In the new book Buck ‘Em! The Autobiography of Buck Owens, Randy Poe helped Buck Owens posthumously tell his own story. With the intention of writing his own story on Owens, Poe met with the family and was instead asked to us tapes left behind at the death of Owens to assemble an autobiography. The result is a fantastic telling of the life of one of the biggest stars in country music, in his own words. Randy was kind enough to answer a few questions for us.
Music Tomes: In the intro to the book you talk about meeting with Buck’s family about doing a biography and then being presented with the idea of turning it into an autobiography. First of all, what made you want to do a biography of Buck Owens?
Randy Poe: I wanted to do a book on Buck because I felt he was a phenomenal country artist who was incredibly under-rated, if not forgotten to a certain extent. It was much the same reason I wrote Skydog: The Duane Allman Story. Buck and Duane are both extremely important figures in American music, and up to this point very little has been written about either of them. In fact, Skydog was the first book ever written about Duane Allman, even though he’d passed away over thirty years before my book came out. So, I like to write about musicians who I feel deserve more attention than they’ve gotten, and to me, Buck Owens definitely qualifies as one of those.
MT: What kind of complications are there in creating the autobiography of someone who is no longer around to answer new questions or clarify anything?
RP: You bring up an excellent point. I can’t tell you the number of times I regretted not having the opportunity to ask Buck follow-up questions. On the tapes I was working with, he told so many great stories about his life. But, since he was just sitting alone talking into a cassette recorder, there was nobody there with him to get him back on track if he changed stories in mid-stream, or if he didn’t finish a sentence. Luckily, Buck’s office had kept literally thousands of newspaper and magazine articles that quoted Buck, so many times I was able to find him telling the same stories in greater detail than he’d told them on the tapes. Like I said at the beginning of the book, writing this thing was like trying to put together the most complicated jigsaw puzzle ever created.
MT: Owens worried that Hee Haw would damage his legacy, but, of course, the payday was too good to pass up and people told him he was wrong. Then when he died, that was the most common identifier used by the media. After he left Hee Haw” do you think he tried to rebuild his reputation as a performer?
RP: First of all, when I wrote Buck’s obituary for Sing Out! magazine, one of the things I said was that I hoped all of the other obits wouldn’t focus primarily on his Hee Haw years. To tell you the truth, when Buck ended his long run with that show, I don’t know if he was even giving much thought to his reputation. By then he was a businessman with so many other interests. I think he began to pay more attention to his legacy later in life. It was certainly on his mind by the time he started recording his life story in the mid-1990s. As you know, it wasn’t until his days on Hee Haw had been over for a few years that he got back into recording and performing, thanks primarily to the encouragement of Dwight Yoakam. For people listening to country radio in those years, “Streets of Bakersfield” was the last major recording of his that they heard. Those who wanted to see him live got to see him performing concerts from the late-1980s on through much of the rest of his life. And for those who first discovered Buck’s music via “Streets of Bakersfield,” a lot of them were probably too young to even know he was ever on Hee Haw.
MT: What are you currently working on?
RP: Right now the only thing I’m doing writing-wise is focusing on promoting Buck ’Em! I began this project five years ago, watched it fall apart (a story that’s way too long to tell here), wrote another book called Stalking the Red Headed Stranger while I waited for the Buck book to get back on track, and then went back to work on this one literally the day after I finished Stalking the Red Headed Stranger. As with most authors in the modern world, I have a day job. Mine is in the music industry, so it’s fun and challenging, but it means my writing hours are usually from midnight to 4:00 a.m. At this moment I have no idea what my next project will be. Over the years I’ve written a half-dozen books on that schedule. Who knows? Maybe my next project should be a book on how to be productive when you suffer from extreme insomnia.
MT: What are some of your favorite music tomes?
RP: As far as my favorite music tomes are concerned, I could go on forever. First of all, absolutely anything written by Peter Guralnick. He’s the music tome writer all the rest of us worship at the feet of. Also near the top of the list would be Nick Tosches’ Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams. Then there’s Life by Keith Richards, The Incompleat Folksinger by Pete Seeger, A Pirate Looks at Fifty by Jimmy Buffett, Straight Life by Art and Laurie Pepper, It Shined: The Saga of The Ozark Mountain Daredevils by Michael “Supe” Granda, and Hound Dog: The Leiber & Stoller Autobiography. (Full disclosure: I’ve run Leiber & Stoller’s music publishing companies for the last 28 years, but it’s one of my favorites because the whole book is the two of them going back and forth telling the story of their songwriting years together, interrupting each others’ sentences exactly as they did in real life.) I’m also a huge fan of books about radio. Among my favorites are Air Castle of the South: WSM and the Making of Music City by Craig Havighurst, Border Radio by Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford, and Have Mercy! by Wolfman Jack.