Words often fail to express the connection that can exist between two people. In the friendship of Don Rich and Buck Owens, our notions of reality itself may prove inadequate.
In another life, Don Rich may have been a star in his own right. In this life, he shared Buck Owens’ spotlight. Last week, we heard how they got there. This week, with spacetime as our stage, we trip backwards for more tour shenanigans, supernatural mysteries and, as always, great music. Our narrative pays special attention to The Carnegie Hall Concert album, what Hee Haw did for country music on television and innovations that Don Rich and Buck Owens brought to country music.
But don’t forget what else we learned last week. There is never such a thing as a happy ending. It’s going to hurt watching this one fall apart and we have to go there, too.
This episode is especially recommended for fans of metaphysics, banjo, Dwight Yoakam, Emmylou Harris, Merle Haggard, Tales from the Tour Bus, Easy Rider and Forensic Files.
Contents (Click/Tap to Scroll)
- Primary Sources – books, documentaries, etc.
- Transcript of Episode – for the readers
- Liner Notes – list of featured music, online sources, further commentary
In addition to The Library, these books were used for this episode:
Transcript of Episode
You Get Back Up the Next Day
Tina Turner believed she was the reincarnation of an Egyptian pharaoh from the 15th century. Salvador Dalí believed he was the reincarnation of his own dead brother, who was a reincarnation of St. John of the Cross. Napoléon Bonaparte often referred to himself as though he were the reincarnation of Charlemagne. General George S. Patton believed that he had reincarnated many times and would do so again after his death, always as a soldier. Patton believed that one of his past lives was spent in service under Napoleon Bonaparte. John Lennon thought he was the reincarnation of Napoleon. Then, another time, John Lennon, supposedly, was tripping so hard on acid that he called an emergency meeting with the other Beatles at their record company to tell them all he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.
I guess that means Napoleon would have been the reincarnation of Jesus? I’m not really sure how this works…
You can find examples of celebrities who do say they lived in poverty in past lives but the majority of these reincarnation claims seem to involve great leaders and significant characters from history. Many famous or powerful people seem to believe that one lifetime could not possibly encapsulate the spirit of their fame or power, ego tripping through time.
Buck Owens never flat out said that he believed in reincarnation and his ideas on the subject don’t appear to have anything at all to do with ego. Reincarnation was the only explanation that he could come up with for how and why he and Don Rich were able to do the things they did onstage.
Probably every professional musician is familiar with, let’s call it, “stage telepathy.” Even if you’re not a musician, you clearly care enough about music to be reading this, so I’m sure you’ve heard or read a musician talking about it before. When you play in a band with the same people for a long enough time, it just happens. There was even a study done in 2012 that showed how musicians’ brainwaves sync with each other when they play a song together. I’m sure that has a lot to do with it but that’s not all that stage telepathy is. It’s when you decide to play the wrong chord on purpose, just to mess with your bass player, and she’s right there with you, like that was the plan all along. It’s when you make a mistake and everyone in the band makes the exact same mistake, like you practiced it that way ten thousand times. You don’t have to be looking at each other. You don’t have to be on high alert, waiting for it. It’s just a thing that happens. I may even be able to show you an instance of it happening between Buck Owens and Don Rich….
In last week’s episode, I used a clip of them doing the Red Simpson song, “Sam’s Place,” on the Buck Owens ranch show. I think you should watch it if you want to try to understand the working relationship between Don Rich and Buck Owens. The entire song, they’re making funny faces at each other, having a good time. If you’ve watched a lot of videos you know this is what they do. About 50 seconds in, they both make the same face at each other. Buck does a double take back at Don, then touches his hand to his own temple with a look on his face like “get out of my brain.” At the one minute mark, they kick into a twin lead and they’re both looking down at their guitars. About five seconds into this lead break, Buck, who’s standing slightly behind Don Rich, makes another funny face, right before they both slide a note down the fretboard precisely the same way. Don begins smiling while he’s still looking down at his guitar, then looks up at Buck and laughs at him. If I sound like a lunatic right now, just ask a musician.
This is not a routine that they’ve rehearsed. You can find other footage of them doing the song on different occasions, playing the guitar solo a totally different way, making different funny faces at each other. And, here, in the video we’ve been talking about, it’s not like they’re even doing anything special to draw attention to it. They’re not doing it for the crowd. You just have to know what you’re looking for to see it. Call it whatever you want. Today, I’m calling it stage telepathy. This is such an accepted thing that it’s hardly even worth talking about. Over the years, you just get used to it. Except, Buck Owens would maintain that he had stage telepathy with Don Rich from the jump and that it wasn’t limited to the stage.
Remember last week, when Don was making his first trip down to L.A. for a recording session with Buck? He starts singing harmony with a song Buck’s been practicing in the car? The way Buck writes about it, it sounds a lot like what we’re calling stage telepathy. The moment had such an impact on him that he shares it in the prologue of his autobiography, as if for you to understand anything else in the story you must first understand this. Buck claims that each of them always knew what the other one was thinking: “He could read my mind and I could read his…” By the way, this is not a guy with a known interest in the occult or anything like that. He never talks about psychics or prophetic dreams or a telepathic bond between himself and anyone else. It’s just Don. And, are you ready for this? It’s not just his imagination. Everyone else knew it, too. Here’s a quote from Roy Clark: “Buck could think it and Don could do it.” Roy spent five years worth of Hee Haw around these guys and is also not known to go in for any of this Ms. Cleo stuff.
It doesn’t matter for a second whether or not reincarnation is real. All Buck Owens even says about reincarnation is that, if it can happen, then he’s certain he and Don were close in a past life, maybe brothers, and they must have played music together. What matters here is the bond these two shared was so powerful that country boy Buck Owens sounds like John Lennon on acid when he tries to describe it. You can not say that Don Rich is responsible for Buck Owens becoming a star. Buck’s talent is what put him at the top of Bakersfield’s elite music scene. And all Capitol Records had to do for Buck Owens to have hit singles was get out of his way. These things happened before Don came along but, as soon as Don got on board, they were on the same wavelength. Buck put it best when he said, “I always felt as if I would have been a success but Don Rich made it easy.” I don’t think there’s any question that’s the truth. In effect, Don Rich became an extension of Buck Owens. So much so that Buck began referring to Don as his “right arm.” As a matter of fact, they even worked up a stage routine where Don would stand behind Buck and play lead on Buck’s guitar while Buck played a rhythm part on it. [In Norway video, below.]
When Buck lost Don, he lost a part of himself – a big, big part of himself.
Last week, I told you how Buck Owens got his start in the music business, how he came to meet a teenaged Don Rich and, over the next several years, assemble the group of musicians we all think of when we think of The Buckaroos – all the while churning out hit after hit. They made some of the greatest country music in this world or the next. Today, we’ve already learned some things that shed new light on what we thought we knew. So what else don’t we know about Don Rich and Buck Owens?
Real Live Country Music
Talking about Don Rich feels like talking about a ghost. Most of the people mentioned in this episode and the last are dead now but they were alive when the histories were written. In the pages you read, there they are, telling their own stories in their own words. It doesn’t matter what Buck Owens book you read, who wrote it or when they wrote it, there’s a Don Rich-shaped hole in the entire thing. All we have are second-hand quotes and stories that we hope are remembered well. Stories from people who knew him to varying degrees: his widow, Marlane… His bandmates… His friends…
All we have are versions of Don Rich because, by the time any books started being written, Don was already dead.
We left off in 1966, two weeks ahead of a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall, a show Buck was worried about booking in the first place because he didn’t think they liked real country music in New York City. When the show sold out two weeks in advance, everyone knew they were in for a good time and decided to document it for posterity. The Carnegie Hall Concert album by Buck Owens and His Buckaroos is widely regarded as one of the best live albums ever made in any genre of music. On most live albums a band will typically have to go in the studio to clean up little mistakes they made in the show. On the Carnegie Hall recording, there was no need for that. This album presents an incredibly tight band at the height of their powers. Again, we’re only in 1966 and Buck already has to use several medleys in the set just to be able to say he played most of the hits. The band blends songs into each like they were always written to be performed this way.
If the comedy routines come off as corny, well, they are. Although, some of the jokes that ended up on the album were pretty risqué for the 1960s – and that’s with Buck having told the guys to keep the ad libs on the tame side for the New York crowd, many of whom were dressed like it was a night at the opera, ladies wearing furs and all that – but you’ve got scaled back versions of regular routines. The Beatles “Twist and Shout” bit ends with Don firing off a gunpowder-only shot from a flintlock pistol at one of the Beatle wigs on the ground, like he thought it was an animal. There are more silly impersonations of Johnny Cash, Tex Ritter, Ernest Tubb and, of course, Buck’s special introduction for each Buckaroo. He calls Doyle, a handsome guy, “the ugly one of the bunch.” Willie Cantu gets immediate applause from the crowd, so Buck doesn’t even have a chance to tease him about anything. Tom takes some hilarious abuse (“You talk about people that don’t know nothin’? Here’s an ol’ boy that don’t even suspect nothin’!”) and Don’s pretend eagerness for a big introduction gets him introduced as “Lassie.”
