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The Buck Stops in Bakersfield : Buck Owens has been thumbing his nose at something his whole life--poverty, Nashville naysayers and other demons. Now he's building a measure of immortality back where it all began.

August 13, 1995|HERB BENHAM | Herb Benham is a columnist and writer for the Bakersfield Californian, which has published his most recent book of columns, titled "Sitting on My Fat Wallet."

On a wall behind his vast, white $5,000 desk, a few paces from the door of the bathroom with the guitar-shaped red, white and blue tiles inlaid around the Jacuzzi, hangs a framed poster of an attractive woman leaning possessively against a black Rolls-Royce Corniche. Printed across the bottom are two words. The owner of the custom desk and custom bathroom sits with his back to the poster, but he knows the words by heart, like the lyrics to one of his songs. More than his 21 No. 1 country songs, more than his five radio stations, more than his $100 million fortune, even more than his godfatherly devotion to family, these two words are the fire and force that have propelled Buck Owens for most of his 66 hard-driving years:

"Poverty Sucks."

It sure does. And whatever it takes to drive its weaselly little head back into the corrugated-steel shed in Sherman, Tex., that the Owens family once called home--whatever it takes to banish its pinched little soul, Buck Owens has spent a lifetime doing.

His museum will be the capper to prove it. Singing cowboy-movie star Gene Autry has his museum down the Golden State Freeway, the new mother road of the California heartland. Here in Bakersfield, on a piece of ground between oil-field service companies and just about the busiest truck stop in town, country star Buck Owens--the man whose "Hee Haw" television show made his a household face and household sound and put country music in the nation's living rooms--is raising up a monument to the vanishing life he lived and sang about. By inference, it is also a tribute to the shrewd business acumen that lifted him from migrant camps to network TV, from the Bakersfield honky-tonks to Carnegie Hall--he, Alvis Edgar Owens, an up-from-nowhere Okie who once couldn't have afforded a ticket in the cheap seats.

Five million dollars he's spending on this Western-facade museum, working title "Crystal Palace"--an acoustically advanced concert hall for 500, best on the West Coast, promises Owens. A museum to venerate Owens' red, white and blue Fender guitar--the model for the those bathroom tiles--with showcases for Loretta Lynn's wedding dress and display space for the Cadillac--its dashboard silver dollar-pave, each door handle a revolver--that the late cowboy tailor known as Nudie used to drive around L.A.

The museum will be a two-edged "I told you so" gift to the Valley town that Owens loves but which was never as grateful to him as it might have been. It is also a tribute to the Bakersfield Sound, a thumb of the nose to Nashville from the man who carried his music eastward over the Rockies and set it down triumphantly on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.

But when it opens next year, the museum will be foremost a monument to Owens. From a mauve-upholstered office chair as expensive as it is comfortable, he opens up like a scrapbook: "In the museum that I'm building, I'm going to have a 35-foot mural that's 19-feet high that's going to have the vignettes in my life. They are going to be in black and white. It was either black or white in my life. Never gray. That's the way I was."

Visitors will see his life as he saw it: the potato fields and oil fields, the bands he played with, the private jets that ferried him from gig to gig.

There is more than ego to this; there is an undercurrent of urgency as well. Throat cancer has taken a big chunk of his tongue--and maybe his future. It was diagnosed six months after his good friend, singer Roger Miller, died of it. Surgery has made certain sounds, like S, tricky to enunciate. Yet, Owens has lately returned to the studio--partly as speech therapy but maybe for another run at the country charts. Every three months now, he charters a jet and flies up to Stanford to get checked out. Doctors recently found a lump in his back. "I've had a lot of cancer in my life," he says matter-of-factly. His sister, Dorothy, "is sick bad with myeloma. My brother Mel died of cancer. And dad died of leukemia. You just wonder if we didn't get touched by something in the fields."

Has it ever been otherwise than tragic with country stars? The plane crash that takes Patsy Cline, the booze and pills that kill Hank Williams at age 29. Sorrowing is part of the music's warp and weft. Even non-country fans know the joke: What happens if you play a country record backward? You get your wife and your job back.

And its stars need a story. If they don't have one, they invent one, by generous autobiography or songs that patch myth to myth like an Appalachian quilt. If Momma was blind, Daddy drove a truck. If Daddy was honest, Momma drank. If Momma went to church, Daddy chased skirts. Country music comes with equal measures of the sacred and the profane: sweet kisses under the moonlight with crickets serenading, and the hard, sweaty grind of a honky-tonk like the Blackboard, the legendary bar and dance hall in Bakersfield that spawned a whole generation of country music--the Bakersfield Sound.

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