"The Bakersfield Sound: Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and California Country" opens Friday at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, 222 Fifth St. South, Nashville, Tenn.; (615) 416-2001, and runs through 2013. The exhibit will display Telecaster guitars once played by Buck Owens and his close collaborator Don Rich, and documents such as the piece of paper with which then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, in 1972, pardoned one-time San Quentin inmate Merle Haggard. (www.countrymusichall- offame.org).
DIRECTIONS TO BAKERSFIELD
Take Highway 99 south about 300 miles to Bakersfield. The Crystal Palace lies just off the 24th Street/Rosedale Highway exit, on Buck Owens Boulevard. Amtrak sends two trains per day directly from Sacramento to Bakersfield, at 6:40 a.m. and 4:55 p.m. One-way tickets start at $43. www.amtrak.com; (800) 872-7245.
The Crystal Palace: (2800 Buck Owens Blvd., (661) 328-7560. Buddy Alan Owens and the Buckaroos appear Fridays and Saturdays at least once a month. Monty Byrom, who's bluesier, also performs often with the Buckaroos. The Crystal Palace also draws touring country acts such as Tracy Lawrence (April 19). Country-appreciating rock bands like X and Sacramento's Cake also have performed there. Closed Sunday nights and Mondays; www.buckowens.com.
Trout's: 805 N. Chester Ave.; (661) 399-6700. This Oildale nightclub offers many musical events throughout the week. On Monday nights, when 78-year-old Red Simpson plays, there's also a workshop featuring former Barbara Mandrell guitarist Brian Lonbeck and 91-year-old guitarist Lloyd Reading, who played with one of Kern County's first country bands, the Bob Manning Trio. www.troutsblackboard.com.
The Rustic Rail: 147 E. Norris Road, (661) 393-0456. Times are fixed, but Millie and Jim Stead welcome musicians in to practice and play on the stage of their saloon, housed in a former train station in Oildale.
Eateries that offer specifically Bakersfield, if not specifically Bakersfield Sound experiences:
Noriega Hotel: 525 Sumner St., (661) 322-8419. Basque culture has a rich tradition in Bakersfield, started when shepherds came from Europe's Basque region to Kern County in the 19th century. Of the city's Basque spots, the Noriega Hotel, a restaurant, bar and boarding house, offers the most traditional experience.
Opened in 1893 and scrubbed but not renovated often since, Noriega's serves breakfast, lunch and dinner six days a week. Basque-speaking boarders gardeners and retired sheep herders still live and take their meals there.
Lunches start with beans, Basque cabbage soup, salsa, bread and bleu cheese, and include a pre-entree such as beef stew along with a main entree (lamb shanks on a Saturday last month). At dinner, french fries, pasta and pickled (beef) tongue join the array of courses.
Sunday lunches "cater to the Basque community," said co-owner Linda McCoy, whose family, the Elizaldes, has owned Noriega's since the 1930s. The special dishes become more special (rabbit, pig's feet), and diners hang out afterward in the bar, playing cards and drinking picon punch, a Basque American favorite made with Amer Picon, a French aperitif.
On Saturdays, "I try to keep (the menu) a little more normal," McCoy said. More normal, yet still extraordinary, since extra-hearty lunches, which include wine, are just $15.
There is one seating at the restaurant's communal tables for lunch, at noon sharp, and for dinner, at 7 p.m.
Last year, Noriega's won a coveted national James Beard Award as an "American classic." The Beard award drew "an influx of new faces," McCoy said, mostly curious out-of-towners.
Locals always have known Noriega's is a classic.
Closed Mondays. www.noriegahotel.com.
Crystal Palace: Along with music and memorabilia, this Buck-built place serves up down-home food. Dishes carry the names of Owens intimates such as his close collaborator, the late Don Rich (a premium top sirloin steak) and of younger musicians influenced by his sound ("Dwight Yoakam's Baby Back Ribs," "Brad Paisley's Southern Fried Catfish").
The best bet is "Buck's Favorite Chicken Fried Steak." ($19.99). Belly up to the bar near Buck's white Pontiac and order it. It's the size of a Buick. www.buckowens.com.
Dewar's: 1120 Eye St. and 2700 Calloway Drive. The business began more than a century ago, and the small, counter-style ice cream shop (à la Sacramento's Vic's) downtown has stood for more than 80 years. Known for its delicious sundaes, Dewar's (emphasis on the "war," unlike the Scotch) recently opened a sparkling ice cream and candy emporium in Bakersfield's bustling northwest section.
Come for the ice cream, but leave with a box of creamy peanut-butter or peppermint "chews." Dewar's classifies them as taffy, but that word seems too common for them. www.dewarscandy.com.
Kern County Museum: 3801 Chester Ave., (661) 868-8400.
The museum holds a collection of costumes, instruments and photographs from the Bakersfield Sound era. Some photos can be viewed online at www.kcmuseum.org, as can a 1962 musicians union directory listing the late Buck Owens and Don Rich, as well as many other musicians who still are living, such as Red Simpson and handsome Billy Mize, heartthrob of the Bakersfield Sound set. The museum, which includes outdoor exhibits and 16 acres of grounds, is not far from the site of the old Blackboard, or the bridge over the Kern River to Oildale.
Best Western Crystal Palace Inn and Suites:
2620 Buck Owens Blvd., (661) 327-9651.
Rooms start at $73.99 at this hotel next to the Crystal Palace. The hotel is in the midst of a renovation, but several rooms have been completed. All rooms come with free Wi-Fi, and the Olympic-size swimming pool is great during the hot months.
The Padre Hotel: 1702 18th St., (888) 443-3387. Built in 1928, this downtown Bakersfield hotel has a colorful past and a sleek present.
In the 1950s, the hotel's bar featured a B-girl on a swing above patrons' heads. In the '70s, a favorite Bakersfield pastime was stopping by the hotel to view whatever new protest its eccentric owner, Milton "Spartacus" Miller, had launched against the city. (Miller would castigate officials in big, block letters on the building's exterior.)
By the '90s, the bar served a mostly gay clientele. The unoccupied swing remained, as did a sense of the bar as a dark, cool hideaway where musicians, artists and characters of all sorts were welcome.
A few years ago, the Padre was transformed into a boutique hotel à la Sacramento's Citizen. The nighttime crowds now are younger, straighter and much larger, spilling from the downstairs restaurant and nightclub into the lobby.
But the nicely open restaurant/bar downstairs is mellower on weeknights, and the rooms upstairs provide a getaway feel any night of the week. The spacious rooms offer wonderfully cushy beds, flat-screen TVs and a design sense that's contemporary without being chilly. Though the hotel would fit in any big city, its Kern County roots are still visible in many places, such as the hallways lined with vibrant black-and-white wall- paper carrying an oil derrick motif.
Best of all, rooms start at just $109 on weekends. Though it's tough to see the old bar and its rich history gone, progress is nice, too. Carla Meyer