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Weekend Review | Pop

Revitalized Buck Owens Once Again Hip

March 09, 1998|RANDY LEWIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Buck Owens only thinks he doesn't do encores.

Friday night at the House of Blues, the country music legend chided performers who program encores into their concerts and then try to feign spontaneity.

"It's so phony," he said, holding out for a while before acceding to shouts for more from enraptured fans who filled the place for one of his rare L.A. concerts.

Regardless of how much he may object to encores in concert, Owens can't seem to stop doing them in real life. At 68, the chief architect of country music's stinging and muscular Bakersfield sound is hip yet again.

Friday's audience included blue-collar workers in their 50s and 60s, urban professionals in their 30s and 40s and scene-making hipsters in their 20s.

Owens himself seemed revitalized in many ways. Having played live only sporadically for some 20 years after the 1974 death of Don Rich, the Buckaroos' original lead guitarist and Owens' closest friend, Owens has been bitten anew by the performing bug. Since opening his $10-million Crystal Palace concert club-restaurant-museum in Bakersfield in 1996, he and his Buckaroos band have been playing there almost every Friday and Saturday--two sets a night at that.

Industry types hop the Grapevine regularly to catch the gigs, and Owens is now the subject of not one but two annual tribute concerts, in Chicago and in Austin, Texas, akin to the "Elvis Birthday Bash" here.

Dwight Yoakam, who predictably showed up Friday for a guest spot, has called Owens and the Buckaroos "the hippest act in country music in the '50s and '60s." Owens wrote and recorded dozens of the catchiest, most skillfully constructed country songs ever, including "Together Again," "Crying Time," "Love's Gonna Live Here," "I've Got a Tiger by the Tail" and "Under Your Spell Again."

Owens' hipness quotient, however, plummeted when he signed to host "Hee Haw" in 1969, a job he kept for 17 years. "That ruined his career," fan Bill Lawrence, 48, of Fullerton said before the show. "Nobody who was on that show had any credibility."

That program's enduring image of Owens--as an overall-clad hayseed standing in the middle of a fake cornfield telling groaner jokes--is far more familiar to most Americans than that of a widely influential singer, songwriter, guitarist and businessman.

As sparkling as his country classics sounded Friday, even more scintillating was a new song he introduced, "Morning My Love," an aching ballad that measures up admirably to his peak-period '60s material.

After the show, Owens said that in the last six months he has started writing again, something that has been tough for him ever since Rich died in a motorcycle accident.

"I don't think there have ever been two people in this business closer than Don and I," Owens said, weary but attentive as he sat on a couch past midnight, holding the hand of his wife, Jennifer. "It's like we could read each other's minds.

"All of a sudden, I woke up six months ago and wrote a couple of short stories," he said. "I'd never written a short story. And I started writing some songs too."

How soon he'll record them--or whether he will at all--Owens won't say. He did, however, say he is slowly assembling an album of duets with like-minded contemporary country acts.

That project shares one thing with the Crystal Palace and House of Blues gigs and most everything else he takes on these days.

"I'm just doing this to have fun, and I'm having as much fun now--maybe more--than when all the hits were coming," said Owens, who went through throat surgery five years ago to remove a cancerous growth. That experience helped prod him finally to act on his long-held dream of opening his own concert theater and museum.

"When anybody asks to do something now, the first thing I look for is where the fun is," he said. "If it's there, then we can talk about the deal."

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