Buck Owens was the top-selling country act of the 1960s, with more than thirty top ten singles and fifteen consecutive #1 hits. Inventor of the Bakersfield Sound, he was hugely popular not only with country fans but with rock fans too. The Beatles covered his songs; Gram Parsons idolized him; the Grateful Dead loved him. At least six marriages, several TV shows, and a publishing and media empire followed. And a number of current country stars, ranging from Dwight Yoakam to Marty Stuart, cite him as a major influence.
Yet never before has there been a book about Buck Owens. And the man that emerges from its pages is the polar opposite of the aw-shucks image he cultivated on Hee-Haw. A tight-fisted control freak with an outsized appetite for sex, Owens could be genial at one moment and ruthlessly cruel the next.
Buck Owens chronicles his rise from poverty as the son of a tenant farmer to one of the nation’s best-loved entertainers, worth at least $100 million when he died. It also reveals for the first time the circumstances surrounding the death of his bandleader, Don Rich. It is authoritative, counting among its myriad sources seven Buckaroos, the cohost and producer of Hee Haw, a former president and vice president of Capitol Records, numerous country singers, relatives, wives, lovers, and employees. This biography paints an unprecedented portrait of not only country’s biggest star of the ’60s, but perhaps its biggest son of a bitch.
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About the Author
Eileen Sisk is a former editor at the Tennessean, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and the Washington Post and a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. and the Society of Professional Journalists. She is the author of Honky-Tonks: Guide to Country Dancin’ and Romancin’.
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By Eileen Sisk
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2010 Eileen Sisk
All rights reserved.
Son of a Tenant Farmer
Sherman, Texas, is a city of mood swings. One minute, all is calm and peaceful, a bucolic backdrop of parched prairie and Prussian blue, and the next, a screaming blue norther — the mother of all north Texas storms — rolls in without warning like a bipolar on a rant. Stratus clouds seemingly boil up out of nowhere, thick shades of blue and gray, a foreshadowing of things to come: a drastic drop in temperature that can transform a blast-furnace summer into an ice-cold winter in an instant. Sherman is no place for sissies; it's the stuff of survivors.
In the years leading up to the Great Depression, area farms were failing by the hundreds as myriad Texans joined a surge of Dust Bowlers from Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri escaping a dry, windswept land that offered little to no hope of earning a living. Although times were tough all over north Texas, Sherman, which lies fifteen miles south of the Red River and the Oklahoma border, held promise and hope for at least one young tenant farmer from nearby Bonham. A tall, salt-of-the-earth teenager, Alvis Edgar Owens was a simple guy with hangdog looks and workingman's hands. He was young and tough, and not afraid to do an honest day's work.
Alvis was fifteen with a seventh-grade education when he met Maicie Azel Ellington, a busty, short brunette, at a church social. Although he was two years younger, his Model T Ford gave him an edge over the other boys in winning Maicie's affections. They began dating, which consisted of attending the Southern Baptist Church and various church functions. Alvis persisted in asking Maicie's father for permission to marry his daughter, but Micheal Ellington (whose first name was not spelled the conventional way, although it was pronounced the same) put the boy off, saying first that they could marry after the crops were planted, then after they were harvested, and so on. Alvis was impatient, though, so in January 1926 he and Maicie eloped. They married in a snowstorm, sitting in Alvis's Model T with the preacher standing outside the car window conducting the ceremony while Maicie's uncle and the preacher's wife served as witnesses. Alvis was sixteen and Maicie was eighteen.
The young couple set up housekeeping three miles from the heart of Sherman — a large town square and courthouse surrounded by shade trees and red brick streets — in a tenant farmer's house at the old Ashland Dairy Farm, according to Texas kin. Alvis worked split shifts at the dairy, getting up at either 2 or 3 A.M. to milk cows, only to do it again twelve hours later. Maicie would rise with him and prepare breakfast so her husband could start the day right. In between dairy shifts, Alvis would pick up work at surrounding farms. The work and schedule were grueling, but he was able to provide for Maicie and their daughter, Mary Ethel, who was born October 6, 1927.
In August 1929, a brutal heat wave engulfed Sherman. The unrelenting sun bore down on the town, which saw temperatures soar to at least 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher for twenty days. No rain was recorded, and on the twelfth day, the mercury was a blistering 99 degrees when the Owenses welcomed their second child and firstborn son, Alvis Edgar Jr., into the world.
All odds were against Alvis Jr., who made his debut on the cusp of the Great Depression. Not only was he born into a dirt-poor family, but also he weighed a puny five pounds and had two congenital birth defects — only one functioning kidney and a cleft palate. Lord knows, his young parents had enough worries to shoulder for a family of four in a failing economy without having to scrape up cash for reconstructive surgery for their infant son, but they managed to get it done. Years later, Buckaroo Doyle Holly recalled, Buck had a scar on the left side of his upper lip and drank out of a straw because cold liquids bothered him.
The Owenses didn't stay in Sherman long, because as a tenant farmer, Alvis Sr. was forced to follow the work. By 1931, the family had moved to Van Alstyne, about twenty miles south of Sherman, where their second son, Melvin Leo, was born on July 20. It wasn't too long thereafter that Alvis Jr., by then a precocious two-year-old, insisted that he be called "Buck," after the family mule and dog. Many published accounts say Buck was either three or four when he affected his nickname, but his mother said he was two. Thus, the sandy-haired, blue-eyed boy began rewriting his life story. His new name turned out to be a fitting moniker for someone who bucked convention all his life and grew to worship the almighty dollar.
Although Buck would later speak of his family's privation, he seemed to dwell on what they didn't have as opposed to what they did. The Owenses did not have an easy life, but few did back then, and their situation was much better than others who got only oatmeal to eat three times a day. As Gospel singer-songwriter Albert E. Brumley, father of future Buckaroo Tom Brumley, put it, "Those were hard times back then, and poor people didn't have any times at all." In Texas, Buck's family always had shelter, food on the table, plenty of milk to drink, a car, a mule, and even a radio. The radio opened up a brand-new world for young Buck, who became mesmerized by the music emitted by its tinny speakers. Not knowing any better, the boy believed that miniature people lived inside the box and made the music. He would hide and peek at the radio every now and again to see whether any small folks would venture out, but they never did.
By the time their fourth and last child, Dorothy Juanita, was born on January 12, 1934, the family had moved a few miles north to Howe. When Dorothy was eleven months old, she and Buck both contracted pneumonia. Then, on December 14, 1934, Maicie's father died. One of Buck's most vivid memories of childhood was when he and Dorothy were recuperating and Maicie held them up to the window to watch their grandfather's funeral procession pass by their house.
* * *
Although Buck was a Texan by birth, his family roots were tangled deep in the South and in Appalachia. His great-grandparents had begun the slow migration westward from as far east as North Carolina, and subsequent generations slowly migrated westward with stops in Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Ohio, Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), and ultimately Texas.
Buck's father was the third of six children born to Carl Lee Owens and Carmenia "Minnie" Alzada Wattenbarger (pronounced "Vattenbarger"). Carl Lee was born in Whistler, Alabama, and Minnie in Sweetwater, Tennessee. They were living in Bonham, Texas, when Alvis Edgar Sr. was born May 26, 1909. He had two brothers and three sisters. Carl Lee switched his name at some point so he wouldn't be confused with another man of the same name; he became known as Lee Carl Owens. They eventually settled in Sherman, where Lee Carl and Minnie lived until their deaths.
Buck's mother was also one of six children — three brothers and two sisters — born to Micheal Monroe Ellington Jr. and Mary Myrtle Curliss. Micheal and Mary Myrtle were both born in Arkansas and married in Indian Territory, and Maicie was born December 4, 1907, in Okolona, Arkansas. When she was a year old, the family moved back to Indian Territory, which by then had become Oklahoma, and later to Grayson County, Texas, of which Sherman is the county seat.
* * *
Growing up, Buck ate his share of country "vittles" home-cooked in cast iron. Diet staples included fried bread, biscuits and gravy, cornbread and milk, banana pudding, and "poke salet," a wild green much like Swiss chard or spinach in flavor. He remembered catching crawdads in a creek as a boy in Texas, and taking them home to his mother, who would bread them in flour and fry them for supper. It made him feel like a man to help put food on the family table. He also helped his mother do the laundry, which entailed boiling dirty clothes in a pot over a fire and half-heartedly agitating the load with a long stick before they were hung out to dry.
Like all families, the Owenses were dysfunctional in their own special way. Maicie doted on her oldest son and felt he could do no wrong, while Alvis Sr. set high standards for the boy and felt he could do no right. When it came to punishing the "young uns," Alvis Sr. lived by the maxim of the time, "Spare the rod and spoil the child," and would plant several firm blows on Buck's backside with a razor strop. Such ardor in discipline caused Buck to harbor a lifelong resentment toward his father. Maicie, on the other hand, was more lenient. She would tell the errant child to go outside, cut a switch, and bring it to her, and then she would mete out a few quick stings on the back of the legs, which were more easily forgiven and forgotten than his father's blows from the strop.
When Buck was growing up, it was the norm for a man to discipline his wife as well as his children, and the pressures and stress of providing for a family under harsh economic conditions took their toll. Alvis Sr. would strike Maicie, which upset young Buck and moved him to defend her. Maicie adored her firstborn son and Buck had an unnatural attachment to his mother, whom he worshipped. According to Kris Black, former national promotion director of Buck Owens Enterprises, "Buck had emotional incest with his mother, possibly because he'd seen his dad hit his mother and he took over as her protector." Whippings aside, the hard times brought the family closer together, and there was never a question that they loved and remained loyal to one another.
Although he was a bit on the homely side, Buck's spunky personality, bright eyes, and easy smile endeared him to the womenfolk. Not only did his mother put him on a pedestal, but his younger sister Dorothy and his Grandma Ellington did, too. Mary Myrtle doted on her grandson and told him when he was about eight that when he grew up she would come keep house for him because he didn't need any of those "pissy-tailed girls" hanging around him. As a result of this female adoration, young Buck came to believe that he was truly special.
When he wasn't in school, Buck said, he worked in the fields four months out of the year, picking cotton, potatoes, peaches, and more, and hoeing land to contribute to the support of the family. Buck's father explained to him about tenant farming, or "farming on the halves," as it was called, which was a notch above sharecropping. "Halves" meant the tenant farmer furnished the mules and sometimes the seed, while the owner provided the housing and the land, "and at the end of a year, you split with the owner fifty-fifty," Buck said. Sharecropping, on the other hand, meant the sharecropper often lived in a house owned by the landlord, who furnished the land, seed, farm equipment, house, animals, and so forth — basically, the farmer worked not only for a roof over his head but also for credit and food on the table. Nevertheless, the boy made no distinction between the two, and sharecropping was a vocation he despised and vowed never to do. Someday, somehow, he would escape the life of a dirt farmer. He would see to it because he was better than that.
At some point, after the birth of Dorothy, the Owenses left Howe and moved to Garland, Texas. On November 30, 1936, when Buck was seven years old, his father applied for a Social Security card. His application indicated a general delivery mailing address in Garland, on the outskirts of Dallas, where he was working split shifts at Dieterich Certified Farms on Dairy Road. One day, Buck was walking home from school for lunch and passed by the house of his father's brother. His Uncle Vincent was out in the yard and told the boy he'd best not bother going home and to come in and eat at his place. Not knowing what his uncle was talking about, Buck proceeded on his way, only to arrive at a burned-out shell of a house. Their home had caught fire while his mother was preparing lunch. It was then that the Owenses, who had already uprooted several times in Texas, were faced with deciding whether to stay in a drought-stricken land or follow other kin who had gone westward. They decided to go.CHAPTER 2
The Owenses' exodus from Texas occurred midway through a four-year span in which up to half a million Dust Bowl migrants fled Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri. Alvis Sr. had heard there was plenty of work in California, so they decided to go there. He built a two-wheel trailer to hitch to the back of their 1933 Ford sedan, and loaded it with what was left of their belongings. On November 8, 1937, the whole family shoehorned themselves into the Ford and headed west: Alvis Sr., Maicie, their four children, Maicie's mother, Maicie's brother Vernon Ellington, his wife, Lucille, and their son, Jimmy. Transporting ten passengers and hauling a heavy load slowed them so considerably that they were lucky if they traveled two hundred miles in a day. They would stop to buy gasoline, bologna, and bread, and camp out by the roadside at night, eating a supper of either fried bread or biscuits and water gravy prepared over an open fire. A week after they started their journey, the trailer hitch on the Ford broke in Phoenix, Arizona, so they looked up relatives in nearby Mesa and decided to stay a while before going on to California.
