Ramblin' Rhodes

Stroll down memory lane with music columnist Don Rhodes.

Book shows legend's not-so-bright side

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Today would have been Buck Owens' 81st birthday had he not died in his bed March 25, 2006, just hours after singing his last song, Big in Vegas, at his show place and restaurant in California.

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The truth is country superstar Owens and his great Buckaroos band were big everywhere, especially when he was racking up consecutive No. 1 hits and being admired by fans such as The Beatles.

But beneath his public image as a country bumpkin who wore his overalls backwards on the syndicated TV comedy Hee Haw, Owens was doing more than just "pickin' and grinnin.'"

According to author Eileen Sisk, Owens was a penny-pinching, ruthless businessman who cheated songwriters out of their royalties, took to bed thousands of women, physically abused his wife and treated his band members with disrespect.

In her new book, Buck Owens: The Biography, published by Chicago Review Press, Sisk reveals the darker side of the star.

Reviewers love the book while hardcore fans find it difficult to learn Owens might have been far less than perfect.

The author, who began working on the book in 1996, has no apologies for her brutally honest approach, citing the scores of interviews she personally held with those closest to Owens.

Those include his business associates, fellow music stars, ex-wives, former lovers and at least seven Buckaroos band members, including Willie Cantu, Doyle Holly and Tom Brumley.

"Holly drove buses in his later years," Sisk recalled in a phone interview last week. "I was riding with him in the jump seat on one of his trips when he told me, 'I don't want this one to be one of those puff books. That's how it was on the road.' He wanted me to tell the truth, and that's what I did. It's a warts-and-all approach.

"The fans are not liking this book too much," she added, "but this book is exactly what people close to him told me, and I wrote it just that."

Sisk said the book began taking shape not long after the publication of her 1995 Harper-Collins-West book Honky Tonks: Guide to Country Dancin' and Romancin', which was about how to find and survive America's country nightclubs.

"My agent wanted me to do a celebrity bio, and I said, 'I don't know any celebrities,' but I wrote to 10 who hadn't yet written any books about themselves. Only one wrote back and that was Buck."

The more she worked on the book, however, the more Owens wasn't sure Sisk was the right author to do it. He was concerned about what she was uncovering. Others close to Owens, however, insisted the truth should come out, that Owens was a talented guy who had made great contributions to country music but that he had done so in a less-than-honorable fashion.

"I thought Buck was a charming man and extremely nice to me when I met him," Sisk said, "but maybe he was nicer to me because I was his type of woman. And then I began seeing the other side of him."

Pinning down the facts of Owens' life and career turned out to be a difficult project, since so much printed information turned out to be inaccurate, even when supposedly written and told by Owens himself in publications and interviews.

"He contended that he was married three times, but I was told as many as nine, but I went with seven because that was as many as I could actually nail down," Sisk said. "It was widely printed and said that he was married to (former Hee Haw fiddler Jana Jae) for only three days, but she can prove that he was married to her for at least 17 months.

"I don't fault journalists who got things wrong about Buck in talking with him," Sisk added, "because Buck wouldn't have known the truth if it was handed to him on a plate."


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