In 1986, Dwight Yoakam delivered a rhinestone-studded debut LP, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. To anyone with a sense of country-music history, it was obvious Yoakam, a Kentucky native who broke into the genre on the West Coast, owed a huge debt to another sparkling entertainer: Buck Owens. He even dedicated that debut album to the legendary performer. Two albums later, Yoakam upped the ante on classic country with the magical Buenas Noches From a Lonely Room, and in the process he paid homage to one of his biggest inspirations by returning him to the spot he had been 20 times before.
Retired from the concert stage since 1980, Owens had recently given up his co-hosting gig on the syndicated Hee Haw and had been foundering as a Warner Bros. artist after leaving his longtime label, Capitol, where his most recent Number One single was 1972’s “Made in Japan.” For the top-selling country act of the 1960s, it would take some convincing to persuade Owens to return to the spotlight. Yoakam, as anyone who has seen the long-legged musician pivot and swirl can attest, has some mighty moves onstage but, thankfully, can be just as compelling offstage.
In September 1987, Yoakam walked, unannounced, into Owens’ Bakersfield office with an offer to join the young artist onstage that night at a local fair. In January 1988, when Merle Haggard bowed out of a salute to Bakersfield as part of the CMA’s 30th anniversary TV special, Owens picked Yoakam as a replacement and chose for them a song he had first recorded in 1972, “Streets of Bakersfield.” Initially released on Owens’ 1973 LP Ain’t It Amazing, Gracie (as a solo effort), that cut of the song, penned by Arkansas writer Homer Joy, was the result of Joy’s own perseverance in getting Owens to listen to his material. After more than a week of trying to get past Owens’ secretary with his songs, he composed the tune while, as the lyrics go, walking holes in his shoes as he ambled down the concrete sidewalks of the California city.
From their appearance on the CMA show, Yoakam and Owen took the song to the ACM Awards that spring, after which, according to author Tom Roland, a pair of disc jockeys began programming that taped performance on their radio show. It wasn’t long before Yoakam invited Owens to join him for the duet version that would be issued as the first single from Buenas Noches From a Lonely Room. It became Yoakam’s first Number One hit and Owens’ first chart-topping single in 16 years. Just months later, Owens would record again for Capitol, and would also record another high-profile duet, this one with fellow longtime Capitol Records artist Ringo Starr, on Owens’ (and the Beatles’) classic, “Act Naturally.”
Buck Owens died in 2006, but Yoakam has never stopped paying tribute to the Country Music Hall of Fame icon in his recorded music and live performances. “Streets of Bakersfield” topped the country chart 30 years ago today on October 15th, 1988, and just eight days later the two appeared together to perform the tune on an episode of Austin City Limits featuring Yoakam. Joined by acclaimed Mexican accordionist Flaco Jiménez, who also played on the duo’s recording of the tune, Yoakam refers to the song as a “little norteño polka.” He closes the lively performance of the Grammy-nominated duet with a brief spoken tribute to Owens’ lifelong inspiration and fast friendship.