My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Book Review: ‘Buck Owens – The Biography’ by Eileen Sisk

The following review was written by MKOC reader and commenter Ken Johnson:

Buck Owens – The Biography

Author: Eileen Sisk
Publisher: Chicago Review Press

If you only know about Buck Owens via his amazing catalog of hit recordings and songs or his hayseed “Hee-Haw” persona, you truly don’t know the REAL Buck Owens. Author Eileen Sisk went behind the public facade to reveal a complicated, difficult, contradictory, vindictive, manipulative yet occasionally generous man who knew how to completely control his image long before publicists became a required member of every country performer’s staff. Singer/songwriter Gene Price perhaps summed up the Buck Owens story best when he told Sisk that she was about to “write a book about a very bad man who made very good music. “

Sisk relates how she began writing her book with Buck’s blessing after a face-to-face meeting at his Bakersfield, California headquarters in early 1997. Concerned that focusing primarily on his music would make for a boring read, Buck desired an entertaining book that would concentrate on his unpredictable and occasionally sensational personal life. True to form, three years later permission to write his story was abruptly withdrawn without warning or explanation. Rather than abandon the three years that she had already invested in the project, Sisk decided to label her work as an “unauthorized” biography. She enlisted the assistance of a former member of Buck’s “Buckaroos” band Doyle Holly who acted as her liaison to former Owens’ subordinates and encouraged them to go on the record and be forthcoming with their memories.  Because Holly was quoted “everything with Buck is fifty percent bullshit and fifty percent truth” the resulting story is probably closer to reality than if Buck had fully participated and exercised complete editorial control.

Born just two months before the stock market crash that caused the Great Depression, Alvis Edgar “Buck” Owens entered the world in Sherman, Texas on August 12, 1929. The book details how despite two birth defects and serious childhood illnesses including a serious brain infection, Buck persevered. By his early teens he had become proficient on several musical instruments. Buck loved to tell about dropping out of school to help his poor struggling family and often compared his own story to the Steinbeck classic The Grapes Of Wrath. However it was the first of many fabricated tales that Buck would create throughout his career. Despite the hard times, his father was always able to find work to fully support his family. Though life may have been difficult it was far from the dire situation that many other depression-era families faced.

Young Buck found plenty of time for female companionship, an activity that would continue in excess throughout his lifetime. Contrary to what Buck wanted his fans to believe, Bonnie Owens was not his first wife. Sisk uncovered Buck’s first marriage at the age of sixteen that produced a daughter that he never knew. Buck would sire at least eight more children, both in and out of wedlock, but only publicly acknowledged three of them.

Married and divorced at least five times, Buck never let his vows stand in the way of a constant parade of groupies, mistresses and extramarital affairs. The book describes the intimate details of Buck’s preoccupation with sex and how life on the road touring with the Buckaroos provided ample opportunity. If you thought only rock stars had groupies, this book will change your mind. First hand accounts from former band members provide lurid details of their off stage activities. (I mention this as a word of warning for those that are easily offended by explicit sexual language.) Sisk deserves credit for including this facet of Owens’ life. Most biographies of country performers ignore this topic and give the false impression of monogamy. The reality is that life on the road breeds bad behavior thanks to an endless supply of female groupies willing to provide one night (or one hour) stands. Aging or overweight mothers gladly offered up their teenage daughters for a chance to get close to the superstar. Often more than one female fan at a time would visit Buck’s hotel room. Buck was not shy about inviting other band members to join him in his suite so that all might share the affections of a particularly amorous fan.

Unfortunately Buck’s path to musical stardom and the creation of his unique “sound” is not as detailed here as some would like. The fact that Buck’s long time producer Ken Nelson declined to be interviewed for this book is unfortunate because he may have filled in some of those blanks. Stories behind the creation of Buck’s biggest songs are also missing. Thankfully the surviving Buckaroos who agreed to be interviewed do provide some valuable insight about the recording sessions. Creation of Buck’s syndicated TV show, his starring role on Hee Haw, and a landmark deal that gave him what few musical performers are able to obtain, ownership of his Capitol Records master recording tapes, are all detailed.

