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Bonnie Owens stands by her men

Married (and divorced from) two country music legends, she also has carved a niche for herself and paved the way for women artists.

A.J. Flick

Citizen Country Music Critic

Coming from the mouth of Bonnie Owens, the answer to the simplest “How are you?” sounds like the opening to a country music song.

“Oh, I’m dusting, ironing and crying,” says Owens, sounding anything but sad, reached at her home in southern Missouri.

Owens, who has the distinction of being the only woman in history who married (and divorced) two members of the Country Music Hall of Fame – Buck Owens and Merle Haggard – was actually rested from four months off the road with Haggard. On Sept. 16, the two will perform in Tucson with Haggard’s band, The Strangers, in a concert rescheduled from last month.

“I love performing,” says Owens, who turns 67 on Oct. 1. “I’m a ham and a half.”

Haggard’s shows are spontaneous events, she notes. For instance, in last year’s pay-per-view TV concert from Las Vegas, neither Owens nor the Strangers knew what song Haggard would present next.

“Merle sang for three hours and he never sang one song twice,” she marvels. “We never do know the order of songs in a show. He picks them out of the air. I never have known him have to have a set show – ever. He goes by his gut feeling. ‘Maybe they want a slow one,’ he’ll say to himself, I guess. He’s amazing to work with.

“I’m about four years older than Merle is, and it’s like he’s my little brother, even though we were married,” says Owens, who divorced Haggard in 1978.

The two met in Bakersfield, Calif., and as they say, the rest is country music history. But that’s getting a little ahead of our story because although Owens will be forever linked to her famous ex-husbands, she is a remarkable artist and person in her own right.

Bonnie Campbell was born in Oklahoma but moved to Phoenix when she was about 12, she figures.

“That’s where I met Buck Owens,” she says. “We went to the same church together – his mother and my mother were church members together – and somehow or other, I got to singing with him.”

Bonnie quickly earned a reputation as one of the state’s best yodelers, and in her teens, often performed in nightclubs. Buck invited Bonnie to sing on his radio show (at what became KNIX-FM, which until last year was still owned by Buck Owens and run by their sons, Buddy and Michael). Soon, they married.

“It was one of those things where we were married too young,” she recalls. “I was 18. I guess that’s not very young, but maybe we shouldn’t have gotten married.

“After the second baby was born, I just left,” says Bonnie, who set out for Bakersfield.

“We’ve been separated ever since, but we’ve managed to stay really good friends.”

Buck also moved to Bakersfield, where he honed the brand of country music named after the Southern California hamlet.

Bonnie began appearing regularly on radio and TV shows around the state, which helped her obtain a recording contract with Marvel Records and a hit single, “Dear John Letter.”

Along the way, she met a promising Bakersfield singer/songwriter named Merle Haggard. In 1964, the two not only paired up for a hit record, “Just Between the Two of Us,” and recording contract with Capitol Records, but a year later, married. They earned Academy of Country Music honors in ’66 for best vocal group and Owens won for best female vocalist.

Though the marriage produced no children, Owens and Haggard did collaborate on such songs as “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde” and Haggard’s classic hit, “Today I Started Loving You Again.”

“He wrote it,” Owens says. “But I thought there was one verse that he didn’t need, so he took it away and then put my name on it.”

Haggard’s influence on Owens’ music also was quite profound.

“Merle’s the one who told me that I should start writing some songs on my own,” says Owens, who has shared writing credits with both exes. “But at the time, we were married, and I didn’t want to compete with him – let’s put it that way. I waited until after our divorce – but I was still working with him – when I had more time on my hands and I didn’t have to direct my attention to everything he did.”

Owens’ songs often reflect her world, where men couldn’t always be counted on to stay.

“I just think that women and men can be equal, as far as the working part goes,” she says. “I guess I’m for women’s lib and I don’t know it. I just want to tell people that it’s not the end of the world when someone falls out of love with you. That you can go on and find another one – maybe even a better one.”

Neither Buck Owens nor Merle Haggard have been known to utter a harsh word about Bonnie Owens, and she, in turn, says only good things about them. She talks glowingly about her two grown sons (Buddy, who once performed with his father on the beloved TV show “Hee Haw,” and Michael are searching for radio stations to buy – perhaps one in Tucson), grandchildren and 2-year-old great-granddaughter.