The podcast is called Cocaine & Rhinestones, so I’ve got to let you know those rhinestone suits they’re wearing on the album cover are not Nudie suits. They were made by Nathan Turk, who did good work and didn’t charge nearly as much as Nudie Cohn, which, would be a good segue into one of the many problems Buck is about to have except we’ve got to talk about a different problem first. You already know a little bit about it. It’s Buck’s lady problem…
The rest of the lineup on the Carnegie Hall show is all artists from Buck’s booking agency, including that new female singer I told you about last week, Kay Adams. After the show, everyone’s back at the hotel, in high spirits, having a good time. But, then, there’s this weird scene where Kay gets sent to Buck’s hotel room, ostensibly to sign some business papers. When she gets to the room, one of the other acts is leaving, having just signed some business papers. So, it seems legit. Then, sure enough, Buck makes a move on her. He goes straight in for an uninvited kiss and moves her over to the bed. She’s not into it. She leaves the room. The end.
Except not. Because, soon after this, Kay Adams and Don Rich begin having an affair. Now, if you’re a huge Don Rich fan and you weren’t aware of this affair, I’m truly sorry if it’s upsetting to hear this. If it’s any consolation, it will not be news to anyone close to the situation. I told you that I don’t care about the “soap opera” stuff in Buck Owens’ life (and I don’t) because it’s not nearly as interesting as everything else we can talk about with him. When it comes to Don Rich, that’s not, at all, the situation. There are no books about Don Rich, no in-depth interviews. Nobody had a clue he wouldn’t always be around to answer our questions. All we have are stories told by the precious few people who did know him well. Kay Adams is one of those people and I can not use her as a source without saying why. Also, having an affair is hardly the worst thing a musician ever did. (Check out the third episode of this podcast, on Spade Cooley, if you want to put things in perspective, here.) But I’m aware many fans have no reason to think Don Rich was anything except a perfect human being.
One story that’s often told is about Tom Brumley’s first night on the job. Jay McDonald, who you probably forgot by now, was Buck’s first touring steel guitarist in California. Well, when Jay quits, Tom Brumley gets hired to replace him. In some kind of show of solidarity with Jay, the other guys trash the pedal steel Tom is supposed to play. So Tom flies in just before his first show and finds this pedal steel waiting for him – it’s junk. All the strings are cut. The pedals don’t work. It even has a bunch of nails hammered into it. Don may have been one of the guys who put the instrument in that condition but, even if he was, he’s the only one who helps Tom get it in working order by showtime. Nice thing to do but nobody’s perfect.
When Kay Adams gets on the tour bus for the first time, Don, in his role as bandleader, sits her down to explain the rules. At the end, he says, “I want it understood that we haven’t had a girl on the bus and I want you to know we are not going to wait on you hand and foot. I want you to know that no one is going to carry your luggage. You pull your own weight. You carry your own luggage. The other thing is, if we feel like farting, we’re gonna fart.”
Farting aside, they’re sleeping together within a year. This is a problem for Buck Owens, for the same reason romance in the workplace is always a problem. Buck’s cheated in probably every relationship he’s ever had. That’s one thing. If Don wants to have one-night stands with random girls after shows, that’s one thing. Don and Kay maintaining a romantic affair while on high-profile tours could cause any number of chaotic situations, some of which could very well lead to Buck losing his band leader, his right arm. That’s an entirely different thing. For professional reasons alone, this is bad. When you add in their personal relationship, the potential for this to go wrong is devastating.
It’s possible that Don Rich is the only true friend Buck Owens has ever had but he’s for sure the closest. You don’t even have to believe in reincarnation or know about their telepathic link to see it. One reason Buck’s always chasing women on tour is that he can’t bear to spend the night alone. On nights when there’s nobody in his hotel room with him, Buck will call Don to come spend the night. Remember who and what Buck Owens has become in these six years: a country music superstar. No longer does he have the luxury of meeting new people and assuming they want to be around him for any other reason than that he’s famous and he’s got money. Don Rich is maybe the only person Buck knows would be there if it all went away tomorrow and he had to start over from nothing. Most people never have a Don Rich. Buck Owens knows he’ll never find another one. The thought of losing him in the fallout of this love affair going south is torture. But he can’t just fire Kay Adams because Don’s in love with her and then Buck’s the bad guy. Kay and Don know the way Buck feels about it and, on top of that, they know he’s right. One time, Kay decides she’s got to break it off and she locks Don out of her hotel room. He causes such a ruckus in the hallway, begging her to let him in, that Buck calls Kay’s room and tells her to just let him in. That hallway scene is exactly the sort of thing Buck’s worried about and there it is, unfolding, right in front of him.
Buck the Businessman
Don and Kay carry on with each other for about a year. In that time, Buck buys three radio stations to go with the one he’d already bought in 1966. Looking at this timeline of events, I think it’s fair to assume he ramped up his business investments for a distraction from the anxiety over Don and as an insurance policy in case the worst does come to pass. Whatever the motive, Buck’s head for business will serve him well in the long run,
though several of his professional relationships are tested in the process. Probably the most well known incident takes place between Buck and Merle Haggard…
Now, I’ve heard a lot of people over the years say Merle Haggard, who was married to Bonnie Owens, “stole” her from Buck. That is not even remotely true. As I told you last week, the marriage between Buck and Bonnie was essentially done before Buck even moved to Bakersfield. Bonnie and Merle weren’t married until nearly 15 years after that. What I’m about to tell you has nothing to do with jealousy or resentment or anything of that nature.
Merle Haggard was signed to Buck Owens’ publishing company, Blue Book Music. A lot of his early hits were in that catalog. Just like how you get an advance from a record label when you sign a recording contract, you can ask for an advance from your publishing company, too. Say, maybe, your name is Merle Haggard and you’ve got some gambling debts to pay off. Your next payment is due before you’re scheduled to get that publishing check. Well, Merle calls on Buck Owens for a little $15,000 advance. According to Buck, it’s a call he’s received many times. Both parties tell slightly different versions of the conversation but the outcome is the same: Merle gets the $15k and Buck gets 50% of the songwriter’s share of “Sing Me Back Home,” which I believe comes out to 25% of the publishing on the song. (Buck says he already had 50% for being the publisher and Merle sold him 50% of his 50%. So, let’s say they walk away from this deal with Buck getting 75% of all the publishing on the song and Merle keeping the remaining 25%.)
No matter how you look at this, it’s a stupid deal for Merle Haggard to make. This is the same Merle Haggard who will find himself millions of dollars in debt and filing chapter 11 bankruptcy in the ’90s. You could say he made some unwise decisions when it came to money. But the problem here is that, a few days later, Merle says he learns Buck had a royalty check for $35,000 made out to Merle sitting in his desk drawer while doing this deal with Merle on the phone. In other words, he’s saying that Buck already owed Merle an amount of money much larger than the advance he was asking for.
I don’t know about that…
For one thing, these checks come on a pretty regular schedule. Merle or his manager or whoever’s supposed to be paying attention, they ought to know if it’s about time to be getting that check. Merle should be calling to ask if the check is there yet and how much it’s for, not calling for an advance, which is why he says he called. Or, here’s a question: how would Merle Haggard have found out there was a check in the drawer of Buck Owens’ desk? The only possible sources for that information would be Buck Owens or an employee trusted enough to be in his office.
It looks to me like Buck made a good business deal and Merle made a bad one – plain and simple. I think Buck knew he made a good deal when he made it and it took Merle a few years to realize that he made a bad deal. I say “a few years” because that’s how long it took Merle to try to get his song back, instead of coming after it “a few days later,” when he supposedly found out about this check. And, years later, when Buck gets a letter out of nowhere saying Merle’s going to get lawyers involved to get the song back, what does he do? He sells Merle Haggard’s song back to him at a fair price. The end.
Again, I don’t think anyone would say that Buck Owens was a perfect human being. When it comes to business, it looks like more than a couple of people had regrets about dealing with him. I get the impression these people thought something along the lines of, “Here’s a very successful singer and songwriter. He doesn’t need to make money off of me. Hell, I’m pretty sure this guy is even my friend, trying to give me a helping hand, here. Oh, gimme the pen, I’ll sign the contract.” I don’t get the impression that Buck Owens had very many friends. And, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never signed a contract with any of my friends. That’s how you end up on Judge Judy.
When two parties enter in to a contract, it’s up to each individual party to protect their own interests, to try to make the best deal they can for their own gain. We’re in the middle of the 1960s, here. Acuff-Rose was founded a decade before this and it was common knowledge then that the music business is not your friend.
