There’s a new compact disc out from Vince Gill and steel guitaristPaul Franklin called Bakersfield. The CD is a tribute to the country music known as the Bakersfield Soundmade popular by Merle Haggard and the late Buck Owens among others.
The music on the CD is true to the roots of the Bakersfield Sound which is characterized by steel and electric guitars, some piano, maybe a trifle bit more treble turned up on the amplifiers, and a backbeat. The music has its roots in the 1950s and was founded in part as a reaction to a growing trend in Nashville-based country music toward slick orchestrations. There’s more to the definition and the comparisons than that, but as with any art form, you know it when you hear it.
The CD takes me back to the four occasions I have visited the Crystal Palace in Bakersfield. The Palace was built by Buck as a means to bring the special brand of country music to a broader audience. Many credit Buck with taking the Bakersfield Sound from the honky tonks to the mainstream night clubs. The Palace has become a popular motor coach stop for group tours and other visitors in southern California.
The first time I saw the Crystal Palace was a pass through on my way to Los Angeles. I noted at the time that Buck would be playing every Friday night and promised myself I’d return to see his show. Six months later, Buck Owens died from a heart attack shortly after performing at his night club. My second visit was another pass through in my way to L.A.; only this time, the front lawn of the building was covered with flowers and signs from fans mourning their loss.
About a year after that, my wife and I went to the Palace for dinner and a show. Buck’s son Buddy Alan Owens was the headliner that night. Buddy did several of his dad’s hits, plus several songs made popular by other artists. After the show, he greeted every person who walked over to him in the lobby of the club. Knowing I was writing a book about California that would include a chapter on Bakersfield, he spent several minutes with us to talk about his dad and the music that put the city on the country music map. We saw Buddy Alan Owens perform again a couple of years later.
The Crystal Palace is more than a night club for country music. It is a museum celebrating the career of Buck Owens.
As I wrote about it in my 2010 book Nine From Ninety-Nine, Experiences in California’s Central Valley, cases upon cases of memorabilia from Buck’s television and music careers are on display. The most fascinating thing I saw on display was an autographed picture of Buck and Dean Martin, signed by Dean with the inscription “Thanks for doing our show… and I mean it.”
Dean Martin had a popular variety show in the 1960s and early seventies. He recorded some of Buck’s songs during those years.
Also inside the night club is the Cadillac convertible positioned over the bar. Visitors will scratch their heads wondering how the builder got it in there.
A visitor can’t miss the Crystal Palace. It’s visible off highway 99 just south of the famous Bakersfield sign that crosses Buck Owens Boulevard. The sign owes its reprieve from the junk yard to Buck who donated and raised the funds to restore and move the sign to its current location.
Both the larger than life sign and the Cadillac are included in the artwork that accompanies the Bakersfield CD. The artwork is very good. The music does not disappoint. The only thing that could have made it better would have been for the pair to have recorded the album in Bakersfield instead of Nashville.
The Bakersfield Sound is alive in California at the Crystal Palace. And thanks to Vince Gill and Paul Franklin , it’s alive on CD as well.
Steve Newvine lives in Merced.