Owens’ own home: The Crystal Palace has put the Buck back in Buckersfield
A fog machine cranks out billowy clouds, the image of lightning slices across three huge video screens and the sound of thunder rocks the PA system. Then a big, throaty voice bursts in: “And now…the Crystal Palace presents…”
A World Wrestling Federation main event? A monster truck rally? Try a Buck Owens concert. It’s 7 p.m. on a Saturday night in March at Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace in Bakersfield, California, and just like nearly every other weekend night since the place opened in October 1996, the Palace’s proprietor slips into a sparkled silver Telecaster, positions himself center stage, and directs the Buckaroos through a 75-minute performance.
The set is equal parts classic Owens (which on this night includes “Together Again”, “Made In Japan” and “Love’s Gonna Live Here”), oddball covers (“Strawberry Wine”, “Gimme Some Lovin'”, “Dueling Banjos”), a steady flow of yucks and an onslaught of greetings to those who have delivered notes to the stage announcing birthday celebrations, anniversaries, company parties, what have you.
Meanwhile, about 500 folks are gnawing on heaping mounds of chicken fried steak (“If this ain’t the best one you ever ate, and probably the biggest one too,” says Owens) and sipping microbrews in a 25,000-square-foot room that feels more like a Hollywood soundstage dolled up for a production of Annie Get Your Gun than any place to witness the sounds of a hardcore country legend.
Scary? Well, kinda, especially if you’re the type of country fan who romanticizes about country music — real country music — being played in a roadhouse with a gravel parking lot, cigarette smoke swaying in the rafters, hands wrapped around longneck 12-ouncers, the sound of empty bottles crashing into bins behind the bar, and the perpetual threat of a knock-down, drag-out brawl. No, the Crystal Palace definitely ain’t such a place. It’s high-tech, clean and shiny, brimming with colorful trim, and frequented by nuclear families and well-scrubbed two-steppers. More like a Hard Rock Cafe, maybe.
As you approach from Highway 99, the Crystal Palace is initially indistinguishable from the surrounding fast-food stops and gas stations with signage reaching to the sky. Closer inspection reveals a building inspired by a mix of Disneyland’s Main Street USA architecture and the suburban housing developments that sprawl across the Southwestern United States. Inside is a country store with products ranging from refrigerator magnets and CDs to T-shirts (including one that hocks “Dwight Yoakam’s Bakersfield Biscuits”) and an authentic 1960s red, white & blue Buck-special Gibson acoustic guitar ($1,000).
A larger-than-life bronze statue of Owens (looking strangely similar to the statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan that overlooks Town Lake in Austin) occupies the center of the foyer, while a 35-foot mural documenting his rise from po’ white kid in the cotton fields to Carnegie Hall looms above. Pay your $5 cover charge (soon to be marked up; “inflation,” says Owens) and a hostess, jacked in with a Garth-like headset, escorts you to your table, past the Nudie-designed convertible anchored sideways against the wall behind the bar, and past the several glass-encased display cases full of artifacts from Hee Haw, gold records, autographed baseballs, photos of Owens and renowned sideman Don Rich and the rest of the Buckaroos, and so many gorgeous Fender Telecasters that you’ll be left gasping for air.
It’s Buck’s world. We just eat chicken fried steak in it.
“I’m really having a good time. It’s the most fun I’ve had probably since Don Rich’s death [in 1974],” Owens says, his voice slightly slurred, the result of having a cancer removed from his tongue in 1993. We’re sitting in his suite upstairs. Owens wears black slacks and a black turtleneck, his hair a slightly unnatural blond. (“How do you like my hair?” he blurts at one point, a grin across his face, explaining that he had his hair dyed to resemble the sun-streaked tones his golf game once yielded before a knee injury curtailed such outdoor activities.)
Jackets and cowboy hats hang over chairs throughout the wide room, medications clutter the coffee table, several Telecasters lean against the arm of the couch. “I really think it’s more fun today for me than in the ’60s and the ’70s when all the #1s were coming. Because there’s no travel — you don’t have to get on no airplane or you don’t have to get in no old Ford that I had when we first started out.”
Owens first pondered the Crystal Palace back in the days of the old Ford. “About 35 years ago, that’s how long I’ve had the dream,” he says. “Every place in those days we’d go, it was just some little old rectangular-size building, at that end you’d put the bandstand and this end you put the bar and say, ‘Okay boys, open ‘er up, let her go.’ There never seemed to be very many nice places to play. So I always dreamed about having a place that was built just for music. A place that you could take anybody to, you’d be proud of.”
