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  • LEZLIE STERLING / lsterling@sacbee.com

    Buddy Alan Owens plays the Crystal Palace in Bakersfield, founded by his dad, Buck. They perform together on the screen, upper right.

  • LEZLIE STERLING / lsterling@sacbee.com

    Thomas Rockwell, president and event organizer at Trout's, one of Oildale's music spots, performs in front of portraits of Buck Owens, left, and Merle Haggard.

  • LEZLIE STERLING / lsterling@sacbee.com

    Buck Owens was behind the move of this colorful arch to a spot next to his famed music mecca, the Crystal Palace.

  • LEZLIE STERLING / lsterling@sacbee.com

    A bit of Buck Owens history behind Crystal Palace's bar: his Pontiac convertible. Owens is said to have won the car from Elvis Presley in a poker game.

Behind the Bakersfield Sound: Take Buck Owens Boulevard and Merle Haggard Drive straight to the home of California country

Published: Sunday, Mar. 18, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1H
Last Modified: Saturday, Aug. 4, 2012 - 7:21 pm

BAKERSFIELD – The streets here are called Owens and Haggard, named after men with ache in their voices and enough talent to help shape a city's legacy.

Buck Owens Boulevard and Merle Haggard Drive honor Bakersfield's most famous singers and, by extension, the city's most fertile time for music: the 1950s and '60s, when musicians could find work on stages of several honky-tonks or the soundstage of a local television variety show.

Close harmonies and bright Telecaster licks cut through the noise of nightclubs populated by farm hands and oil field workers whose families had migrated from Oklahoma and Arkansas during and after the Dust Bowl. The music that emerged was dubbed the Bakersfield Sound.

"The late 1940s and '50s was about the time solid-body electric guitars and pedal steel were being invented," said Michael Gray of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tenn.

Bakersfield country music "was harder, sharper-edged, with the hard-charging rhythms, the clanging Telecaster and the crying pedal steel."

On Friday, the Hall of Fame and Museum will open "The Bakersfield Sound: Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and California Country," a major exhibit, co-curated by Gray, that will stand for nearly two years.

Country fans who want to brush up on the Bakersfield Sound before heading to Nashville – or lack the budget for Nashville – can visit the sound's hometown, a 4 1/2-hour drive or five-hour train ride from Sacramento.

Owens died at age 76 in 2006, Haggard moved to the Redding area years ago, and the most storied nightclubs, such as the Blackboard, have long since shut down.

But Bakersfield and Oildale, its rough-hewn, unincorporated neighbor across the Kern River – where Haggard was raised in a converted boxcar house – offer visitors plenty of reminders of the Bakersfield Sound.

Chief among them is the Crystal Palace, just off Highway 99 on Buck Owens Boulevard. His entrepreneurial spirit always as resonant as his twang, Owens opened the restaurant, nightclub and country music museum in 1996 and often played there on weekends.

The Crystal Palace draws 60,000 to 75,000 people per year, said Jim Shaw, Crystal Palace spokesman and longtime keyboardist for Owens' band, the Buckaroos. Shaw estimated that 25 percent of visitors are from out of town.

The Old West exterior, gleaming wood floors and walls lined and embedded with memorabilia (Buck's white Pontiac sits in the wall behind the bar) evoke Old Sacramento, the Hard Rock Cafe and Disneyland. But the mix of folksy and polished also is distinctly Bakersfield, where the "hillbilly" musicians always wore suits.

People here like to spiff up. It might spring from the churchgoing origins of Midwesterners and Southerners who came here for work, or from the work itself, which required a good scrubbing afterward.

It doesn't get spiffier than the sparkly Nudie suits worn by Owens and displayed at the Crystal Palace. Or the white 1970s Pontiac Grand Ville, also decorated by L.A. stylemaker Nudie Cohn, its interior lined with silver dollars.

The civic-minded Owens would lend the convertible out to local events. Kim McAbee met Owens when her daughter rode in it in a parade. Later, McAbee sang with him onstage at the Crystal Palace.

"Buck was so spontaneous," said McAbee, still part of the Buckaroos when they back Buck's son, Buddy Alan Owens. "We would rehearse a song earlier in the day, then he would change it that night. He would change keys in the middle of a song."

Buck's spirit lingers well

Owens' presence is felt everywhere at the Crystal Palace, especially when you meet his look-alike son Buddy, 64. Tall, youthful and exceptionally friendly, Buddy plays with the Buckaroos one or two weekends a month.

On a Friday night last month, as Buddy covered Buck's "Streets of Bakersfield" in a voice lower than his dad's, grandparents and grandkids shared birthday dinners as others left their tables to country line dance. In between songs, Owens offered birthday and anniversary wishes to patrons, greeting many of them after the show.

Buddy cut four albums of his own with Capitol Records, and with his brother, Michael, ran and eventually bought his dad's radio stations in Arizona.

Buck, originally from Texas, and Buddy's singer mother, Bonnie, an Oklahoma native, were raised in Arizona. Buddy grew up in Bakersfield but has lived for years in Phoenix.

Buck came to Bakersfield after Bonnie, from whom he was separated, moved here with their sons. He developed his sound as a studio musician and playing in Bakersfield Sound legend Bill Woods' band at the Blackboard.

"A lot of the migrant workers would come out, and they loved to dance, and it was about keeping them on the dance floor," Buddy Owens said during a pre-show interview in his dad's old office at the Crystal Palace.

Virtually unchanged since Buck occupied it, the office contains big, clubby furniture and lots of wood. The room is comfy, but Buck would leave it for his adjacent "kick-back room," a narrow space, outfitted with a couch and TV, that resembles a music club's green room.

Keep 'em up and dancin'

The crowds Buck Owens wanted to keep on their feet "liked the loud, quick beat with the high, tinny guitars," Buddy Owens said.

