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Country-music great Buck Owens dies

Written by: Staff

SAN FRANCISCO, Mar 25 (Reuters) Country-music innovator Buck Owens, who sold more than 16 million albums and popularized country entertainment on television as host of ''Hee Haw,'' died yesterday at age 76.

Owens died of heart failure at his home near Bakersfield, a California city he helped put on the country-music map, his keyboard player Jim Shaw said. Owens performed the night before at his club, ''Buck Owens' Crystal Palace'' for about 90 minutes, Shaw said.

''He was one of the true innovators; he did it his own way, an outside gunslinger type who used his own band and made music in Hollywood rather than Nashville. That free spirit made him important to a lot of people,'' Shaw said.

Owens and his Buckaroos performed hits including ''I've Got a Tiger by the Tail'' and ''Act Naturally,'' which was covered by the Beatles.

Several generations of musicians -- from Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Grateful Dead in the 1960s to Dwight Yoakam in the 1980s -- were influenced by Owens' gritty ''Bakersfield sound,'' with prominent guitars and drums.

Owens was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1996.

Alvis Edgar Owens Jr. was born outside Sherman, Texas, the son of sharecroppers, and the family moved to Arizona when he was young. Owens moved to Bakersfield in 1951 looking for work in the oil-and-farm town's popular country-music halls. He went on to become one of country's greatest successes, with 15 consecutive No. 1 hits in the mid-1960s.

In 1969, Owens was asked to host ''Hee Haw,'' a country-themed music-and-comedy variety show that stayed on the air until 1986.

Despite his broad popularity, Owens vowed to stay true to country music. Accused once of abandoning country to record a ''rockabilly'' song, he said: ''I didn't say I wasn't gonna do rockabilly. I just said I ain't gonna sing no song that ain't a country song. I won't be known as anything but a country singer.'' REUTERS CH KP0846

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