Southern California may be stereotyped as a culture of surfers and slackers, movie stars and malls, but just two hours north of Los Angeles, Stetsons and steel guitars are the norm at Buck Owens' Crystal Palace in Bakersfield. For almost two decades, nearly every night of the week, the Palace has featured live country music and dancing, hosting local bands as well as legends like Merle Haggard, the Dixie Chicks, and Willie Nelson. The club is small enough--only 550 seats--that patrons and performers can enjoy an intimate connection during a show, which may be part of the reason the Palace has often been a beacon for spontaneous star drop-ins: after playing a concert elsewhere in town, Brad Paisley gave an impromptu after-show there, George Jones turned a friendly visit with owner Owens into a full-on show once, and power couple Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood got engaged during a duet performance.
While the Palace may best be known for its musical pedigree, the Old West style building, big and brightly colored enough to be seen from Highway 99, also houses a restaurant that serves dinner nightly (except Mondays, when the Palace is closed) and brunch on Sundays. The dinner menu is standard fare -- burgers, pizza -- with a couple picks from Owens' pals thrown in: Dwight Yoakam's Baby Back Ribs, Brad Paisley's Southern Fried Catfish. But not quite as standard is the bar, where Owens's own 1972 Pontiac convertible is embedded into the wall at a gravity-defying angle above the glasses. Patrons can check out other Buck Owens-owned items in the Crystal Palace's museum, which traces Owens's Country Music Hall of Fame career through displays of awards, guitars, and rhinestone jackets.
A Texan by birth and Arizonan by raising, Buck Owens moved with his wife to Bakersfield in his early twenties. Soon after, his music career began in earnest, and by the mid-1950s, he had become a major influence in country music, helping develop what became known as the "Bakersfield sound." Unlike most of the music coming out of Nashville at the time, the Bakersfield sound incorporated electric guitar with traditional steel guitar and integrated other rock-n-roll elements to create songs that were a little rougher around the edges than conventional country, yet still maintained the familiar swing and twang of honky tonk. Merle Haggard was also an early innovator of the Bakersfield sound, along with female country music pioneer Jean Shepard, and even the Beatles gave a nod to the evolution by recording Owens's song "Act Naturally" in 1965. Today, Grammy winners like Dwight Yoakam keep the Bakersfield sound alive--often performing it at the Crystal Palace. Watch the video to see what a trip to the Palace is like: