Country titan Buck Owens, who died Saturday at 76, started as an outlaw and wound up as a clown. At least, that was the perception of many, including perhaps those under 40, who best remember him not as the architect of the Bakersfield Sound but as the co-host of Hee Haw for 17 years. It was a gig Owens came to resent, as it seemed to make record buyers take his music less seriously. After all, he’d gone from upstart status — rising up through the West Coast fringes of country alongside Merle Haggard and creating a rawer, more electrified sound — to being the top-selling country artist of the 1960s. In fact, he transcended country. His hits were covered by artists as far afield as the Beatles (”Act Naturally,” which became a signature song for Ringo Starr) and Ray Charles (”Cryin’ Time,” ”Together Again”), and he was name-checked by Creedence Clearwater Revival (in ”Looking Out My Back Door”). And the Bakersfield Sound (named for the California town that was Owens’ home base throughout his career) served as a touchstone to such late-60′s country-rockers as the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons, and Emmylou Harris.
Then in 1969 came Hee Haw, where he and co-host Roy Clark and others continued to make outstanding music, but whose cornpone humor Owens blamed for his slump on the charts. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s, with the rise of Dwight Yoakam, that Owens received his due as an influence and elder statesman. (The two had a No. 1 duet in 1988 with ”Streets of Bakersfield.”)
Still, if Owens felt overlooked, he continued to prosper as a businessman, with an empire of real estate holdings and radio stations. Hee Haw, which ceased production in 1992, remains hugely popular on DVD. And despite being plagued by health problems in recent years, Owens never stopped performing; he played his last concert hours before he died at his Crystal Palace club in Bakersfield.
USA Today has a list of 10 essential Owens tracks, and there are audio, video, and concert clips at Owens’ website.