For music enthusiasts, Bakersfield is much more than an agricultural hub. The Central Valley city—and in particular, Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace—is the mothership for a whole music genre.
History of “The Bakersfield Sound” and Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace
It began in the 1930s, when the Dust Bowl drove farmers from Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, and other states to California, and they brought with them their own country-based music aesthetic. Honky-tonk bars started springing up around Bakersfield, and in the late 1950s and ’60s a few local musicians—namely Texas-born Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, whose parents had come from Oklahoma—popularized a more rocking, less-produced style of country music that became widely known as The Bakersfield Sound.
Buck Owens didn’t just shape the sound that has influenced generations of country and rock musicians, from Creedence Clearwater Revival to Dwight Yoakam—he also created a vibrant musical monument to preserve it. In 1996, Owens opened Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace, a 550-seat music hall, bar, restaurant, and museum. Located just off U.S. Highway 99 in the heart of Bakersfield, the Palace transports visitors to a movie-set version of the Old West (think archetypal Western storefronts with swinging saloon doors, a sheriff’s office, and even a jailhouse) but offers a full schedule of raw-country musical acts. (To go on a two-day traveling adventure through the region that includes the Crystal Palace on its itinerary, check out this Highway 99 Road Trip.)
What to See and Do at Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace
Some of the biggest names in country, from Willie Nelson to Brad Paisley, have given impromptu performances at the Palace, and any night of the week you’ll find patrons posted up at the bar or two-stepping or line-dancing the night away, dining on a menu of down-home cuisine like chicken-fried steak (Buck’s preferred meal) and mesquite-smoked rib eye. In addition, the place is really like a museum—visitors can peruse the venue’s immense collection of music memorabilia, from glitzy, historic stage outfits to vintage instruments to countless photographs. (The real showpiece hangs above the bar: Owens’ 1972 Pontiac convertible, with revolvers and steer horns mounted on the hood.) You can also rub elbows with Owens’ greatest musical influences—including Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Hank Williams—who are immortalized as life-size bronze statues.
More Things to Do While in Bakersfield
While you’re in the area, why not stick around for a few more days to get the full Bakersfield experience? The Padre Hotel’s cowboy-chic decor makes for a memorable place to stay while making the most of your visit. The city offers some exceptional regionally oriented shopping thanks to such institutions as cowboy-boot specialists Emporium Western Store, just to name one, and when it’s time to have a meal, the city’s Basque heritage pays off handsomely in the form of several standout restaurants that serve that Spanish region’s specialties. Bakersfield museums showcasing the area’s history, musical legacies (including Merle Haggard’s boxcar childhood home), and natural history are all well worth a visit. For those looking to check out the city’s art, music, and theater goings-on, explore the Bakersfield Arts District.