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Sunday, July 21, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Live music back in swing at Buck’s place after long Covid closure

Country music legend Buck Owens, master of the Bakersfield Sound, would be happy to see his Crystal Palace hopping once again.

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) — After almost two years of the Covid blues, Bakersfield's most famous landmark and tourist attraction is open again for live music.

Rowdy laughter from a tipsy gaggle of friends and family celebrating a birthday party rings out through the Buck Owens Crystal Palace over the sweet, mournful glide of a steel guitar, the mellow twang of acoustic and electric guitars and smoky vocals of local country-folk duo the Appletons. Servers in black uniforms flit from table to table, arms full with plates piled high with burgers, halibut and Buck's personal favorite, slabs of chicken fried steak big enough to feed at least two.

Designed in the Western Revival style to evoke the Old west, the 550-seat, 18,000-square-foot medley of restaurant, night club, music venue, and museum of classic country music memorabilia initially tried to stay open when the Covid-19 pandemic hit in mid-March 2020, manager Andrew told me on a Saturday evening. But the outbreak proved to be more than just an overblown case of people getting the sniffles, and the venue reluctantly canceled all scheduled events and shut its doors until further notice.

"Further notice" ended roughly 620 days later in late November 2021, when the Crystal Palace celebrated its soft reopening for dinner.

Manager Andrew said it's been slow going getting things back into gear.

"It's been a challenge getting staff to come back," he said. "Once they stay at home for a while, they want to keep staying at home." Many did come back when asked to, though, because "the Palace is such a great place to work," he added.

Ever since the venue started hosting live music again this past February, they've packed the house a few times with concerts like the Guitar Masters series and the annual Cinco de Mayo party.

The Palace is only open Thursday through Saturday thanks to Covid, but Andrew said they hope to add more days as things improve.

"We hope to reopen on Wednesdays next, then Sundays," he said. "We want to bring back the Sunday brunch in time for Father's Day."

Food shortages and supply chain issues have been part of the struggle of reopening and getting their boots back on the proverbial dance floor. The menu reflects, offering only a sample of the Palace's once-generous selection.

Despite current limitations, Andrew said things are running relatively smoothly.

"We're ready to start pushing the envelope a little," he said. "Get some life flowing back into this place."

Patrons enjoy dinner while the Appletons play onstage. See that 1972 Pontiac Grand Ville convertible back there above the bar? If you squint, you can see the steer's horns on the front grill and the silver dollars in the custom upholstery job by Nudie Cohn, who also designed several of Buck Owens's rhinestone suits. (Rebekah Kearn/Courthouse News)

Life was certainly flowing when Johnny Owens visited patrons toward the end of the Appletons' opening show, to the delight of those who recognized Buck Owens' youngest son. He took the stage as the Buck Fever Band played the iconic instrumental "Buckaroo," and opened the show with "Act Naturally." Line dancers took to the dance floor in front of the mirror-lined stage, experienced veterans mingling with newbies just learning the steps.

"Thanks for coming out tonight," Owens said after the song. "You guys help keep this place open." He also jokingly encouraged diners to emulate the birthday bash crowd and have a beer or two. "The more you drink, the better I sound," he said.

My mom and I thought he sounded just right, singing songs from Bakersfield Sound pioneers like his dad and Merle Haggard, Dwight Yoakum, and other classic country hits.

Singer Johnny Owens, son of Buck Owens, and a fan. (Rebekah Kearn/Courthouse News)

A unique style of rockabilly rooted in the music of Dust Bowl refugees that flourished in the 1950s and 1960s, the Bakersfield Sound was both a rejection of and an answer to the popular style of music pushed by Nashville recording studios of the time, as Robert Price wrote in his 2015 book "The Bakersfield Sound."

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One of those Dust Bowl refugees was none other than Buck Owens himself. Born Aug. 12, 1929, as Alvis Edgar Owens Jr. to sharecroppers from Grayson County, Texas, Buck Owens claimed in his 2013 posthumous autobiography that as a toddler he one day announced he was changing his name to Buck — after the family mule. The name stuck.

The family moved to Arizona when he was a boy and spent some time in Kern County picking fruit. As much as young Buck hated the backbreaking work, he loved the music played by fellow laborers in the fruit-picking camps so much he taught himself to play the guitar and the mandolin. As a teenager he played every smoky bar and honky-tonk he could find in his quest to one day "be somebody."

He got his first chance after moving to Bakersfield in 1951, when he joined the city's thriving music scene. With his winning combination of hard work, a Fender Telecaster guitar and what Rich Kienzle described in his short biography on Buck for the Crystal Palace website as his signature “raunchy, twisted-note style” of picking, Buck soon caught the attention of Ken Nelson from Capitol Records.

Though his first few singles flopped, things started looking up after he met a young fiddle player named Don Rich, the man who would become his right-hand man and best friend, in Washington state. After moving back to Bakersfield, they started a band they named The Buckaroos (at Merle Haggard's suggestion) and in 1963 released their first number 1 hit "Act Naturally."

