With a new tribute album, Dwight Yoakam ensures that Buck Owens's music lives on.
Dwight Yoakam's voice is breaking. He's on the phone from his home in Los Angeles, talking about his friend and musical mentor, the late Buck Owens, whose best works he has just covered on his new album, Dwight Sings Buck. It's been just over a year and a half since Owens died, at age 76, and Yoakam still gets choked up - moved to tears, even - when he discusses the man most of us knew as one of the pickin' and grinnin' hosts of the comedy show Hee Haw.
The Owens Yoakam knew was more complicated than his cornpone TV persona. "I was very lucky that I got to know Buck personally and express the enormous debt of gratitude I owed him," Yoakam says.
What Yoakam is indebted to Owens for is his sound, the one Yoakam's best known for, a twangy, rootsy style of country that, during the 1980s, when Yoakam first gained notice, was a rebellion against the more polished music coming out of Nashville. That style of country was a return to the sound Owens had popularized in the 1950s and '60s, the so-called Bakersfield sound. Indeed, one of Yoakam's early hits, "Little Ways," paid homage to the Bakersfield sound and to Owens.
That song sparked a friendship and a professional collaboration between the two men that would yield a No. 1 duet, "Streets of Bakersfield," and numerous tours. Though Yoakam downplays his role, his encouragement was pivotal in rousing Owens from the self-imposed recording retirement he'd been in since the death of his best friend and musical foil, guitarist Don Rich, in 1974. Before that, especially before Hee Haw, Owens had been at the vanguard of American music. In the '60s, Owens's stinging telecaster sound, distinctive vocals, and hot-wired LPs made him not only a country-chart topper but also an inspiration to young rockers everywhere. Owens was covered by the Beatles and was referenced in a Creedence Clearwater Revival song. In 1968, he played for both Lyndon Johnson in the White House and for a packed house of hippies at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. His work would ultimately have a profound impact on several generations of musicians - and on Yoakam. Maybe that's why it seemed natural to Yoakam to keep Owens's music alive with Dwight Sings Buck - even though the memories still sometimes make him sad.