Buck Owens also brought the drums to the fore in a way more traditional country did not, Buddy said. That was partly because he recorded with fewer instruments.

Most Nashville recordings doubled up on bass or rhythm guitar, said Shaw, who produced songs for Owens. Owens and Haggard – who often recorded in Owens' Oildale studio – used single instruments and their own bands. In Nashville, most prominent artists used the same session players to record, giving Nashville tracks a uniform quality.

"They had this beautiful, big sound," Shaw said of Nashville musicians. "We were more raw and pared down."

Buddy Owens' unique musical education came partly through his mother, one of the Bakersfield scene's most beloved figures. A singer and regular on Herb Henson's popular variety show "Cousin Herb's Trading Post," Bonnie once was the center of the Bakersfield Sound.

"Her house was always open to musicians and songwriters and singers," Owens said. "It was not uncommon for me to wake up at 2:30 a.m. and hear music playing."

The Merle factor

Divorced from Buck, Bonnie married Merle Haggard in the 1960s and sang with his band, the Strangers, long after she and Haggard divorced, until a few years before her death in 2006.

"I learned a lot from Merle," Buddy Owens said with a grin. "Like how to start a car without a key."

Haggard and Buck Owens never sounded much alike, but Haggard songs such as "The Fightin' Side of Me" clearly reflect the Bakersfield Sound.

Haggard, Buddy Owens pointed out, also named the Buckaroos, when Buck was stumped for a band name.

Haggard "exposed me to what I would call better country music," Buddy said. "My dad was a little twangy but it was my dad, that was OK. But when Merle and my Mom got married, different kinds of music came into our house: Roger Miller, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash."

In the 1970s, Buck Owens became better known for the variety show "Hee Haw" than his records. Owner of several media stations, Owens was semi-retired from performing when Dwight Yoakam helped revive his career in 1988. The pair recorded Owens' "Streets of Bakersfield."

Yoakam, narrator of the Nashville exhibit, always has emphasized Owens' musical ingenuity.

The sound lives on

Owens was rediscovered by the alt-country crowd, playing clubs such as Bimbo's in San Francisco. Appreciation for Owens and especially Haggard, considered one of America's finest songwriters, keeps growing among alternative and roots musicians.

Members of Bay Area bands the Mother Hips and ALO recently formed a country band called Brokedown in Bakersfield. (They're scheduled to play Harlow's in Sacramento on April 12.)

His affection for Americana music brought Sacramento's Kelly Anschutz to the Crystal Palace on a Friday night, and though he liked the place, he was disappointed that the Buckaroos covered modern, mainstream country hits along with Bakersfield Sound songs.

Later, Anschutz visited Trout's, an iconic Oildale nightclub that's stood on the same spot on North Chester since 1945. It was more of what he was looking for, Anschutz said.

One of the few nightclubs remaining from the Bakersfield Sound heyday, Trout's can give off a rough-and-tumble vibe reminiscent of the stories you hear about the old honky-tonks. (Like the one about Haggard showing up at the Blackboard with two black eyes.)

In the main bar, near an unoccupied mechanical bull set atop bouncy-house padding, a woman sings karaoke. The pool players across the room pay her no mind. There aren't a lot of smiles.

Two rooms away is an airier space with a dance floor and an excellent house band that includes Brian Lonbeck, Barbara Mandrell's former guitarist and a student of Bakersfield Sound guitar wizard Joe Maphis. Thomas Rockwell, Trout's president and event organizer, contributes impressive vocals to a countrified version of "Jailhouse Rock."

If there is a prevailing design theme, it's Bakersfield Sound. The walls are papered with black-and-white images of its musicians. Behind the stage hang large paintings of Woods, Haggard and Buck Owens, among others.

On Monday nights, when truck-song singer Red Simpson performs (see story, Page H7), and most of the patrons were born before World War II, the atmosphere at Trout's turns so relaxed it's almost soothing.

"I enjoy it when somebody walks in the door, and it means something to them because it means something about the core of their life," Rockwell said. "Today's society is so stucco and drive-through and instant-gratification oriented, and this is something (rooted in) what they grew up with – themselves, their grandparents, music that people related to because it represented their day, and trying to get through it."

In Oildale, where the sun bleaches the asphalt light gray and even houses that never were boxcars are small and square, artistic impulses sprout in unlikely places. Like the old train station holding the Rustic Rail, a saloon opened in January by Millie and Jim Stead.

Photos of Haggard, Bakersfield Sound fiddle player Oscar Whittington and other musicians line the walls.

"People know I collect things, and they bring them to me," Millie, a slim, lively woman with a quick smile, said of the photos and concert fliers on the club's walls. Some of it came from Millie's previous Oildale bar, the Kern River Belle. "This is part of Oildale history."

Millie, 78, and Jim, 79, moved to Kern County 30 years ago from Wyoming. Millie now knows Oildale so well she gives directions to Haggard's childhood home by way of the railroad tracks that run behind the Rustic Rail to an oil refinery.

Though Millie wasn't born in Bakersfield, she shares its instinct to adorn. She has decorated the top of the bar with carefully spaced pennies, and the result evokes those silver dollars on Owens' Pontiac. Millie also created striking, complex art pieces, such as a carnival scene rendered from old keys and key rings.

"She's just an artist," Jim, manning the bar in coveralls, said of his wife.

The Belle held Sunday jam sessions that drew old- timers including Simpson and Whittington. The Steads cannot yet afford to hire performers at their 2-month-old club, but welcome musicians who want to use the stage.

"We're giving them a place to practice, you know?" Millie said. "Oildale needs one. I think it's an asset."

And in the spirit of the Bakersfield Sound.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Carla Meyer



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