Buck Owens, the businessman, died an extremely wealthy man and that’s because he liked money. He liked getting it, having it and keeping it. He didn’t like to spend it much. Even after he started putting hits at the top of the charts, he kept touring in that old pickup truck camper from all the way back when Merle Haggard and Moose were in the band. Eventually, he moved up to a motor home and held on to that until 1966, three years after “Act Naturally” hit #1. So you’ve got one of the biggest names in country music showing up in an RV to major concerts where everyone else has real tour busses. Tom Brumley says he’s the one who got Buck to finally break down and get a bus by threatening to spray paint “BUCK OWENS & THE BUCKAROOS” on the side of that RV to make sure everyone, everywhere, always knew who was riding in it.
Buck got them a bus but they still had to drive it themselves, which is one thing you’ll see some of his old band members complain about – all the work being done with no extra pay. The Buckaroos are not given extra compensation for being their own roadies, doing the driving, recording in the studio, performing on television or any of other errands that come up. Really, that’s just the way it was with a lot of these old school guys. It would take me all day to reel off a list of everyone who did this. If you don’t like it, quit.
Complaining aside (and not counting the times, here and there, when someone – never Don – did quit and come back), they held the classic Buckaroos lineup together until late 1967 with the exit of Willie Cantu. His leaving has nothing to do with finances or feeling exploited or anything like that. It’s that he’s on the road so much his wife decides she’s done sitting at home alone in California when she could be with her family in Canada. She goes home and young Willie has to follow if he wants to stay married. Anyway, at 20 years old, he likely would have been drafted to serve in Vietnam if he’d stayed in America. One of the last big things Willie does with the band is the Live in Japan album. According to Buck, it’s the first live country music album recorded outside of America, let alone in Japan. I would think there’s got to be a live country album recorded outside of America before this but I didn’t have time to look into it. Either way, the stage banter is about as awkward as you would expect with Buck trying to speak through the language barrier. As always, the show is perfect. The crowd loves it. Seeing an opportunity to get outside the traditional market for country music, Buck would go on to record live albums in London, Scandinavia, Australia and New Zealand. These albums were primarily marketed to and distributed in the countries where they’d been recorded.
A Man Between
They were making such good music together that you’d never suspect how tense things sometimes were behind the scenes. Like many artists, Buck Owens was given to mood swings. According to pretty much everyone, he could go from joking around and being a buddy to cussing you up and down in the span of a few hours. After his death, we learned that he suffered from clinical depression, self medicated with pills and tried to keep it a secret because he didn’t want everyone to think he was crazy. Right here is a place where Don Rich deserves more credit than many fans realize and the only direct quote I have from Don: “He’s the best friend I’ve got. He’s loyal to the people with him and demanding. Give him anything less than your best and you can expect a good amount of chewing out.”
Where Buck might get into a temper over something, Don never loses his cool. Even the way he just said Buck Owens could be an asshole was diplomatic as hell. The only place Don ever really feels the need to stand up to Buck is in the recording studio, where he knows how important it is to get the music down right. Still, in the studio, Don will simply ask to speak with Buck in private if a disagreement starts to get hot in front of others. They’ll go off somewhere else, talk about it, come back and do whatever they decided to do. His ability to communicate with Buck, no matter how intimidating his current mood may be, puts Don in position as a personal mediator and professional translator between Buck Owens and everyone else. If Buck’s not around, Don has his proxy to call the shots because he always knows what Buck would (or should) do. Talking to Don is as good as talking to Buck. Disputing Don’s authority is liable to get you in more trouble with Buck than anything else you could do. One of the drummers before Willie Cantu had found out about this the hard way. Apparently, this guy was on the road too long or something because he cracked. They’re setting up for a show and he puts his drum kit right in the middle of the stage, where Buck is supposed to stand. He says something about how he’s done being in the back where nobody can see him and he’s setting up in front from now on. Buck’s in the dressing room when a band member comes to tell him he’d better go out to the stage because Don just fired the drummer and the drummer thinks Don can’t fire him. Buck goes out there and just starts throwing pieces of the drum kit off both sides of the stage.
After Willie Cantu moves to Canada, the next drummer’s name is Jerry Wiggins. He does 13 years in the band, staying with Buck until 1980. Nobody talks much about him except to tell the story of Tom Brumley sitting Jerry down for a talk the first time they share a hotel room. He reaches across the little space between the two beds, puts his hand on Jerry’s knee, sincerely tells him how nice it is to have him for a roommate and, you know, how cute Tom thinks he is… Jerry excuses himself and walks over to Don’s room. Don’s brushing his teeth when Jerry asks, is Tom gay? Don looks at him and says, “Well, yeah! We all are. Didn’t you know that?” Never a dull moment with these Buckaroos.
Don Rich is often described as a man of big appetite. Willie Cantu remembers Don showing him how to have a boilermaker for breakfast. (For you non-drinkers, that’s whiskey and beer.) Tom remembers a time when he and Don had been rooming together for an 18-week residency. The last day, before checking out of the hotel,
Don takes everything from the little fridge in their room, mixes it all together and starts eating it while making pornographically enthusiastic sounds of enjoyment. Tom is, naturally, disgusted by this, as well as other eating habits of Don’s. Like how he’ll take a perfectly good steak, give it a layer of white salt, a layer of black pepper and, then, a red layer of ketchup, making sure to let Tom know how good it is the whole time he eats it. Tom also says Don could take more pills and drink more booze than anyone he’d ever seen. One time Don tells Kay Adams that he wants to taste everything there is to taste, to go 90 miles per hour until he runs into a brick wall.
Don and Kay continue seeing each other but Kay lets off a little pressure by quitting the tour in late 1967. About a year after that, Don’s adventurous spirit has him plugging into a fuzz box at Capitol studios to record “Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass?” Now, Buck has been all about finding the country in other styles of music and bringing it into his own sound but this is a major league curveball. Not so much the fuzz tone guitar. Fuzz had been around since 1960. First, on a song called “Go on Home” by Sanford Clark. (Sanford had his fuzz unit made by a radio engineer but nearly nobody heard that record. Later in the same year, Grady Martin was recording with Marty Robbins when a pre-amp went bad right before his bass solo. Everyone thought it sounded so cool they put it on the song. “Don’t Worry” by Marty Robbins sat at #1 for at least 10 weeks. Country fans can handle the fuzz. It’s more that jingle jangle harpsichord making “Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass?” sound less like what The Flying Burrito Brothers are still a year away from doing and more like Buck Owens singing for The Byrds in their psychedelic rock phase. Anyway, it still goes to #1 on country charts, as does the next single, a cover of “Johnny B. Goode.” So these little experiments are working out commercially. It’s just some fans (and mostly critics) Buck’s taking heat from. Here’s what he has to say about it:
Bob Wills and Little Richard were my influences as far as the Bakersfield Sound and the hard-driving type of country music. I never thought of Johnny B Goode as being a rock and roll song. I saw Johnny B Goode as being about a little boy playing a guitar sitting by a railroad track and that’s pretty country to me. I never did care about the flak and I still don’t care and I ain’t gonna care tomorrow. –Buck Owens
That Cartoon Donkey
Alright, let’s talk about Hee Haw.
This is a huge subject. Some people love it, some people hate it. Whatever Buck thought he was getting himself into, Hee Haw eventually became nothing but a paycheck to him – a really, really big paycheck.
In January of 1969, Buck performs on The Johnathon Winters Show. Two of the producers tell him an idea they have for a Laugh-In-style comedy show geared towards country folks. This is not the first time Buck’s been pitched an idea like this. He always tells these TV people to give him a call if they get it going. None of them ever got it going until these two guys get the money from CBS to make a pilot. If you’re new to all this and you’ve never seen Hee Haw, imagine if Robot Chicken was made for people who eat at Cracker Barrel – sight gags and one-liners, edited into a rapid fire of jokes – except 97% of the jokes on Hee Haw make your dad seem funnier than Richard Pryor. If you thought the jokes on the Carnegie Hall album were corny, well, it’s no coincidence that Hee Haw is set in the middle of a cornfield. We’re talking bottom of the barrel material, here. Television critics hate this show.
From the Boston Globe: “Hee Haw made it’s debut last night – and shouldn’t have.”
New York Times: “Hee Haw is ghastly and Nashville should not hesitate to bring suit.”
Houston Chronicle: “Possibly the worst show I’ve ever seen.”
Philadelphia Bulletin: “For the life of me, I can’t realize any entertainment value or enjoyment out of this obvious put-on.”
