A tenant farmer's son; an influential musician with more than 30 Top 10 and 15 No. 1 singles; a cornball, overall-wearing bumpkin who hosted a popular country music television show; a cutthroat, razor-sharp business tycoon obsessed with dollars, sex and power: This isn't the latest cast description of Donald Trump's Celebrity Apprentice. According to a new book by Eileen Sisk, all of these descriptions apply to one man: Buck Owens.
As the man most associated with the "Bakersfield Sound," Owens bucked the sweetly produced masterpieces coming out of Nashville in the '60s. Shaped in the bars of that California town filled with displaced Okies, his brand of honky-tonk — rough and tumble, a bit edgy and marked by stellar harmony vocals and guitar work — ruled the airwaves for almost a decade. Buck Owens influenced everyone from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to Dwight Yoakam and Brad Paisley. Sisk's Buck Owens: The Biography is the first in-depth examination of the legendary performer, offering a glimpse behind the grinning persona and red-white-and-blue guitars. Using public records and exhaustively detailed interviews with Buck's friends, lovers, business partners, and the musicians who spent 300 days a year in his company, Sisk delivers a compelling story revolving around one of country music's most fascinating and complicated characters. If you think you know Buck Owens, think again.
Eileen Sisk is the author of Honky-Tonks: Guide to Country Dancin' and Romancin' and was formerly an editor at the Tennessean and The Washington Post. She answered a few questions by email prior to her local appearances.
When you began writing, you had Buck Owens's full cooperation, though he abruptly ended the partnership three years into the project. Can you describe what his letters were like during the years you corresponded? Any idea why he changed his mind about the book?
First, I want to make it clear that Buck never cooperated with me. I know Publishers Weekly "assumed" I had his full cooperation, but that was not the case. Buck basically strung me along for three years, during which time we exchanged letters and he humored me, asking me how we would structure a deal should I write his autobiography. Our correspondence began in 1996. ... During our exchange of letters, I kept chipping away at Buck to let me write his autobiography, which I wanted to do in the worst way. ... At one point, I wrote to Buck and told him I was going out to New Mexico and could swing by Bakersfield to talk to him if he had time. That is when I got a call from his assistant, Lee Ann Ennis, saying Buck wanted to meet with me at 4 p.m. on April 4, 1997. ...
Thus began the back-and-forth of me trying to persuade him to let me write his life story. He kept asking me how I would structure the deal and approach the project, and I kept telling him. ... [He] decided against working with me. ... I never set out to do an unauthorized book, but after a three-year time investment in travel and research, I couldn't walk away.
To the wider world, Owens is perhaps best known as the co-host of Hee Haw, as well as for his string of hits in the '60s, but I doubt many know of the vast entertainment empire he controlled, an empire worth more than $100 million dollars at his death in 2006. But he wasn't exactly a pure ethicist with a dollar, was he?
You are correct. Buck was no ethicist, especially where money was concerned. Money, in fact, was the greatest love of Buck's life, and he was smart enough to ask to be paid in cash for gigs, not only because promoters and club owners are notorious for stiffing artists but also because cash allowed him to keep more of his earnings. Buck also had a pattern of setting up companies, closing them after a year or so, and then setting up similar ones under different names.
Aside from Owens, this is very much a story of the Buckaroos, particularly long-time band members Tom Brumley, Doyle Holly and the legendary and influential guitarist Don Rich. Rich died in a tragic motorcycle crash in 1974, and you performed an exhaustive records search and interviewed dozens of people who were around at the time of the accident. Are there any remaining mysteries about Rich's death?
To my knowledge, I am the only journalist who ever gained access to the sheriff's records, incident report, coroner's report, and funeral-home records. My book has the most complete — and true — story to date about what really happened to Don Rich on July 17, 1974. Mysteries still remain about that death, and more people have come forward with information since the book was published. At some point, I hope to delve into that more, perhaps in a sequel. Many people who knew and loved Don find it hard to believe some of the stories Buck circulated about the circumstances leading up to and surrounding Don's death.
Gene Price said to you, "Buck's a very bad man who makes very good music." Although you point out that Owens could be generous on occasion and always put on a pleasant smile for the public, most of the people you spoke with for this book portray him much the way Gene Price does — as a controlling, manipulative, cheap, philandering son of a bitch. Yet many of these very people continued to adore him. You're careful in the book to allow readers to form their own opinions of the man and the music, but I'm curious about your own opinion of Buck.
Personally, I found him not only to be very charming but also evasive and somewhat shady. My antennae immediately went up when he shut down after I mentioned I would investigate Don Rich's death. As a professional journalist, I try to remain as neutral as possible when working a story. Yes, I was careful in writing this so people could form their own opinions about the man.
In an in-depth biography like this one, there is always the possibility — if not the certainty — that the subject's survivors will be hurt by some of the stories you bring to light, many for the first time. As a journalist, how do you negotiate this reaction?
Yes, you are correct about sensitivity issues and the problems in bringing some of these stories to light. I tried to be very careful to protect the privacy of those who stood to be hurt the most. There are some family members, whom Buck never recognized, who are thrilled that the truth is being told at long last.
Many of the people you interviewed are still living. What kind of response have you had from your sources, as well as from the Owens family?
People are either going to love or hate this book — and me as well.
Some die-hard fans will have trouble accepting the truth, and I've heard the Owens estate isn't thrilled about the book, though that probably has more to do with someone else making money off the story. I am sure there are people, especially younger artists, who saw only the good side of Buck and who might be shocked at some of the revelations in the book. On the other hand, I have gotten excellent feedback from the widows of Don Rich, Jack McFadden, and Tom Brumley, as well as from Kris Black, Buck's former national promotion director. Kris said she has read the book three times and could not believe how accurate the story was. Some of the surviving Buckaroos, such as Jerry Brightman, Jay Dee Maness, and Ronnie Jackson, say I nailed it. In fact, Ronnie, who is an author himself, told me he thinks "the book is fantastic" and that he is getting email from fans asking whether it is true. He said he tells them it is the truth, because he lived it.
To read the full transcript of this interview and to see more local book coverage, visit chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.