Buck Owens is one of the all-time greats of country music. Between 1960 and 1979, he scored more than 2 dozen No. 1 hits on the national country charts. He sold untold millions of albums, and he performed at Carnegie Hall and Madison Square Garden in New York and Royal Albert Hall in London.
Like so many other superstars of the past, Owens, 60, is enjoying a comeback. But, in his case, it really is a comeback--not just a sudden resurgence in popularity after a long dry spell. Owens will be appearing Sunday night at Leo's Little Bit O' Country in San Marcos.
Two years ago, Owens came back to music after a nine-year break. The reason he bowed out, he said, was his growing dissatisfaction with the direction country music was heading in the late 1970s: away from traditional twang and toward a more refined, sanitized country-pop sound.
"It was pretentious and contrived," Owens said. "It was so far removed from real country that it belonged on another planet. To me, it's either country or it ain't; it can't be half of this and half of that. Country is when you play that steel guitar and make her twang, folks, not all these big, pretty, polished sounds.
"But at the time, that's where country was going, and that's what country radio stations were playing. I got very discouraged; it seemed like people were getting tired of me, and my heart was no longer in it. So finally, I just decided to drop out."
After giving up music in 1979, Owens busied himself in other endeavors. He bought and sold real estate, made a lot of investments, and acquired four country radio stations--two in Bakersfield, where he's lived since he was 21, and two in Phoenix, where he had spent most of his childhood.
And, even though he didn't end his association with television's syndicated country-variety "Hee Haw" series until 1986, after 17 years as co-host, Owens still had plenty of free time on his hands to do the things he had always dreamed of doing.
"All those years I was out touring, my entertainer friends kept saying, 'When I don't have to go on the road anymore, here's what I'm gonna do,' " Owens recalled. "So when I gave up music, I began doing all these things: I played golf, I played tennis, I went fishing. There was no pressure, nobody calling me up and saying, 'We've got to get up to Vancouver for this Friday date.'
"I enjoyed it for a while, but eventually, I started getting bored--and then, in walks Dwight."
As in Dwight Yoakam , the brash young "new traditionalist" who is at the forefront of country's burgeoning back-to-twang movement.
"I was sitting at home in front of the TV one night, watching this show called 'Austin City Limits,' and this young rubber-legged boy named Dwight Yoakam gets on stage and says he wants to dedicate his song to Buck Owens and the whole gang back in Bakersfield," Owens recalled.
"That was in the summer of 1987. In the fall, I was working in my office, when my secretary comes in and says, 'A guy named Dwight Yoakam just walked in and he wants to talk to you.' It turns out he was going to play the county fair that night, and he wanted me to go out there with him.
"By then, I had been listening to his music, and I really liked what he was doing--bringing back the old sound. So I said, 'Yeah, I'll go out there with you,' and that's what started it all. His band knew a bunch of my songs, and I did them all--for the first time in I don't know how long--with Dwight."
After that, CBS invited Owens to appear on a special about country music and he brought along Dwight. They performed a song off Owens' "Streets of Bakersfield" album from the 1970s. Yoakam then included the song on his next album.
"All of a sudden," said Owens, "I've got my first No. 1 record in something like 15 years."
The surprise success of his duet with Yoakam made Owens a hot property again, and he soon found himself pursued by record companies. He ended up signing with Capitol Records, the label he had been on during his halcyon days.
Owens' album, "Hot Dog," came out in the fall of 1988 and was an immediate hit. So was his follow-up, "Act Naturally," released last October. The title track, and first single, was a duet with Ringo Starr. The tune was written and originally recorded by Owens in the mid-1960s and later covered by the Beatles.
He's working on yet another album--and spending as much time on the road as he ever did.
"Being 60 years old, and having people still enjoy seeing you and watching you perform, and having a major record label spend major money to do your records, it's a big deal for me," Owens said.
"I'm doing it for fun, for all the people who want to come out to little clubs and hear some good old-fashioned honky-tonk music--and who believe, like I do, that if it ain't got no twang, it don't mean a thang."
Appearing in San Marcos at Leo's Little Bit O' Country
Where: 680 West San Marcos Blvd.
When: Sunday, July 29.
What: Dinner show. Doors open 5 p.m.; open seating
Cost: $29 per person, advance ticket sales only