In other words, it’s a full-on dogpile from the media. People tune in to the show just to see how bad it could possibly be. And they love it. The annual Nielsen ratings for the first season of Hee Haw are higher than Mod Squad, Bewitched and The Ed Sullivan Show. 13 million people watch the second season. It’s the 16th most watched show on TV that year, more popular than My Three Sons, Mary Tyler Moore Show, Dean Martin’s show and The Partridge Family. Whether the comedy is something they love or love to hate doesn’t really matter, here. What matters is Hee Haw brings a regular opportunity to see country music on television, an opportunity that’s all too rare in 1969. Porter Wagoner has a TV show. The Wilburn Brothers have a TV show. The Johnny Cash Show premiered a couple of months before Hee Haw. And that’s it. With Hee Haw, you’ve got four shows you know will have country music, out of the dozens of scheduled programs in a week. The Grand Ole Opry is not being televised at this time, by the way. What Vince Gill has to say is probably a pretty common stance on Hee Haw:
I mean, if you think about it, Hee Haw was probably the most massive exposure country music ever got. As corny as it was, it really mattered. It really mattered for this music’s history and this music’s place. –Vince Gill
Yeah, the performances are done to pre-recorded tracks but at least it’s something. Here’s a great illustration of how starved America was for country music on television. Buck worked out a deal with the Sears & Roebuck catalog to carry a line of his signature red, white and blue acoustic guitars, right? His cut is $2.50 for each guitar sold. His first check from that deal is for $15,000. That’s 6,000 guitars sold, as soon as people see him playing one on TV. So, country music fans find Hee Haw and they watch it religiously for two years. Then, the network cancels it. Apparently, some big shot at CBS thinks their channel is gaining an audience of simple folk, out in the middle of nowhere, and he wants the network to have an audience of fashionable city types. They cancel Hee Haw in 1971, along with Green Acres, Beverly Hillbillies and even Lassie. The joke is that’s the year CBS canceled everything with a tree in it. ABC gets in on the fun, too, canceling The Johnny Cash Show.
Hee Haw’s great ratings, however, are public information. Everyone knows how big of an audience it had and the producers contact as many local CBS affiliate stations throughout America as they can, getting over 200 of them to agree to buy new episodes of the show if they keep making them. Whenever you hear someone talk about a television show being “syndicated,” this is the kind of thing they’re talking about. When it’s a situation exactly like this, where it isn’t reruns being syndicated but brand-new episodes of the show, it’s called “first-run syndication.” With Hee Haw in first-run syndication, many fans of the show never realize it was canceled at all. Everyone’s happy, especially Buck Owens because Hee Haw films twice a year in about a three-week stretch each time and, for doing that, Buck is paid $400,000 a year. That’s over $2.5 million in modern currency and he stays on the show until 1986. You do the math.
Shovel with My Spade
In that between time of Hee Haw being cancelled and resurrected, Buck goes back in the studio to make maybe the most interesting album in his catalog. Now, I’m sure you know how some bluegrass fans can be. They’ve got all these rules about what instruments you can use and, if you use different instruments, then they say it’s not really bluegrass. Well, whatever you wanna call this album, it’s bizarre and fun and I wish we had more music like it from Buck Owens.
The album is called Ruby.
Tom Brumley quit the band before Hee Haw, so there’s no steel guitar. Instead, we’ve got Ronnie Jackson’s banjo and Don Rich hauls the old fiddle back out to join his guitar. The Buckaroos’ new bass player, Doyle Singer, pianist Jim Shaw and drummer Jerry Wiggins round out the band. Buck Owens’ voice works extremely well in this style. Check out the album opener, “Corn Liquor,” written by Buck’s son, Buddy Owens. (It’ll make you want to do some drinking.) The title track went #3 country and I’ve never heard anything, in any genre of music, like the harmony vocals on “I Know You’re Married.” As experimental as Ruby is, it sells very well. In 1971, bluegrass is going through a bit of a fling with mainstream audiences and not everyone knows how strict the rules are supposed to be.
Another interesting thing that happens right around this time is Buck’s contract with Capitol Records comes up for renegotiation. He works out a deal to continue recording for them for another ten years. At the end of this time, the master tapes of every single recording he’s ever done for Capitol will be turned over to him. If you haven’t seen episode CR007 of this podcast, the one about Shelby Singleton, make sure to check that out to learn why this is such a smart move for Buck Owens to make. This arrangement Buck works out with Capitol may have been unprecedented in country music at the time. Many have followed in his path. His timing couldn’t be better. For one thing, neither he nor anyone else involved has a clue that compact disc technology will be hitting America right around the time Buck gains ownership of his back catalog. Fans will buy their music collections all over again in CD format, and again, in mp3, 15 years after that. The other thing is, in 1972, Buck Owens takes the #1 position on country charts for the final time with “Made in Japan.” Capitol would not have agreed to this contract if they’d known that would be the case.
“Made in Japan” was written by Buck’s longtime studio bassist, Bob Morris. (By the way, this is the same guy who wrote that instrumental, “Buckaroo.”) Bob wrote “Made in Japan” with his wife and Don Rich liked it so much that he made the demo for Buck to hear the song. What sounds like a string section in there, that’s just Don with his fiddle. He recorded three tracks on top of each other to get that effect. Of Don’s many talents, the most profitable for Buck was probably Don’s ability to pick out the hit from a pile of songs and know just what it needs in the studio to put it on top.
It’s possible “Made in Japan” is Buck Owens’ final #1 because of Hee Haw. That’s what he seems to believe. His theory is that overexposure is bad for any musical artist. There has to be some element of mystery about you, enough that people can build you up to be larger than life in their imagination, as if maybe you’re from the same place they’re from but you’ve got something magical inside of you that they don’t have and that’s why you get to be rich and famous. It’s difficult to maintain that sort of vibe when you’re on TV all the time. I would add that, looking at Buck Owens’ pictures on his albums over the years, you’d get the idea that he’s a pretty cool guy. Yeah, even he would tell you his face is a little goofy looking but he’s usually got his hair slicked back and he’s almost always dressed very well, similar to Waylon Jennings before his Ladies Love Outlaws days. After all, the ladies loved ol’ Buck long before he was rich and famous. So, overexposure sucks the mystery out of a celebrity, sure. Taking a guy who’s spent years looking all cool and putting him in a pair of backwards overalls to laugh like an idiot at terrible jokes, well, that’s taking the mystery out back with a double-barrel shotgun and pulling both triggers.
This is a question people who were once on top of the entertainment industry always end up looking back and asking themselves: “what ended everything?” It’s rarely that simple, to look at a career, point to one thing and say, “There. That’s what ended everything.” People try to do it all the time but you don’t know. Maybe if you’d released the album a month later it wouldn’t have had to compete with that other artist. Or everyone would have been more in the mood for the single you chose if winter weather hadn’t been late this year. These are the questions keeping past-their-prime artists and managers and producers awake at night around the world. We almost never get a clear-cut answer. We may see on the news some singer named Johnny Paycheck arrested for shooting a man and think, “Boy, that guy’s career is over for sure.” And, yeah, you’re pretty much right. But let’s change that singer’s name to Freddy Fender. There he is on the news, hauled off to prison for three years for having some marijuana on him in Louisiana. We say the same thing, “I love that song ‘Wasted Days & Wasted Nights’ but it looks like Freddy’s goose is cooked.” We’re wrong. Freddy does more time than Paycheck, gets out and goes on to chart over 20 singles. A death blow for one career is a flesh wound for another.
Having said all of that, I don’t think there’s any way Buck Owens’ musical career could have survived the death of Don Rich in 1974.
Set You in the Shade
When we describe Don Rich as a “pedal to the metal” kind of guy, it’s not just a turn of phrase. Tom Brumley said he had a governor put on the tour bus so when Don was behind the wheel and floored it on the highway, which he’d do every single time, the bus would only run 82 miles per hour. Driving the bus fast… taking pills to drive longer… playing guitar fast… piling every leftover on a plate and eating it at once… drowning steaks in salt, pepper and ketchup… showing Willie Cantu how to start the day with whiskey and beer… These scenes paint a picture of a man and it’s a fairly consistent picture. Some people who tell these stories and laugh pump the brakes a little bit when it comes to the idea that Don might have had a problem. His widow, Marlane, tells us Don enjoyed his scotch, while also insisting that he never got drunk. However, Marlane also says she’d get mad if Buck sent over cases of Chivas “too often.” And Tom Brumley saying Don could take more pills and drink more booze than anyone he’d ever seen? A professionally touring country musician in the 1960s saying that is worth noting. The fact that Tom Brumley found anyone’s substance intake remarkable at all is, in itself, remarkable. Tom also says he never saw Don behave as if he were drunk but ask anyone who’s ever taken uppers before a night of drinking why they do that. And we call them functioning alcoholics for a reason. And boilermakers for breakfast?