Buck wasn't impressed with Arizona. It was hot and dusty just like Texas. Times were lean for the Owenses, but not as lean as they had been in Texas. At least the Arizona climate was consistent, warm year-round. The family, like most Southwestern migrants, may have been poor as puppy's piss, but they were prideful folk and always worked for what they got in life. They would sooner die than go on the relief. No task was too small or too menial as long as it brought in money. Alvis Sr. worked at local dairy and fruit farms and got paid in milk and produce. He drove trucks and dug ditches. He did it all.
Buck would recall a poverty-stricken childhood of picking cotton, cold nights, twine for belts, reinforced shoe soles of cardboard, hunger, and more — but photographs of his family's life in Arizona tell a different story. They had Sunday-best clothing, hats, shoes, shirts, socks, leather belts, bicycles, musical instruments for Buck and his siblings, and even a piano for Maicie. On Saturdays, the family would clean up and drive into town, where Buck got a dime to see a picture show, a nickel for popcorn, and a nickel for a drink. On occasion, Maicie would serve Buck's favorite, banana pudding, for dessert.
The family lived in Arizona from 1937 until 1951. Buck recalled having to change schools often because the family had to follow the work. He talked of how the family moved from house to house, living in Gilbert, Higley, Mesa, Scottsdale, Tempe, and Valley of the Sun — although he never mentioned how the family moved Maicie's piano during all those moves.
In addition, Buck said, he left school two weeks early and started two weeks late every year so he could live the life of a nomad, traveling with his family to the San Joaquin Valley in California to stay in federal labor camps and pick cotton, fruit, and vegetables. It was a great environment for him, he said, because after a hard day's work, the laborers would gather around a campfire to pick and sing music. It makes for a good story, but it doesn't exactly jibe with the historical timeline. Buck's parents bore the brunt of the Great Depression more than their children did; by the time the Owenses left Texas in 1937, the nation was on the rebound from the Depression, which ended in 1939.
Buck said he assigned no romance to being poor, yet he compared his family's travails and migration westward with those of the fictional Joad family, who fled Oklahoma for California during the Great Depression in John Steinbeck's American classic The Grapes of Wrath. In 1940, the novel was made into a movie, starring Henry Fonda, which became a favorite of Buck's. Although Buck was a Texan by birth, he seemed to have a bad case of Okie envy and played the Okie card whenever it was convenient. "I was part of the Grapes of Wrath migration west," Buck said, and over the years he referred to himself as an "Okie by default," because his birthplace was near the state border, his maternal grandparents had lived there, he had married at least two Okies, and most migrants were referred to as Okies no matter where they came from.
A few years after settling in Arizona, Buck experienced what he called "the darkest moment" of his childhood either at age nine or eleven, depending on the account. He contracted what the locals called "brain fever," and spent more than two months in South Side Hospital in Mesa with his mother at his side. The condition, which today might be diagnosed as either meningitis or encephalitis, occurs when the lining of the brain or the brain itself becomes infected by a virus or bacteria. If left untreated, serious mental problems can occur. When Buck was released from the hospital, he couldn't remember much of what he had been taught over the years; he had to relearn his ABCs and more. In addition, he wasn't as agile as he'd been before his illness, and his younger brother could outrun him after that.
