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That stroke made him temporarily forget how to read and write, even his own name. Buck started hanging around honky tonks way before he was old enough to go inside of them. That was the only place you could go to hear good country music, though. Because he hit puberty early and was unusually tall for his age, he was playing on those stages himself soon enough. But we do have to talk about Bonnie Owens. Buck meets Bonnie in Arizona. Bonnie catches Buck making time with other girls. This is how Buck finds out Bonnie has plans to become a country singer, which is, of course, what she goes on to do.
They get married. He stays focused on work, playing music and chasing ladies when he can. Bonnie has another baby.
Buck stays in Arizona for a while longer. The whole marriage thing?
Even after Buck moves to Bakersfield, too, he lives in his car rather than moving in with Bonnie and the kids or any of his other family in the area. This is probably the poorest Buck ever was in his life. He goes down there anyway, borrows a guitar from someone else in the band and shows everyone what he can do. They like his playing so much that everyone agrees to take a pay cut in order to hire him. His goal at this time is to become the best guitar player in the world. Bakersfield, California, in , is the perfect place to be for anyone with that goal.
He starts making decent enough money to get his own place and move Bonnie and the kids in with him. Though, that just makes it more obvious that the marriage is doomed and they soon split for good, leaving Buck to focus exclusively on music. Whatever music in California sounded like before The Great Depression, millions of okies showed up and changed all of that by bringing their music with them. The Texas Playboys toured the area and did live radio broadcasts from the Beardsley Ballroom in Bakersfield. So, Buck Owens has arrived in a California where Western Swing is just as big, if not bigger, than where he came from.
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The dancing crowds want to hear other styles of music, too, though. The best band in town is The Orange Blossom Playboys. They have business cards made up promoting their shows at the most popular nightclub in town, The Blackboard. In addition to Western Swing, these cards advertise that the band plays country music, rhythm and blues, rhumba, pop and polka. The type of country music being mixed with Western Swing in California is hardcore honky tonk. Hank Williams was the biggest thing on the Grand Ole Opry up until Ralph Mooney is already playing pedal steel with Wynn Stewart.
All of these musicians are huge influences on Buck Owens. Buck Owens is, without question, responsible for a very, very big part of it. Buck drives down there from Bakersfield for the extra work. Studio in the day, onstage at night. Performance makes more perfect.
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Buck was a great guitar player when he came to Bakersfield. Spending all day and all night working with the best musicians around turns him into an incredible guitarist. That means they play regular sets all through the week but, also, if a national touring act comes through without a full band then The Orange Blossom Playboys back them up, too. If this was all happening in a recording studio instead of in nightclubs, Bill Woods would be the producer.
The Blackboard is a honky tonk, though — always full of drunk crowds, who are rowdy and loud. After Buck gets put in front of the microphone, Bill Woods moves all the songs up a half step or two, pushing Buck to sing at the upper limits of his range, giving his performing style a heightened sense of urgency to match the vibe of the room.
Buck who, remember, has hearing loss from that stroke when he was a child can only hear himself singing in the out front sound system and only if he sings loud. Then, Terry Fell plays a show at The Blackboard. Buck starts writing songs pretty damn fast so he can take Terry up on the offer. Terry must feel bad about that because, a little while later, he invites Buck out to meet the owner of a very small label, named Pep Records. The first Buck Owens single is released on Pep Records in Only, Pep Records is such a small operation they can barely get records pressed, let alone distribute and promote them.
Meanwhile, back at the Blackboard, that bandleader, Bill Woods, decides to open up his own nightclub and take The Orange Blossom Playboys over there. The owner of The Blackboard offers his stage to Buck. Terry Fell hits Ken up about it, too. Ken gives Terry the same answer.
Good deal. Except Ken Nelson is not happy to see Buck Owens walk in.
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Ken had already picked out what he wanted the Farmer Boys to record that day. Buck unknowingly screwed that all up by giving them these four songs. Oh well, they get to work.
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Same thing after the second song. Ken calls a break and takes Buck somewhere to talk in private. Buck comes clean about talking to Columbia Records, telling Ken how Don Law himself is supposed to be coming out to L. Buck asks if he can have some time to think it over. After selling Buck on using Central Songs as a publisher, Ken brings him up to his fancy office on the 12th floor and puts a real live recording contract on the table. Ken tells him to sign the papers.
Buck signs. So, this is a really big day for Buck Owens. The main writer on every song in a session, walking out of the building with a publishing deal and a record deal — but the most valuable thing he gets that day is a lesson in Old School Record Business While it does take some time for the information to come to light, once Buck later finds out that Ken Nelson is part owner of Central Songs, all the events of this day click into place. He sees the entire game. While all these singers and musicians are running around in rhinestone suits trying to get famous, the business suits up in the office building are getting rich as shit by owning as much of the machine as possible and the artists are giving it to them by signing these contracts.
Then they own the master tapes of your music forever because they fronted the money or the studio for the recording sessions. Nearly every single person who has something bad to say about Buck Owens signed a contract with him.
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Were any of those contracts unethical? I have no idea. Has the music business in general always been unethical? Because, that nightclub Bill started? Bill offers Buck his old job back. I mean, really, Buck would have reason to be angry about this.