Unsparing tell-all biography of country-music icon Buck Owens (1929–2006).
Although Owens always played up his country-gentleman public image, former Tennessean and Washington Post editor Sisk (Honky-Tonks: Guide to Country Dancin’ and Romancin’, 1995) exposes him as a cutthroat businessman, a dishonest and abusive bandleader and a wife-beating womanizer, among other things. Through in-depth interviews with Owens’s former bandmates, wives, girlfriends and business associates, the author provides a hatchet job with a heart. Sisk posits an all-consuming fear of poverty behind Owens’s take-no-prisoners pursuit of money; however, the author never apologizes for any of her subject’s dirty deeds. Growing up in small-town Texas during the Depression, in the 1950s Owens moved to Bakersfield, Calif., to make it as a guitar picker, inadvertently founding the “Bakersfield” sound, a harder-edged alternative to the syrupy Nashville style. By the early ’60s, there was a worldwide audience for his music—the Beatles even covered his signature song, “Act Naturally.” But as soon as Owens had a modicum of power, writes the author, he abused it. His crack backing band, the Buckaroos, not only served as Owens’s underpaid sidemen but also as his general factotums. He took pleasure in ruining careers and sometimes even had the FBI investigate his rivals. Meanwhile, he slept with thousands of women on the road, mostly while married to one of several wives he abused over the years. Ultimately, the mindless hayseed romp Hee Haw and its decades-long TV syndication confirmed Owens as one of the wealthiest stars in any musical genre. After amassing a fortune of more than $100 million—in addition to music, he built an empire of TV and radio stations and cattle ranches—he retired quietly in the 1980s. Yet Sisk suggests that Owens died a lonely miser who could buy everything except a satisfied mind—the classic Faustian victim of success.
A tough but fair portrait of Owens’s three faces: talented musician, genius businessman and despicable creep.