Buck Owens insists that he began to suspect Don Rich had a drinking problem during an international tour in spring of 1974. He says Don forgot the words to “Diggy Liggy Lo” on stage in New Zealand. Nothing like that has ever happened before, Don forgetting song lyrics. Buck starts to worry. He calls Marlane and invites her to join the tour, thinking that might chill Don out some. Marlane comes out on the road but Buck says it only slows down Don’s drinking a little. Marlane says this is all bullshit. She came out on tour because Don hurt his back in Hong Kong and healthcare was too expensive there. She met the tour in New Zealand, and, yeah, they had some cocktails but so did everyone. I see no reason why both of these stories can’t be true. Here’s a hypothetical explanation for both versions: Don does hurt his back in Hong Kong and has to wait until New Zealand to see a doctor because it’s too expensive in China. I’d guess 90% of people in that situation already using pills and alcohol recreationally would up their intake of one or the other or both to manage the pain. A little self-medication keeps the show on the road, until things get sloppy one night and the boss notices. Buck invites Marlane to join the tour, figuring Don will straighten up with his wife around. Don does reel it back a notch or two and Marlane sees nothing worth worrying over. Like I said, hypothetical, but it could resolve both versions of Don Rich on the 1974 tour.
Which brings us to the fact that the movie Easy Rider came out in the middle of 1969. Within about a year, several of the guys in and around the band got way into motorcycles. Buck Owens, not so much. Instead of going down to Los Angeles and paying to record in Capitol’s studio, Buck had bought an old movie theater closer to his house and turned it into a studio. According to Buck, the guy who built the studio for him bought a new motorcycle, the day he finished the work, wrecked it and died, that day. One of the guys in the band, now seeing the danger of motorcycles, sold his bike to some kid, who, within a week, wrecked it and died. Buck says he’d cut out newspaper clippings of motorcycle fatalities and put them on the bulletin board in the studio. He would beg Don to stop riding and sell his motorcycles.
One of Don’s bikes was a Harley-Davidson Sportser with the front wheel raked way out, like the American flag chopper in Easy Rider. A little movie trivia: Jack Nicholson says that Easy Rider chopper rode “squirrelly” and, to stay on it, he once gripped Peter Fonda’s sides with his knees so hard that he broke one of Peter’s ribs. Don was driving his Sportster when he had the accident. He’d been at the studio recording all day and planned to meet Marlane and their kids on the coast after work for a fishing trip. If everyone who was there is telling the truth, every conversation Don Rich had that day at the studio was full of people who had “strange, ominous feelings” talking to him about the dangers of motorcycles. Of course, nobody is ever telling the truth in situations like this. They’re telling a story. Not just to us but whatever story they have to tell themselves in order to deal with the trauma of having someone you care about so suddenly ripped out of your life. One thing everyone seems to agree on is that Buck Owens pleaded with Don not to drive his motorcycle to the coast that night. But Buck did not need a strange, ominous feeling to do that. He was constantly begging Don to stop riding. It’s also generally agreed upon that, earlier in the day, Don and Buck had gotten into an argument during the recording session. It was probably nothing out of the ordinary. Quickly forgotten, Buck was back to sincere concern over Don’s safety on the bike, especially on a night ride.
Don Rich never made it to the coast and nobody knows exactly why. He wrecked his motorcycle. We know that. But nobody knows why that happened. In researching this episode, I did find a blog comment from 2016, claiming to be from one of Don’s sons. The commenter identifies himself with the two letters, “VU,” which would be the initials of both Ulrich sons. That is obviously not proof of his identity. (If you’re curious why I didn’t try contacting this person or anyone else in the family, stick around for the Liner Notes after this episode. I’ve got a lot to talk about.) But, in this comment, “VU” says the family recently learned the front wheel of Don’s chopper was split apart when removed from the scene of the accident. Again, I can not verify it but, if that comment is authentic, this could be the answer to one of country music’s biggest unsolved mysteries. That type of wheel failure could have caused this accident. However, the wheel also could have split apart in the wreck, the cause of which is still, ultimately, a mystery.
A blood test put Don’s BAC at over 0.4%, which would be lethal for most humans, as well as pretty difficult for Don to achieve. His estimated weight at the time of death is 250 pounds. I’m very bad at math but I think a man that size would have to drink roughly 30 shots, over a full fifth of liquor, in one hour to get his blood over 0.4%. Please, do not test this. There are rare cases of humans with BAC much higher than this not only not dying but walking around and acting – well, you know, pretty damn drunk. Again, please, do not attempt this. You will probably die. And I would think you would have to be suicidal to chug an entire bottle of whiskey before getting on a motorcycle. So let’s look at some ways Don’s BAC could be that high without him being suicidal. Embalming fluid contains alcohol, so a test taken from a body already at the mortuary could be contaminated. However, the alcohol in embalming fluid is methanol and the alcohol people drink is ethanol. There are tests to differentiate between the two. Improper storage of a blood sample can cause a false BAC over 0.2%. For example, a person could drink themselves up to a 0.2%, find a way to die and later test at a 0.4%, due to human error. A competent professional working in a first world country in 1974 should have been able to secure an accurate BAC. Lastly, there are, apparently, a few natural processes that occur in the body after death which can sometimes cause BAC to rise. All of which is to say, there you go. There’s the information that I have and I have no idea what to make of it.
These uncertainties and the unfortunate proximity of certain types of people leave enough room for half-assed conspiracy theories to work their way in here. I refuse to associate this podcast with that type of bullshit and will not repeat it. What I will do is point out how ridiculous it is for anyone to believe Buck Owens would have tried to hold Don Rich back, in any way. Choose any part of Buck Owens’ musical career and there you will also find a spotlight shining on Don Rich. On stage, on TV, on Buck’s albums – Don Rich is heavily featured as an individual performer, as are the other Buckaroos. Everywhere except the album covers you might as well call this The Buck and Don Show. And, if you want to talk about the album covers, then let’s talk about the 12 studio albums The Buckaroos released on their own. This isn’t something they had to sneak around to do, as if that would even have been possible. Buck made it happen. He didn’t have to do it and it wasn’t self-serving of him to do it. He even gave his band members writing credit for their instrumentals on Buck Owens albums. A lot of guys wouldn’t have done that. He didn’t have to make every individual member of the group such a huge part of the stage show but he did that, too. Nobody talked him into it. It’s what he wanted. Buck writes that he would often suggest Don should go in the studio and cut a solo album. Don would always brush off the idea until Buck finally asked him why he didn’t want to do it. Don’s answer: “I like it right where I am. I don’t have any pressure. You get to have all the pressure.” That sounds like a pretty Don thing to say and we don’t have to take Buck’s word for it. Here’s what Jim Shaw had to say about it: “Don didn’t have a lot of ambition to be a solo artist. He just wanted to read his books about military airplanes and ride his motorcycle.” When bad things happen, we often try to find someone to blame. Sometimes, we try too hard.
Don Rich was only 32 years old when he died. Deeply loved on a personal level by many, adored on a professional level by millions. For a man so dedicated to living life in the fast lane, he seems to have left not one, single enemy in his rearview. In my research, I don’t recall ever having read an unkind or bitter word about Don. There is one story I saved for this point, where we say goodbye to Don Rich. It’s the time he was woken up by a phone call in the middle of the night. When he answered, the person on the other end said they had a dead battery in their car, so Don was going to have to come give them a jump. He sits up, asks where they are and tells them he’ll be there in a minute. Before hanging up, he says, “By the way, who is this?”
I gave you the first half of this quote much earlier – Buck Owens talking about Don – here’s the entire quote: “He could read my mind and I could read his. We were on the same wavelength. Losing him, all the thunder and lightning went out of my music. It’s never been the same since – all one has to do is listen to tell.” If that’s what Buck Owens has to say about the music he made after losing Don Rich, then I see no reason to get into it here.
In 1976, Emmylou Harris covers “Together Again” and takes the song to the top of the charts, again. It’s her first #1. Emmylou’s cover strips the song down to its skeletal form, pushing the contrast of happy lyrics/sad music even further than the original, illustrating exactly what it is about the song that makes it work. It sounds even more broken, even more wrong.
Somewhere in the late ’70s. Buck starts to really hate Hee Haw. He’s still putting out new albums. That perspective of his music going downhill after losing Don seems to have been gained with time because, here in the ’70s, Buck’s pretty sure it’s the overexposure from Hee Haw that’s keeping his sales down. He also feels the show that started out as half-comedy/half-music is now sitting somewhere around 80 percent dumbass comedy and 20 percent music. Buck begins giving himself pep talks, “Okay, Buck… this is gonna be your last year… gettin’ the hell out of kornfield kountry for good…” But he can’t bring himself to turn down that giant paycheck for doing such little work, so, he says, “I kept whoring myself out to that cartoon donkey.” He stays with the show until 1986, always finding something to do with the money. He buys and sells radio stations, a TV station, publishing catalogs, buildings – turning enormous profits on nearly every deal, hosting benefits and fundraisers and setting up nonprofit charities for his adopted hometown of Bakersfield.