Buck recorded most of his 60 albums and 21 hits between 1963 and 1972. He also starred in his own TV show, "The Buck Owens Show," played Carnegie Hall in 1966, and appeared on the hit country variety-comedy show "Hee-Haw," which made him a household name.

Things took a tragic turn in 1974 when Rich died in a tragic motorcycle accident. The loss of his friend gutted Buck and he slipped into a deep depression that might have dragged down his music career had it not been for a young Dwight Yoakum.

The walls in the Crystal Palace are full of photographs. This one features a young Dwight Yoakum sitting next to Buck Owens. (Rebekah Kearn/Courthouse News)

Yoakum grew up listening to Buck's records and fashioned himself after his hero, emulating Buck's independent spirit as well as his musical style. Emboldened by his own success, Yoakum marched into the headquarters of Buck Owens Productions in 1987 and convinced the music legend to dust off his guitar and join him on stage at the Kern County Fair for a duet. It was the first time Buck had played live music in years.

In the years after Rich's death, Buck first had the idea for his own nightclub like the ones he played in when he first moved to Bakersfield, though he didn't seriously pursue the idea until the 1990s. Two years and around $7 million later, the Buck Owens Crystal Palace opened in 1996 — the same year Nashville buried the hatchet and inducted the West Coast star into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

The venue has since hosted at least 1,000 concerts by headlining country artists like Taylor Swift, Brad Paisley (another of Buck's proteges), Kenney Chesney and Eric Church, as well as non-country groups like .38 Special, the Mavericks, and Cake, whose lead singer John McCrea performed a duet with Buck when he opened for their show, as reported by the Bakersfield Californian in a 2016 article celebrating the Palace's 20th birthday.

One of the most memorable events in Palace history was at the unveiling of 10 bronze statues of Buck and other country music legends in the venue's parking lot, where Garth Brooks also famously proposed to his then-girlfriend Trisha Yearwood.

My grandparents came from the San Francisco Bay Area to go to the Crystal Palace soon after it opened. As a nine-year-old girl obsessed with shiny rocks, I was supremely disappointed there were no crystals in this palace. I now know Buck named his place after the famous structure in London's Hyde Park. It was originally meant as a placeholder name, but it stuck.

Buck and the Buckaroos played the Palace almost every weekend until his death in March 2006. His last concert almost didn't happen: He'd been feeling unwell all day and decided to go home before the show. On his way out, he met some fans in the parking lot who'd driven from Oregon just to see him play, so he turned around, got back on stage and finished the show. He died in his sleep later that night.

Buck Owens' bronze statue, unveiled during a parking lot party at the Crystal Palace in 2005. It stands in the foyer of the restaurant beside a wall devoted to his album covers and a glass case with memorabilia. (Rebekah Kearn/Courthouse News)

I was fortunate enough to see this legend in action. We visited the Palace a few times just to see Buck and the band, and I even got to meet him when I was 10. My family and I were at a restaurant for dinner when I saw a man in a distinctive cowboy hat a few booths away. I tugged on my mom's sleeve, pointed at the booth and whispered, "Mom, Mom, that's Buck Owens!" Though I was initially too shy to go say hello, my grandma walked over with me and, armed with a pen and pad of paper, I shakily asked for his autograph. He was shocked a kid like me recognized him, but he was more than happy to sign my paper and make my day.

My mom also got to meet him. One day at work, she saw the same distinctive cowboy hat and its owner wandering around the hallway of the doctor's office building. When she asked if she could help him, he nodded.

"Yeah, I can't find my car," he said.

"What kind of car is it?" she asked.

"A big yellow Hummer," he said. "I don't know how I lost something like that."

My mom had seen the Hummer earlier and let him know he'd come out the wrong door. After she pointed him in the right direction, he thanked her and headed home.

Buck also had famous fans. The Beatles loved "Act Naturally" so much they covered it themselves and had him send them his albums. Chris Shiflett, lead guitarist for the Foo Fighters, has featured Buck on his podcast "Walking the Floor." He also plays his own custom Warmoth Telecaster guitar in his Americana side band the Dead Peasants.

Though the Bakersfield Sound has started fading from the city's memory, Johnny Owens is doing what he can to keep it alive and well.

After growing up watching his dad perform on stage and on shows like "Hee-Haw," he started playing in 2013 at an event in Nashville honoring Buck Owens and Merle Haggard and formed the Buck Fever Band, a group devoted to playing classic and traditional country music, in 2016. They play the Palace a weekend a month.

"Johnny wants to honor those that have gone before him and those that have left a mark in country music, and most importantly, Johnny wants to make his father proud. Buck departed, but his legacy is very much alive," Johnny Owens' website states.

As he finished his Saturday evening show with "Streets of Bakersfield," his young grandson joined him on stage wearing a cowboy hat almost bigger than him. When his mother tried to get him off the stage, he shook his head 'no' and grabbed his grandpa's hand. Looks like they've got their own tiger by the tail.

Categories / Entertainment, Regional

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