The saddest chapter of the Buck Owens story is the death of his right-hand man Don Rich. Rich headed up Buck’s razor sharp band, The Buckaroos, and served as Buck’s musical partner and confidante for sixteen years. This book underscores how Donald Eugene Ulrich was the glue that held the band together whenever Buck’s bad temper got the best of him. It also brings to light how he followed in Buck’s footstep when it came to groupies and tells of Don’s long time affair with a female country singer. Don’s life came to a tragic end in a fatal motorcycle crash on July 17, 1974. For the first time, extensive details are revealed about Don’s death that raises many questions regarding why a coroner’s inquest was not conducted and why critical documents including the autopsy report and photos are missing from the case file.

Though never diagnosed, Buck may have suffered from manic-depressive disorder. Prone to emotional outbursts and extreme mood swings, life for those who worked closest to him was always difficult. It was exacerbated by Buck’s excessive stinginess. Never one to share the wealth, he often withheld alimony and child support. Buck underpaid his band and support staff. Songs that list Buck as their author may not have been written by him. Singers and songwriters who used Buck’s publishing or management companies often found that they were on the wrong end of the deal. That said, Buck was an amazingly successful businessman. He amassed a fortune with his radio stations and investments. He never suffered the sad fate of many of his musical contemporaries who found themselves broke and bankrupt after their fame faded. Shortly before his death Buck confided to a friend “You know I’ve got everything I’ve ever wanted and I’m still unhappy.” Buck Owens died on March 25, 2006.

The Biography concludes with extensive chapter notes documenting the author’s sources of information. A selected sessionography and discography is included for fans to follow the chronology of Buck’s recording sessions and his single and album releases.

Few artists have impacted country music the way that Buck Owens did. His sound and style are completely unique. I learned a long time ago to appreciate an artist’s music for its own value. If you look beyond the music, you will often discover a flawed human being who will probably disappoint you. Buck Owens – The Biography is exhibit A.

Rating: A-

Buck Owens – The Biography is widely available wherever books are sold. Get it now at amazon.

12 responses to “Book Review: ‘Buck Owens – The Biography’ by Eileen Sisk

  1. pwdennis November 19, 2010 at 9:51 am

    This book has gotten rather mixed reviews, many reviewers criticizing the writing style of the author, others, such as noted author DIane Diekman, criticizing the use of unattributed quotes, and still others questioning its accuracy. Several have referred to it as a hatchet job, and the excerpts I’ve read of the book suggest a writing style usually found in tabloids (a/k/a “Yellow Journalism”

    Reviewer John Taylor commented ” As a general rule, it’s not wise to annoy the author of one’s life story. Sisk has delivered what amounts to a hatchet job, painting a rather dark portrait that gleefully exposes Owens’ faults, while paying scant attention to his many achievements as both artist and businessman.”

    I’ve not read the book yet but will get a copy shortly so that I can judge for myself. I actually met Buck on several occasions while living in London (69-71) and found him to be very gracious, but that, of course, is but very limited exposure to the man. The story of the night of his death also speaks volumes about Buck – I wonder if Ms Sisk mentioned it in her book

    • Ken Johnson November 20, 2010 at 12:50 pm

      Paul:

      I had also seen some of the negative comments regarding this book prior to reading it. Folks who disagree with something find it very easy to be dismissive, especially if it runs contrary to their own opinion or point of view. The public view of Buck Owens is radically different from the man written about in this book. He is a true musical hero to his fans and anything that would contradict that image is deemed unacceptable.

      Buck was fortunate to be at the height of his career when celebrities could easily fly under the radar with bad or questionable activities. No “Entertainment Tonight” style TV shows existed, “celebrity scandal” type magazines cared little about country music performers in that era and the internet was not yet invented. Stars could get away with bad behavior because the public never had a clue. Imagine Frank Sinatra’s image back in the day if 21st century media had existed in his era.