In 1987, Dwight Yoakam swings by Buck’s office building, unannounced. He’s in town to play the county fair and he’s come to ask if Buck might come out and sing some songs with him that night. Dwight’s first album, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., came out the year before. His first two singles went Top Five. A cover of Johnny Horton’s “Honky Tonk Man,” then the title track, “Guitars & Cadillacs.” His voice is way different but the music is dripping with a Buck Owens influence. Dwight hasn’t been trying to hide it, either. He talks so much in every interview about how great he thinks Buck Owens is you’d think he was being paid for it. So Buck knows who he is and he accepts the invitation, going out to the fair and singing a few Buck Owens songs plus one of Dwight’s hits. Buck says the energy coming off the crowd felt electric to him. He goes home, buzzing from the show, assuming that was a one-time deal, the last trip to a world where he used to spend every day – but ol’ Buck still has one more time on the merry-go-round in him.
Three or four weeks after that night at the fair, he gets a call from CBS. They’ve got some country music special coming up. They want to know if Buck would like to sing with Merle Haggard on it and what song he’d like to do. Of course he’ll do it and he digs up the perfect song for the occasion. It’s an album cut from 1973. The song was written by a guy named Homer Joy, who’d recorded a whole album of Hank Williams Sr. covers for Buck under the condition that Homer would then be allowed to record another album of original songs with The Buckaroos as his backing band. Well, after Buck got what he wanted out of Homer, Homer found himself getting the runaround when it came to The Buckaroos going in the studio for him. He’d go down to the studio every morning just to get told how busy The Buckaroos were. One night he goes for a walk around Bakersfield in a pair of brand-new cowboy boots, too pissed off to notice he’s absolutely ruining his feet with blisters. Back in his hotel room, mad about everything, he writes “Streets of Bakersfield.” Next time he goes to the studio, the building manager hands him a guitar and asks to hear one of the songs Homer would record if The Buckaroos were there right now. Homer plays his new song and that manager sets out immediately to track Buck down. Buck likes Homer’s version so much, he cuts the song himself the next year, only Homer’s song isn’t even chosen for a single. It’s all but forgotten about until right here, when Buck decides it would be the perfect song for a couple of Bakersfield boys to sing on a TV special.
But then he gets another call from the network, a week before the shoot, saying Merle isn’t going to make it. Does Buck have anyone in mind to replace Merle? Well, yeah, as a matter of fact, he does. Buck and Dwight Yoakam go on the special, do the song and, of course, it kills. DJs across America who’d videotaped the performance start calling for permission to play the audio on their radio shows. Buck knows a hit when he sees one. He tells Dwight they should record the song for real, in a studio. They do and it comes out so good, Buck says Dwight ought to put it out as a single. In the Jeannie C. Riley episode, we already went over why a young artist having hits right away can be a dangerous thing. At this point in time, Dwight has to be extremely careful with these decisions. Putting out a duet with a dude who’s six years away from being a senior citizen may not be the best move. Buck tells him he knows the song will be Dwight Yoakam’s first #1 hit if he puts it out as a single.
Some time in the early ’90s, Buck Owens has an idea for a new project, something he’s never done before. That wild music scene that brought him to Bakersfield all those years ago, it’s not really around any more. But Buck, he is around. He’s still there and he’s got enough money to build just about anything he can imagine. As far back as the ’60s, he’s had idle thoughts, here and there, about opening up his own music venue. Now that he’s got nothing but time to think about it, it doesn’t have to be any old dive bar honky tonk like the ones he came up through. His joint could be a real classy place with a nice, tall stage, plenty of table seating, good food and, hell, throw in a museum of Buck Owens, The Buckaroos and Bakersfield music memorabilia while you’re at it. Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace opens its doors to the public in October of 1996 and it’s still open. If I’m not mistaken, Buck and his latter-day Buckaroos played there just about every weekend until his death. Hardcore Buck Owens fans would travel from all around the world to see him play his own club, walk around the inside and look at the displays of pictures, old rhinestone suits, guitars… There’s even an entire convertible, designed by Nudie Cohn, hanging up on the wall behind the main bar. Like Buck Owens in his prime, the Crystal Palace is quite a spectacle.
Buck was scheduled to play there on March 24th in 2006. He spent that morning driving around his ranch, looking at his property. In the afternoon, he went to the venue for soundcheck and ordered his favorite meal off the Crystal Palace menu – the chicken fried steak dinner with fries instead of mashed potatoes. After eating, Buck starts to feel a little unwell and tells the band he’s gonna skip this one, head home. On the way to the car, though, a couple who’d traveled from Oregon to see him play, not knowing that he’s about to bail on the show, yell something about how excited they are for the concert. Buck turns around and walks back in the door to put on a show for those people. He plays about an hour and a half, goes home and dies in the middle of the night, while sleeping.
As far as last days on earth go, that one sounds alright.
I will ask that you share this episode of the podcast with one person. Although, really, I’m just asking you one more time to share last week’s episode because it would be pretty weird to send someone straight to the second half of a story. You wouldn’t give someone, like, the back half of a book, right? But if you weren’t sure about recommending last week’s episode to someone because you didn’t know how the story was going to end… Well… Now you know… The rest of the story. (I always wanted to say that.)
Next week on the podcast, I’m telling a story that is way more screwed up than I thought it would be when I chose it. I wanted to tell the story of a more recent artist who made a very sudden and obvious transition from a country music sound over to a straight-up pop sound. I wanted to tell a story that would touch on a little bit of this authenticity debate that some people think is such a big deal in country music. I wanted to talk about what it meant to be a country music superstar in the final decade of the 20th century, the tail-end of this podcast’s timeline. When I picked Wynonna Judd as an excuse to talk about these things, I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. But I got myself all the way into it and, next week, I’ll tell you everything that’s fit to tell.
This episode featured excerpts from the following songs, in this order [linked, if available]:
- Buck Owens & His Buckaroos – “Sam’s Place” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Buck Owens & His Buckaroos – “Medley: Under Your Spell Again/Above and Beyond/Excuse Me(I Think I’ve Got a Heartache” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Buck Owens & His Buckaroos – “Twist and Shout” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Buck Owens & His Buckaroos – “Fun ‘n’ Games with Don and Doyle” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Merle Haggard & The Strangers – “Sing Me Back Home” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Buck Owens & His Buckaroos – “Tokyo Polka” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Sanford Clark – “Go on Home” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Marty Robbins – “Don’t Worry” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Buck Owens & His Buckaroos – “Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass?” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Buck Owens & His Buckaroos – “Johnny B. Goode” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Buck Owens & His Buckaroos – “Corn Liquor” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Buck Owens & His Buckaroos – “Ruby” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Buck Owens & His Buckaroos – “I Know You’re Married But I Love You Still” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Buck Owens & His Buckaroos – “Made in Japan” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Buck Owens & His Buckaroos – “Love’s Gonna Live Here” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Buck Owens & His Buckaroos – “Diggy Liggy Lo” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Don Rich & The Buckaroos – “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Emmylou Harris – “Together Again” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Dwight Yoakam – “Guitars & Cadillacs” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Buck Owens & His Buckaroos – “Streets of Bakersfield” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Homer Joy – “Streets of Bakersfield” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Dwight Yoakam & Buck Owens – “Streets of Bakersfield” [Amazon / Apple Music]
- Buck Owens & His Buckaroos – “Foolin’ Around” [Amazon / Apple Music]
These video clips were excerpted in this episode of the podcast. They may be removed from YouTube in the future (for any of a number of reasons) but, for now, here they are:
Commentary and Remaining Sources
Okay, let’s see how long these Liner Notes can be…
I knew I wanted to talk about Don Rich and Buck Owens in the first season of the podcast – and I knew I had to – because not only was it necessary to lay a foundation for basic concepts like the Bakersfield Sound but also their story covers so much ground and is so fascinating. Their relationship, the stories from the road, the great music they made and how it all came together – this is probably the stuff you’ll find yourself talking about with friends who also like the podcast. But, if I did this right, then you may not have even realized how many vegetables you were getting with your dessert, these last two weeks. Because, we touched on a lot of behind-the-scenes mechanics of the music industry and those will keep coming into play in the future.
On the other hand, right now, as I’m writing these Liner Notes, last week’s episode has not even gone public. So I’m still very much dreading the reaction to these two episodes. Not so much because of what’s in these episodes – quite the opposite – and not really from fans of the podcast but from musicians on the Bakersfield scene (or those close to them) who are checking this podcast out for the first time just to see if they’re finally going to get their due, if they’re finally going to get to hear their name included in the story. Really this is an issue with every episode of the podcast and everything I’m about to say applies to every episode but maybe two, three times as much when it comes to Bakersfield.