Excerpted from Buck Owens by Eileen Sisk. Copyright © 2010 Eileen Sisk. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Son of a Tenant Farmer,
2 The Exodus,
4 The Promised Land,
7 Dangerous Don,
8 Bakersfield Redux,
9 General Jack,
10 Uncle Dorothy,
11 "Act Naturally",
12 Merle and the Moose Medicine,
13 Dashing Doyle,
14 Timid Tom,
15 The Peacemakers,
16 Dennis Payne,
17 The Firing of Mel King,
18 Willing Willie,
19 Road Stories,
20 Buck's Pledge,
21 The Baron of Buckersfield,
23 Professional Jealousy,
24 The Flex Bus,
25 The Girl Singer,
26 Buck Owens Ranch,
27 Carnegie Hall,
28 Running with the Dogs,
29 James, Charley, and Ray,
30 If the Suit Fits,
31 The Studio and the Snake,
33 Forbidden Fruit,
34 Friends in High Places,
35 Jumpin' Jerry Wiggins,
36 Stolen Glory,
37 Kris Black,
38 A Run-In with Rolene,
39 Flying High,
40 Bucking Tradition,
41 The Show Must Go On,
42 Jay Dee,
43 Hee Haw,
44 Drugs of Choice,
45 Jo McFadden,
46 Buck Changes His Tunes,
47 Ruby and the Master of Spin,
48 Death of a Buckaroo,
49 Life After Don,
50 Jana Jae,
51 The No-Record Deal,
52 Two Goodbyes,
53 The "Three-Day" Marriage,
54 The '80s,
55 The '90s,
56 Together Again,
Selected Sessionography and Discography,
What People are Saying About This
Eileen Sisk's fascinating but unsympathetic bio shreds the veil of secrecy surrounding the brilliant though tormented Owens to reveal a master manipulator with a heart of stone. (John Lomax III, author, Nashville: Music City U.S.A. ; Red Desert Sky ; and For the Sake of the Song )
"While Sisk reveals amazing details like the time Owens convinced a sheriff to deputize two of his crew so they could carry guns, and lurid episodes like sharing women with his bandmates, many of these stories are brief and to the point. . . . This is great for hard-core fans. . . . Because Sisk provides a more honest portrait of a country legend, her book is essential for readers interested in cultural musicology." —Library Journal
"Hold on to your hats, country fans. This well-researched examination of the late 'Hee Haw' co-host and honky-tonk hit maker doesn’t tiptoe around the minefields. If you’re in the mood for an explosive, warts-and-all examination of Owens’ life, loves and career, this wild, eye-opening ride will really blow off your barn doors." —American Profile
"The impeccable detail and research make [this book] very readable." —Detroit Metro Times
"Meticulously researched and well-written." —Sing Out
“Eileen Sisk’s fascinating but unsympathetic bio shreds the veil of secrecy surrounding the brilliant though tormented Owens to reveal a master manipulator with a heart of stone.” —John Lomax III, author and former manager of Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle
“Buck was one of the kings of country music but also a complicated man. This biography tells why.” —Michael Streissguth, author, Johnny Cash: The Biography
“Eileen Sisk captures the real Buck. I knew him. I experienced the weird weaknesses. I witnessed the anger. Eileen is a tremendous writer. She has the guts, she has the ‘perfect subject,’ and she’s overstocked with talent. Her book is dynamitea masterpiece, a sure-fire winner.” —Bill Mack, “The Satellite Cowboy,” host of Country Crossroads and Grammy Award–winning songwriter
"This biography should be required reading for any serious country music fan. Meticulously researched, it is the revealing saga of one of the genre's most flamboyant stars." —Patsi Bale Cox, author, The Garth Factor: The Career Behind Country’s Big Boom
Buck was one of the kings of country music but also a complicated man. This biography tells why. (Michael Streissguth, author, Johnny Cash: The Biography)
Eileen Sisk captures the real Buck. I knew him. I experienced the weird weaknesses. I witnessed the anger. Eileen is a tremendous writer. She has the guts, she has the 'perfect subject,' and she's overstocked with talent. Her book is dynamitea masterpiece, a sure-fire winner. (Bill Mack, The Satellite Cowboy, host of the Country Crossroads radio and TV shows)
This biography should be required reading for any serious country music fan. Meticulously researched, the revealing saga of one of the genre's most flamboyant stars. (Patsi Bale Cox, author, The Garth Factor: The Career Behind Country's Big Boom, and Nickel Dreams, with Tanya Tucker)
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