Cambrian: Slice of Life

Giggling with Bonnie Owens, wagging my finger at Merle Haggard. ‘Country Music’ took me back

“Country Music” — the recent Ken Burns series that’s billed as “a story of America, told one song at a time” — may seem a strange topic for a rave review from the daughter of a jazz musician dad and a jazz critic mom. But still.

Yes, the eight segments were informative, haunting and ultimately uplifting, of course, as were Burns’ previous documentaries about “Jazz” in 2001, “National Parks” in 2009 and other topics.

But my enthusiastic reaction to the variegated tapestry of “Country Music” also is personal, because that series reflects the rise of an industry in which I worked for about a decade.

I was seeing again people I knew, people I worked with, people who were friends. Learning things about them I’d never known and being reminded of things I’d forgotten long ago.

The shows made me smile, made me cry, and most of all made me a lot nostalgic about who we were then.

Despite my jazz upbringing, being immersed in the country-music industry at 18 was heady stuff. Especially for an unsure gal on her own for the first time, who had a show on a country music radio station when there weren’t yet very many of those.

Part of my job was courting the entertainers and mingling with fans.

So, I knew superstars, up-and-comers and hopefuls.

kathe as high school junior c.jpg
Cambrian columnist Kathe Tanner as a high school junior. She doesn’t have any photos of herself in country-music radio; any she had were destroyed in their house fire. However, she spent most of her high school years in Western mountain states where country music and rodeos reigned supreme. Courtesy photo

Oh, if only I’d kept in better touch with them! Of course, all this was before faxes and cellphones, let alone email, Facebook and whatsapp. But if I’d maintained the connections with Wynn, Minnie, Moonie, Bonnie and Peaches, for instance ... if I had, well, who knows?

At least maybe I’d have heard sooner that my friend Don Rich, Buck Owens’ longtime guitarist, had been killed at the age of 32 in 1974 ... in a motorcycle crash in San Luis Obispo.

But time and life march on and morph, and many young people believe personal bonds will last forever without ever having to put any effort toward making that happen.

It doesn’t work that way.

Sometimes, though, we do get a chance to reconnect.

About a decade after I left country music, my new Husband Richard and I went to a performance by songstress and former Miss America contestant Judy Lynn.

We went backstage to see her — me as a friend and prior employee in the talent-booking agency she and husband John Kelly owned, and Richard as a photographer who’d recently done a shoot with her.

When a shimmering Judy walked up to us — blond hair shining and bedazzled outfit-by-Nudie glittering — her eyes opened wide as she pointed to us, one at a time.

“I know you ... and I know him,” she said to me, “but not together!”

As she engulfed us in a shared bear hug, we all dissolved in gales of laughter. Lovely!

And then there were Buck, Bonnie and Merle, a complex and unusual trio if there ever was one.

I met Merle Haggard way back when he was playing bass in Wynn Stewart’s band — Wynn was a nightclub owner, talented singer, musician and songwriter (including “It’s Such a Pretty World Today”), DJ at the radio station where I worked, inspiration to many musicians (including Merle), and my volunteer big brother.

People-Ken_Burns-Lecture
Ken Burns’ documentary “Country Music” premieres Sept. 15 on PBS. Richard Shotwell Invision

I met Bonnie when she was touring with her ex-husband Buck Owens. (Ultimately, she married and divorced Merle, but kept touring with him, too!)

Years later, Husband Richard and I saw a Merle-and-Bonnie show at the Mid-State Fair. It had been eons since I’d seen either of them. But on a whim, I sent her a message that we were in the audience and hoped to see them after the show.

We waited backstage, knowing they’d be swamped. They undoubtedly had other people to see and things to do, I reminded myself, not wanting to think that maybe Bonnie had forgotten the 20-year-old she’d befriended and nicknamed after my radio station’s call letters.

Then a still-familiar country voice radiated out from behind the tour bus. “Hey, you, K-TOO!” Bonnie hollered as she dashed toward me, just like she always used to do.

It was as if we’d never been apart. Sadly but predictably, we only had a few minutes to chat, giggle, hug and catch up, and I waggled my fingers at Merle as he waved while rushing to see someone else, somewhere else.

It was the last time I saw either of them. Until the “Country Music” saga.

So yes, for me, those shows were personal. Thank you, Ken Burns.

PS: And by the way, don’t anybody ever try to talk down to me about country music. I’ve known a lot of great musicians in my life, and some of the finest wore cowboy clothes and Stetsons, and played acoustic guitar, fiddle or steel guitar. I remember making “a quick stop” at an after-hours jam session and staying until I had to go to work at 9 a.m. because I was mesmerized by the incredible jazz being played by the musicians in the Western swing band led by guitarist/steel guitarist Leon McAuliffe.

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