For one thing, the mainstream conversation about country music always centers on Nashville, as if great country doesn’t come from other states. Some people who pretend to give a shit might throw a bone to Texas or California every now and then but it’s only the real fans who know that great country music comes from everywhere. The other thing about the Bakersfield scene, in particular, is that Buck Owens is almost always the only person who gets the credit for it. I really do get where the smaller players and writers and singers are coming from and all I can say is this: please, keep listening and reading. I hope to continue making this podcast for the rest of my life. The full title of the show is Cocaine & Rhinestones: The History of Country Music. I am not using those words lightly. I mean it. If you’re mad at me because you think someone I barely mentioned or didn’t mention at all is a much bigger part of the history of country music than I realize, it’s quite likely that I not only do realize it but that I entirely agree with you. Far and away, the most frequent type of question I get about this podcast is if I’m planning to do an episode on this artist or that artist. The answer to that question is “yes.” If you’ve ever even heard a person’s name in relation to country music in the 1900s, I want to talk about that person because I want to tell the history of country music in the 1900s. If you think I’m bullshitting, stick around. I realize that it takes time to build real trust and that’s what I’m trying to do, that’s what I hope to do: take my time, build that trust.
That brings me to the next thing I have to talk about which is why I do not want to conduct private interviews or conversations in order to create this podcast. First, a lot of people I’m talking about are dead. The people who knew them and cared about them will lie to themselves and to me to protect their memory. They may not even realize they’re doing it. If the person we would be talking about is the opposite of Don Rich and all anyone wants to do is talk shit on them, well, the dead person isn’t here to defend themselves and I don’t like that. Next, objectivity. I’ve talked about it before; it’s super important to me. When I have a conversation with a person, I’ll admit it, I want them to like me and I want to like them. I want to believe the things they say to me. If a person close to any one of these stories were to give me time out of their day to have a conversation with me about it, I would automatically have feelings of gratitude towards them for doing that. My thinking in a conversation like that would always be less critical than it is in my current research process. Any lie or inconsistency that I would have noticed if I read it in a book, I may not notice if it’s spoken to me by a person who was really nice to me. I do have several more reasons that I don’t even really need to get into but the gist of it is, if there’s not enough publicly available information from good sources, then I almost certainly have no business trying to tell that story anyway. My current research process may not give us all the answers and I’m okay with that. It will keep giving us episodes of the podcast like the ones it’s already given us and I’m okay with that, too.
By the way, if you have a story or you know a story that you think nobody knows and it’s not in any books or newspapers, nobody’s preventing you from telling it. Start talking. Start a blog. Start a podcast. I promise, you don’t need me or anyone else.
[UPDATE (May 14, 2018): I have been contacted by one of Don Rich’s sons, Vic, who told me that he is the author of that blog comment I found. My feelings haven’t changed regarding my interviewing the subjects of my episodes or their friends and family. However, this information has been sent to me from a credible source, through no effort or interference of my own. As this is one of the most mysterious events in country music history, surrounded by so much unfounded speculation and gossip, I feel it would go against the spirit of this entire project for me to not share with you all what I now know.
Here is the relevant information from the message I received, which, with Vic’s permission, I have slightly edited in the nature of clarity:
I am the one who posted about the front wheel of his bike coming apart when he was riding to go fishing with us in Cambria. One of our neighbors in Bakersfield, named Bob McLean, worked at Halliburton at the time dad was killed. When dad had his accident, Bob sent one of his trucks over and picked up dad’s bike and they stored it at a Halliburton warehouse. Later, I brought my mom to meet with the McLeans to reconnect. Bob (an engineer) asked my mom if we ever got an insurance settlement from the wheel manufacturer. It was a smaller, after-market front wheel, like many choppers had at the time. He said that, based on the spoke pattern on the front wheel, it was pretty clear that it blew up while he was still riding the bike. This came as a real surprise to my mom and me. We never saw the bike after the accident. Dad loved riding his chopper. We used to say, if he had to go, this isn’t the worst way.
To me, this is a very strong argument in favor of Don Rich not being at fault in his accident. This is not a random person pointing out that the front wheel was broken when the chopper was removed from the scene. This is a Halliburton engineer specifically saying the pattern of damage to the spokes suggests structural failure while in operation. I think if we assume any degree of inaccuracy in the BAC test, we have no reason to assume any degree of accuracy in the BAC test. The BAC test is the only source of data to suggest that Don Rich was drunk at the time of his accident. There’s nothing else – no eyewitness testimony of anyone who saw who him drink so much as a single beer that day, nothing. We have a Halliburton engineer telling us that human error was not a factor in this accident. I would argue if the BAC test indicates a level of intoxication which we have strong reason to doubt, then we have no good reason to suspect any level of intoxication.]
Alright, now we can get into the bits and pieces of this episode. And I know some of you are dying to hear the rest about that awful biography. We’ll get there, too.
All the stuff I said in the beginning about famous people and reincarnation, that stuff is well-documented.
Mad, Bad and Dangerous: The Eccentricity of Tyrants by Tom Ambrose [Info on Napoleon came from here.]
One thing, if you are at all interested in Salvador Dalí, then I strongly recommend his autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí. He’s got to be one of the biggest egomaniacs to ever live. It’s one of my favorite autobiographies.
In that bit I referenced early in the episode of Don Rich and Buck Owens playing the same guitar, some of you caught it but I’m sure some of you missed it or weren’t sure if it was there… I can tell you there was a homoerotic aspect to that whole routine and, I can tell you, it’s intentional. If you go watch the video posted above (about 23 minutes in to the black and white live video), it’s blatantly clear. Buck and the guys joked around about being gay so often that some people thought they really were gay. These people also talk about the whole “Don spending the night in Buck’s hotel room” thing, so, hey, maybe they were all bisexual. I certainly don’t know or care.
If you doubt stage telepathy, I totally get it. I honestly don’t know what to tell you. You know, join a band, play 200 shows a year with the same group of people for, I don’t know, 5 years and then get back to me. I even kept my description of it pretty low-key because I know how crazy it might sound to people who have no frame of reference for it.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell any forensic scientists out there that I’m not one. I am, however, unashamed to use Forensics for Dummies as a source on getting a BAC from a cadaver, which I did do. But most of the information in that segment came from the online blog of James G. Wigmore, a forensic toxicologist for over 30 years, who served on the Alcohol Test Committee for over ten years. He wrote an entire article, called Postmortem BAC – Are They Reliable? I don’t know anything about it but he sure seems like he does.
I’m glad I was able to reference Doyle’s Ernest Tubb impression because it was a nice tie-in to the first episode of this podcast. The reason why I wanted that tie-in to be there is because, the gun that Ernest Tubb strapped on himself to go downtown for a face-off with Jim Denny? That gun was given to him by Grady Martin to settle a debt. The same Grady Martin who you heard accidentally discovered fuzz in this episode.
If you checked out the liner notes on the Bobbie Gentry episode, you saw me say that Buck Owens started making music videos because Ken Nelson told him how Capitol Records had bought the rights to one of Bobbie Gentry’s TV show appearances and got a bunch of TV stations to play the tape. I put two early Buck Owens music videos above for anyone who wants to see what he made after having that conversation.
In last week’s Liner Notes, you learned about a little trouble that supposedly took place between Buck Owens and Johnny Russell. Now that you’ve also heard the story about Buck Owens and Merle Haggard having a problem over song publishing, I hope you can spot the pattern. People make bad deals with Buck Owens, realize it later on down the road and then blame it on Buck Owens.
My main sources for this episode were the same two books as last week. Buck’s autobiography, which is still great, and that biography, which I still think is trash. First, I want to talk about some articles that I used for the second half of this story.
The Buck Owens quote I gave you half of at the beginning and then the rest of near the end? There’s actually still some more to it. I got it from a Billboard magazine piece on an anthology of Don Rich’s recordings: “I sincerely believe that Don Rich was as much a part of the Buck Owens records as was Buck Owens. We had two relationships. One was like a father and son; the other was like brothers. In reference to this compilation, it’s a fair and good and wonderful representation of who and what Don Rich was but still so far from being complete as to what he was. When I met Don he was 16 and I was 28. He was with me for 16 years and it was just uncanny. I’ve always said, if there’s such a thing as reincarnation, we played music together back in another life. He could read my mind and I could read his. We were on the same wavelength. Losing him, all the thunder and lightning went out of my music. It’s never been the same since – all one has to do is listen to tell.”
Buck did a 20-question Q&A session with CMT.com in 2003 that is pretty great. He gave a series of interviews to No Depression that also came out great. The negative Hee Haw reviews came from an article about the history of Hee Haw on tulsaworld.com. There were more negative Hee Haw reviews in a book about Laugh-In, called From Beautiful Downtown Burbank by Hal Erickson. The Vince Gill quote came from an Oklahoma TV station’s piece on Hee Haw, though that footage of Vince looks like it belongs to the Country Music Hall of Fame, so I don’t really know where it originated.