      The author’s credentials are quite impressive. Eileen Sisk is a member of Investigative Reporters And Editors and the Society Of Professional Journalists. I’m quite sure that she would not gamble her reputation on incidents that had no basis in fact. To my knowledge no one in Buck’s family or inner circle has yet come forth to factually question or deny anything in this book which seems unusual if the biography truly is not accurate.

      My review only touched on a few items that a life-long Buck Owens’ fan like me found surprising. There is so much more information in those 300+ pages. I encourage everyone to read for themselves and guarantee that you will not be able to put the book down. Buck’s final day on earth is indeed mentioned in detail as is his funeral. No question that Buck could be generous to many fans as the story of his last hours details. But he could also be amazingly cruel as the story of how he insulted a young fan years earlier is painfully told.

      Like you, I too had the opportunity to meet Buck and also found him warm, gracious and gregarious. However I never worked for him which may have greatly altered my perspective. I’ll be very interested to hear your view after reading the book.

      • cdcollector December 5, 2010 at 10:24 pm

        Ken:
        I started reading the book and I wanted to comment on something you said, the part where Buck supposedly insulted a young fan years ago. I guess that you are referring to the 10-year-old who played guitar. I read that paragraph in the book again. It says Buck made the comment (about the boy) to Don, and the boy overheard him. It seems that would be different than insulting someone directly.

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  3. kevin w November 19, 2010 at 10:21 am

    I have to disagree with the A- rating. The stuff about the death of Don Rich is easily the best thing about the book, otherwise if you want to read about Bucks multiple sexual exploits this is the book for you. I personally found the constant stories of who Buck was sleeping with tedious after awhile.

  4. Eileen Sisk November 19, 2010 at 11:20 am

    Thank you for one of the fairest reviews to date.

    For all the naysayers, I don’t know you and you don’t know me. First, Diane Diekman is not a trained journalist, as am I, although I do respect the one book she has written. She is a retired Navy captain with a high interest in country music. As I told her, everything in my book was confirmed several times over and is attributed in the Chapter Notes at the back of the book. I live in Tennessee where there is a shield law in place that allows journalists to protect their sources. In addition, my publisher, unlike Ms. Diekman’s, does not require footnoted attribution after every sentence, which is very distracting to the flow of a story. As a rule, that is an academic convention used by most university presses and I was not hired by a university press.

    This book is basically an overview of Buck’s life. It was pitched as a look at the man behind the music and I chose to tell about the people who helped make him the superstar he was. As for his sexploits, I don’t think I dwelled on those at all. If you only knew what didn’t get in the book! To be continued…

  5. Pingback: Eddie Montgomery Confirms Cancer Diagnoses; Trace Adkins To Host American Country Awards | The 9513

  6. Diane Diekman November 19, 2010 at 1:42 pm

    I’d like to clear up the attribution issue. This is my third attempt to explain myself, and I hope I get it right this time. My publisher didn’t require footnotes, and I’m not recommending that anyone use them. I was referring to the text itself. A few comments such as “Buck’s relatives remembered…” and “Several of Buck’s friends said…” would have removed the author’s voice and placed a quote in the interviewee’s voice, where it belonged. That was my whole point.

  7. J.R. Journey November 19, 2010 at 2:40 pm

    I’ve yet to read this book myself, but I did just now order it on amazon. I’m really looking forward to reading and judging for myself whether this is a ‘hatchet job’ or ‘yellow journalism’. I think that when unsavory behavior takes up the bulk of stories and memories about a person, it would hurt the integrity of not only the book, but the writer, to not tell that side truthfully. Tell the Buck Owens story, warts and all. I also think lots more biographies and autobiographies should be honest like this instead of glossing over the ugly side.

    I would also like to thank Eileen Sisk and Diane Diekman for offering their thoughts in the comments, and of course Ken Johnson for taking his time to write this review.

  8. Razor X November 19, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    I haven’t read the book, either, but I am definitely intrigued and looking forward to delving into this topic a little bit more.

    Thanks for a great write-up, Ken.

  9. Occasional Hope November 19, 2010 at 6:24 pm

    Thanks for the review, Ken.

  10. Squadfather July 29, 2013 at 6:10 pm

    Buck got more tail than a toilet seat.

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