Haggard’s career has received a well-deserved push from such recent recording projects as “Live at Billy Bob’s Texas” and “For the Record, 43 Legendary Hits.” On Oct. 10, Anti/Epitaph Records will release a CD of 12 new Haggard songs, “If I Could Only Fly.”

Owens also is working on a new album. Last year saw the release of “The Best of Bonnie Owens” followed by this year’s reissue, “Just Between the Two of Us,” classic duets with Owens and Haggard.

While Bonnie waits for a much-hoped-for return to traditional country music in Nashville, she finds excitement touring with Haggard and contentment in a 20-year marriage to a carpenter.

“I’m just hangin’ out here, right on the lake with our pontoon. We just fish and have a good time.”

Owens’ legacy often ignored, writer says

“Certainly, Bonnie Owens is one of the women who pioneered the inroads of American music to make the way for other women to follow,” says Southern California country music writer Jana Pendragon. “Her early association with Bakersfield legends such as Roy Nichols, Red Simpson and Buck Owens places her in a very special position in the development of that distinctive C&W musical sound.

“More, Bonnie has nurtured many artists along the way as well as continuing her work with Merle Haggard.

“Sadly, ‘the Queen of the Bakersfield Sound’ has been overlooked and not credited for the impact and contribution she has made to popular American culture. Critics, journalists and historians have missed the gun on this one.

“Bonnie Owens was a liberated woman who could think and act for herself before it was hip. She remains a heroine and an outstanding figure in C&W music and popular American culture in spite of the industry and media’s lack of attention. And, just as importantly, Bonnie is well loved.”


Haggard soars on new CD

Merle Haggard, “If I Could Only Fly” (Anti-Epitaph) You can expect that Merle Haggard would be proud of “If I Could Only Fly,” his first country studio album in what seems like forever and first effort for the Anti/Epitaph label, due out Oct. 10. “I’m giving it a higher score than any album I’ve made to date,” the Hall of Famer has said, “but then, what the hell do I know?”

Haggard, of course, knows what real country music is. And this album IS the real deal. The remarkable 12-track album was recorded earlier this year in his own Tally Studio with his longtime sidekicks, The Strangers, including crack guitarist Red Volkaert and dobro meister Norm Hamlet.

Haggard says the album, which he produced, “is a continuation of my life story in music. Its songs are about real events, with real people playing the music. I’ve made an effort on this album not to over-refine, but to give it to you as raw as possible, because that’s the way I like it.”

Haggard wrote or co-wrote every song but the title track. Each song is a treasure, impossible to single out as better than any other. The title track, written by Blaze Foley, is one of the best country songs ever written, performed as no one else can, with absolute perfection. Haggard sings with such honesty and such depth that every listening brings something new.

“You know sometimes I write happy songs,” he sings, “and then some little thing goes wrong/And I wish they all could make you smile./Comin’ home soon and I want to stay/Maybe we can somehow get away/And I wish you could come with me when I go again.”

He pays tribute to his early days in “Uncle John” – “Many years ago when my daddy died/I caught myself a freight train/And my mama cried/Looking back it all looks like a marathon/And it started all with an E chord/I learned from Uncle John.”

Haggard conjures up the spirit of Bob Wills on the snappy “Bareback” and shows his playfulness on “Lullaby,” which he wrote with his wife, Theresa. He confronts his past on “I’m Still Your Daddy,” mentioning his now-famous stint in San Quentin in a delightful song to his children, Ben and Jenessa, who sing backing vocals with their mother.

After years of rancor dealing with record companies and bankruptcy court, Haggard’s confidence and creativity are at an all-time high, which shows clearly on “If I Could Fly.” It’s his best work in years, perhaps in his career. Maybe he’ll show some of those Nashville whippersnappers what country music is all about. Here’s hoping Haggard never shrugs off those workin’ man blues.

If you go

- What: Merle Haggard in concert with Bonnie Owens and The Strangers.

- When: Sept. 16 at 8 p.m.

- Where: Tucson Convention Center Music Hall, 260 S. Church Ave.

- How much: $22.50-$32.50 at Ticketmaster (321-1000) or the TCC box office (791-4266).

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