Okay, let’s talk about this stupid biography.
There is a wonderful appendix in the back of this that seems to be an accurate account of what songs were recorded when and which musicians played on each session. It is a fantastic resource. That is easily the best thing I can say about this book. As for what I did use, didn’t use and why – let’s get into it. The book did not appear to have an agenda to demonize Don Rich, so I felt like most of that was okay to use. If the general tone of a quote or statement was positive in nature and it didn’t conflict with other information that I knew was good, I considered that okay to use. However, I would characterize the overall tone of this book as extremely negative toward Buck Owens.
Check this out. Based on the index of the book, Willie Cantu is about one-third as relevant to the story as are Tom Brumley and Doyle Holly. Doyle Holly appears on 66 pages. Tom Brumley appears on 61 pages. Willie Cantu appears on 20 pages. Now, get ready for the weird part. Willie has mostly positive things to say about Buck Owens. Tom and Doyle have plenty of negative things to say about Buck Owens. Since his appearances in the book are so rare, I thought I would give you a Willie Cantu quote, talking about Buck Owens: “He was somewhat of a father figure without really being a father figure. Even though he could be very hard with people, I never had any bad dealings with Buck.”
As I said last week, I regard this book as the definition of a hatchet job. There are rumors printed here that I feel it would be irresponsible of me to repeat and there are sources that I would consider dubious, at best. Last week, I gave you an example that could probably stand on its own as a good enough reason to question this book. However, it offends me to think about how many people have read this and accepted everything in it as gospel, so I really want to take it apart.
Something that I feel is very important for you to know is that this biography by Eileen Sisk was published in 2012. That’s six years after Buck Owens died, which means that he could not possibly have read this book before recording the tapes that would become his autobiography, which wasn’t published until 2016. I want to make this very clear, so here’s the timeline:
- Buck Owens dictates his autobiography into a tape recorder before his death in 2006.
- In 2012, Buck Owens: The Biography by Eileen Sisk is published.
- In 2016, Buck’ Em: The Autobiography of Buck Owens, made from tapes that were recorded before 2006, is published.
Neither book could have been composed with a comprehensive knowledge of what would be in the other one.
In the biography, Tom Brumley is adamant that Buck Owens would never give credit to his band members for how important they were to his sound and his career. He even goes so far as to say that if Don Rich hadn’t died, then Buck wouldn’t give Don any credit for the role that he played. He is absolutely wrong. That is not my opinion, it is a fact, borne out by the praise Buck Owens heaps on every Buckaroo in his autobiography. In fact, he never misses an opportunity to compliment them. Buck doesn’t talk shit on any of these guys in his book.
Tom and Doyle both seem to agree that Buck never paid them enough for how much work they did and how important they were to his sound. I’ve already said these guys were great musicians but the reality is that Buck Owens had his sound and he had hits before Tom and Doyle came on board. He continued to have them after they left. If you’re sympathetic to their complaints about not making more money for being their own roadies and all that stuff, I can give you at least 50 phone numbers of musicians who would laugh at you until you hung up the phone if you asked them “were they ever paid extra to drive a bus or carry guitars?” Like I said in the episode, if you feel like you’re worth more money, quit. Go get another job that pays you what you’re worth. Doyle Holly believed that he was owed at least $800,000 for the time he spent with Buck Owens. Doyle did quit his job a few times, including a nine-month stretch during which Buck continued to make #1 records without him. Then, Doyle came back for another four years.
Doyle is not only one of the main sources used for this biography but he and this author “joined forces” to get the book made after Buck decided not to work with this author. Some of the claims Doyle makes in this book are ridiculously unbelievable. Some of them are verifiably untrue. An example of a verifiably untrue thing would be Doyle telling this author who inherited Buck Owens’ ranch after his death and the author’s next sentence telling us the ranch went to one of Buck’s corporations, meaning Doyle will run his mouth even if he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
I suppose you want an example of one of the ridiculously unbelievable things he says. Okay. How about his claim that he had a sexual affair with June Carter and she told him that she didn’t really write “Ring of Fire” with Merle Kilgore? Johnny Cash wrote the song with Merle Kilgore and put it in June’s name because he was still married to his wife, Vivian, and didn’t want to lost half the royalties in the divorce he knew was coming… three years later. Oh, and I guess he knew that he would end up marrying June two years after that divorce, so that’s why he put it in her name. This is so totally insane that I don’t even know where to begin. Even if we accept a world in which June Carter takes a little vacation from turning her life and Johnny Cash’ life upside-down with their extremely passionate love affair to have another affair with Buck Owens’ fucking bass player (which, to be clear, I very much do not accept), we’ve got to take this huge extra step of her saying to Doyle, “Oh, by the way, you know that song “Ring of Fire”? Yeah, yeah, one of the most successful singles in the history of music that I have credit for writing and I’m going to make money on for the rest of my life. I didn’t really write it. Funny, huh? Anyway, since we have sex and stuff, I just thought I’d tell you and only you so that you could blab about it to some writer and get it published in a book 50 years from now.”
I’m very aware of other sources saying that’s what happened with “Ring of Fire.” Vivian said in her autobiography that’s what happened. Curly Lewis said that’s what happened, too. It’s a subject for another time but, until his dying day, Merle Kilgore stuck to the story that he wrote the song with June Carter. Merle Kilgore’s ex-wife remembers the day Merle came home from writing the song with June.
Needless to say, I do not consider Doyle Holly a reliable source.
This author’s other major source is a woman named Kris Black. I’m not going to get into all the details but she and Buck were sleeping together and he hired her as an employee, moving her around to different businesses and, eventually, to Bakersfield. To say the least, she comes off as naive, believing for a long stretch of time that Buck intended to marry her because he made what looks to me like a joke to Don Rich about it. Here’s my favorite contribution of hers to this book. Around Halloween of 1973, Buck Owens records a song, called “(It’s a) Monster’s Holiday.” It gets released as a single in June of 1974, which may seem early for a Halloween single but it’s an advance single for a full-length album of the same name that comes out in September of 1974. Make sense to everyone? Okay. It doesn’t make any sense to Kris Black. She seems to think that song was Buck predicting the death of Don Rich: “Really and truly, ‘Monster’s Holiday’ in June by a man who is brilliant about promotion? I mean, it really doesn’t fit. Why would he come up with that song then? I think in a very deep and subconscious level he was just thinking of some kind of horrible thing. That’s just the way I look at things. I look at things different, sometimes.”
Yeah, she sure as shit does. Her memory of a dinner following Buck’s open-casket viewing differs greatly from other people who were there. The people at the dinner include Sam Lovullo, who was a producer on Hee Haw, Lulu Roman from Hee Haw and Jana Jae, one of Buck’s ex-wives and band members. Kris remembers sitting there, quietly, while Jana Jae said “the most unbelievable things.” Lulu Roman remembers several people asking each other “who is she and why is she here?,” regarding Kris Black, because Kris talked everybody’s heads off at the dinner. The next day, at the funeral, Kris Black asked Don Rich’s widow to introduce her to another of Buck’s ex-wives. Marlane refused because she didn’t want to get in the middle of whatever Kris wanted to do. But Marlane did point out this other ex-wife to Kris, who went over, gave her a business card and told her how much she admired the way she stood up to Jana Jae in an earlier situation that’s not worth getting into here. In my opinion, that is extremely inappropriate behavior for a funeral.
Needless to say, I do not regard Kris Black as a reliable source.
Which brings me to my final thoughts on this entire book. If anyone out there is at all interested in learning how to spot inconsistencies, then I don’t think you could do any better than to read this book. There are things presented in the author’s voice as fact that no one alive could possibly know. This author writes that Don Rich and Buck Owens never said the words “I love you” to each other. She could not possibly know whether or not that is true. Nobody alive can know that. Kay Adams told this author that Don Rich brought up the idea of divorcing his wife so that Don and Kay could be together. This author writes the sentence, “The truth is, if Don was thinking about leaving anyone, it wasn’t Marlane – it was Buck.” If the sentence before that is her reason for writing that, then her reason is that Marlane and Don look happy together in a picture she saw. Three pages later, we read about how the fishing trip Don was on his way to have with his family when he wrecked was partly meant as a make-up vacation after a recent separation over Don’s affair with a different woman, whom he straight-up told Marlane he was going to marry. The source for this information seems to be Marlane herself. I’d like to remind you of the beginning of that sentence from three pages before this, “The truth is, if Don was thinking about leaving anyone, it wasn’t Marlane.” There are several more examples of self-contradiction but I’ve got to stop here – I’m already too angry. Nothing drives me crazier than this type of horseshit.
Next week. Wynonna Judd. You’re not ready. See you there.