The cancer operation finally forced the issue. “I thought, well, if you’re gonna do it, do it, or it’s gonna be too late,” Owens said. “So I went and looked at my bank account and I said, well I’ll just spend that, and that wouldn’t be left to fight over.” The Crystal Palace took two years and $7.5 million to build, though the original plans had called for construction to take twice as long and cost twice as much.
There was a time when folks called Bakersfield “Buckersfield.” Back in the ’60s, that dusty market town in California’s massive, farm-fresh San Joaquin Valley challenged Los Angeles, the showbiz capital a hundred miles to the south, as the state’s most fertile country music soil. Owens and Merle Haggard were the big guns, and if Merle was (and is) the perpetual outlaw, Buck was the shrewd industrialist, parlaying his success — which included 21 consecutive #1 singles and a 17-year run as co-host on Hee Haw — into a business empire that eventually included multiple radio stations and several other properties.
Somewhere along the way, the shine tarnished. Buckersfield again became Bakersfield, a farming and oil town that seemed little more than a sweaty truck stop and the brunt of jokes for the big-city cosmopolitans. Worse, while the town had ballooned into a city of more than 200,000 residents in the ’90s, Bakersfield seemed to sweep its rich country music history under the front mat.
Fans making the pilgrimage expected to find the streets lined with pedal steel guitars, record stores packed with hard-to-find vinyl, and old honky tonks like the Blackboard and the Lucky Spot renovated into crown jewels. What they found instead were cheap guitars in pawn shops and punk rock in the record stores. And the honky tonks, well, they weren’t even on the map.
“A lot of people have been disappointed over the years,” says Jim Shaw, Buck’s ad hoc right-hand man and Buckaroo keyboardist for 27 years. (The other current Buckaroos include bassist Doyle Curtsinger [28 years on board], guitarist/steel player Terry Cristoffersen [23 years], drummer Jim McCarty [10 years] and vocalist Kim McAvee [2 years]). “People come here looking for something and Merle’s moved away and the Blackboard’s gone and they’d say, ‘Wait a minute, there’s nothing left.'”
“All the places are gone,” says Owens. “In ’51, when I came there was three clubs here that had country music six nights a week. Now [Bakersfield’s] five times as big and this is the only place in town that has entertainment. There’s no other place. I always blame that on television,” he says, pointing to the four-foot-tall TV screen that fills one wall of his suite. “It hypnotizes you, it kinda threatens you: ‘Don’t you turn me off, you sonofabitch.'”
To a degree, the Crystal Palace rights that wrong, giving the San Joaquin Valley its truest beacon for all things related to the Bakersfield sound. Sure, it’s Buck-centric (it’s Buck’s world, remember?), but it’s a fine place to start looking back. It’s not just a center of nostalgia, however. Geographically situated so that an act can get a paying gig in between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the Palace has played host to everyone from Merle to Ricky Skaggs and Bakersfield disciples such as the Mavericks and the Derailers.
“It’s like coming to Mecca,” says the Derailers’ Brian Hofeldt. “You’re kinda in there with the ghosts and memories of honky tonk past, but yet every Friday and Saturday night you get to see honky tonk present there with ol’ Buck coming up and singing with his band.”
Which is really what’s important about the Crystal Palace — knowing that Buck is there, four shows a weekend, still dazzling with guitar and voice. Sure, it would be nice to hear more of the classics, maybe some new tunes even, and less of the jam-session-quality covers and onstage antics, although one priceless moment did materialize from the wackiness when a young girl who came onstage got her hair tangled in Buck’s capo as he leaned down to shake her hand. That counts for something.
“We just start off with whatever we want and it goes downhill from there,” he says, smiling. And why not? Unconcerned with future recording projects — Owens recently tore up an offer from Capitol because they delivered a 57-page contract after he said he would only accept a one-pager — Buck is into having a good time. “The main thing for me today in my life is, is it fun?” he says. “I stopped doing things for money a long time ago.”
That’s as good an explanation as any for the existence of the Crystal Palace, here in a town you still might want to call Buckersfield.
Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace, 2800 Pierce Rd., Bakersfield, CA 93308. Phone (805) 869-2825. By car take Highway 99 to pierce Rd. Exit in Bakersfield; that’s two hours north of Los Angeles, five hours south of San Francisco, and five hours west of Las Vegas.