system if they don't chose to live in Nashville? BUCK: I don't understand it. LAURA: That never made sense to me given what I understand the foundation of country music to be all about. BUCK: Well, you said it right there....It doesn't make sense! LAURA: You know, I like Nashville. I mean if you fall in love with country music, you're going to go to Nashville and have a great time. BUCK OWENS: I hate it. LAURA: You hate it? BUCK: Well, no, I don't hate Nashville. It's just that the people there got away with coming in and taking the music away. But now, I don't know if you can feel it yet or not, but I feel it -- it's coming back the other way. I notice even Faith [Hill] is now saying, "Well, I have to get back to my roots." They're getting back to their roots! LAURA: Perhaps. BUCK: But why are they getting back to their roots? LAURA: You tell me. BUCK: Because the roots is what they're trying to sell now, even though they wanted to be pop stars. (laughs) Buck suffered a stroke in April 2004, and its affects continued to shadow his every move in his final years. Cancer had cost him part of his tongue in 1994, slightly hampering his communicative skills. Despite such health challenges, at the time of his death, Buck was vigorously working on his memoirs and a new album, having recorded completed six tracks that would impress even his biggest fans. Two of the new songs already were crowd favorites at his Crystal Palace shows: "Morning My Love" (a riveting, ethereal love song) and "All Alone Again" (a chillingly soulful, synergistic duet with Yoakam). LAURA: Can we talk about your new music? The songs you played for me are some of the most soulful, beautiful songs I've heard in long time. BUCK: Well, I'd already started the idea (of a new album). I'd already done some of the work when I had the stroke....And I'm trying to finish it, but, you know, a lot of the thoughts -- they're either there or they aren't. It takes a lot of time, and I don't have the energy I once had. LAURA: How important is it to you to get this new album out there? BUCK: Well, it's one of the most important things in my life. But it's not as simple as you think. I've lost some dexterity, and I'm playing all the instruments! It used to be there in my fingers, just waiting... LAURA: How do you deal with the frustration of losing what you know? BUCK: Well, it's so difficult. I have a terrible time dealing with it. But I have a great internist and she says, "Keep trying, Buck, because it'll keep coming, it'll keep coming back." And, you know, I believe she might be right. I believe that some of it, my memory, my recall is a little better. Every once in awhile I get real frustrated. If I try too long, I become agitated and unfriendly (laughs). So, I don't. LAURA: So you've had to set new boundaries, for yourself and with others? BUCK: Yes, and it's so much better since I've been doing that. But at first I couldn't understand: "Why can't I do this? I've always been able to do those things, why can't I do them now?" LAURA: The songs you played for me, are these recorded after the stroke? BUCK: Most of them. LAURA: Well then I don't think you have much to worry about. BUCK: Yeah, I think they'll be real good, but it's whether or not they'll be a financial success. LAURA: Why would you even care about that, at this point? BUCK: I don't care, except for a matter of pride. LAURA: Pride aside...where do you see yourself in the history of country music? BUCK: Well, let me just say this: I haven't thought about that, and it would take some thought to give you a good answer. So, I'll give you an honest answer for now. LAURA: OK, I'll wait on the extended version. (laughs) BUCK: Good. Well...I hope that they see me as absolutely honest, as a person that didn't do something because I thought people would like it and so forth, that I stayed right to what I thought, the way I wanted to do it, how I wanted to do it -- and if I even wanted to do it. That everything I did is what I was, what I am -- that it all came from me. I don't think I'll need to wait on the extended version. As usual, Buck has underestimated his ability to get it right the first time. As our time together is coming to an end, I see the beginnings of song Buck is working on, lyrics laid out on the table next to the many instruments that fill his living room. They read: When it's time to say goodbye When it's all over When you've had your Last roll in the clover... Laura McCorkindale is a film producer and writer, having most recently produced the Golden Globe-winning Iron Jawed Angels starring Hilary Swank for HBO. She is also a freelance country music writer and a former award-winning journalist and columnist for various Gannett publications.