BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Charles Lee Owen — Fuzzy Owen to all who knew him — helped create the Bakersfield Sound and in the process helped make Merle Haggard a star. He worked behind the scenes, at center stage, held his own as a star, but worked mainly in support of others.

He died Monday evening at the age of 91.

Local residents of a certain age may remember Owen from the late 1950s, when he and his girlfriend, Bonnie Owens —  she was in between marriages to Buck Owens and Merle Haggard — were local celebrities. Haggard, that great American songwriter, was still in prison, undiscovered

In those days  Fuzzy played the honky tonks, usually with his cousin Lewis Talley  — the Clover Club,  the Lucky Spot and the most infamous of all, the Blackboard.  When Haggard was released from San Quentin in 1961,  after a stay of nearly three years for burglary and  general  incorrigibility, he started singing in the honky tonks as well. 

Fuzzy recognized his talent — even his mistakes sounded good, Fuzzy once said — and signed  him to the microscopic record label he and his cousin had started — Tally Records. Thus began a close friendship that endured for nearly 60 years, through poverty, fame and heartbreak.

Haggard died in 2016 and Owen at his home early monday evening, just a few months after the publication of his memoir — written with his minister at Valley Baptist Church, Phil Neighbors: “Merle Haggard, Bonnie Owens and me.” 

“He always wanted to write the story with Bonnie,  but Bonnie passed

Away,” Neighbors said. “So he’s had this desire to write the book and tell the story. Fuzzy is one of the pioneers. I like to think, because he was there from the very beginning  … “A Dear John Letter” really is kind of the beginning point. Well, that was the song he and a couple of other guys, Lewis Talley and  Hillbilly Barton, put that together. And if that is the beginning, Fuzzy was there at the Big Bang.”

Many of  Owen’s fans knew him from his connection to Cousin Herb Henson, whose 45 minute television program, “Cousin Herb’s Trading Post Gang,” broadcast weekdays right before the news, brought laughter and twang into living rooms across the Southern Valley for a decade.

Not long after Henson’s show ended, Haggard formed his group, the Strangers, with Owen (no “s” at the end of his name, unlike two other prominent, similarly named musicians of the era) on steel guitar. But Owen also took on a much more important role, one that would last a lifetime — that of Merle’s manager.

The band was a hit almost immediately. By 1965 they had joined that other Bakersfield mega-star, Buck Owens, at the top of the country charts, where they stayed for years. 

Owen left the band  as an active member in the early 1970s but remained Haggard’s closest friend and most trusted advisor from that time forward. 

Now, with  his passing,  Bakersfield loses one of the last links to  its glorious past as a Mecca of West Coast country.

“Fuzzy’s greatest contribution to the Bakersfield Sound was as a businessman,” said Bakersfield Sound scholar Scott  B. Bomar. “You know, Buck Owens was obviously a great businessman as well, but even before Buck was building his empire, Fuzzy was on the scene. He was a songwriter, he was a bandleader, he  was a performer, he was a musician, he was a music publisher, he had a recording studio, he was producing records. 

“I mean, he had his hands in every aspect of music that one could have their hands in,” Bomar said. “And I think he’s a really important figure in Bakersfield  in terms of the beginnings of a professionalized scene that stretched beyond just having live music in clubs, but having music that was intended for consumption beyond the city limits.”

When he came to Bakersfield in 1949, Owen couldn’t have known he would become the quiet standard bearer for a unique genre of music that gave his adopted city an enduring identity. That’s exactly what he did.

It started in 1949 with a gig at the then-unknown Blackboard Cafe with Cousin Lewis; graduated in 1956 to a tiny building on East 18th Street, not much bigger than a typical suburban garage, where Tally Records (no “e” in Tally) established its first, low-, low-tech recording studio; and ascended in 1965 with Haggard’s commercial breakthrough.

Small buildings, big dreams: That’s the way it was in Bakersfield in those days for so many musicians, none more so than Fuzzy Owen.

Owen leaves three adult daughters, six grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren, with a fifth on the way. The family is still working on funeral arrangements.