Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace in Bakersfield
Sep 25, 2017 11:00AM
By Melissa Mendonca
Cowboys & Crystal
Story by Melissa Mendonca
Photo courtesy of Crystal Palace
The iconic street sign welcoming travelers to Bakersfield in bold blue letters on a cheery yellow background just off Highway 99 is one of many legacies left behind by country-western musician Buck Owens. Scheduled for demolition after years of neglect across the town’s Main Street, Owens saved the sign and moved it to its current location after extensive renovation.
Today, it serves as a grand entrance to the Crystal Palace, a passion project of Owens’ that has gifted the Bakersfield community with a dance hall, restaurant, theater venue and museum chronicling not only the Bakersfield Sound and Owens’ influence on it, but many legends of country music who served as friends and colleagues of the lauded musician.
“He spent way too much money and way too much time getting it just the way he wanted,” says Jim Shaw, technical manager of the Crystal Palace and leader of the Buckaroos, the backup band that played with Owens for decades. “The restaurant was important because he didn’t want it to be just a bar. He wanted it to be a place where families could come out and kids could experience live music and dancing.”
The menu includes such items as Cryin’ Time Jumbo Onion Rings, Buck’s Favorite Chicken Fried Steak and Dwight Yoakam’s Baby Back Ribs.
Construction started in 1994 and the Crystal Palace opened in 1996. “Because it was Buck’s place, many musicians have wanted to play the place who wouldn’t normally play a place so small,” says Shaw, who still leads the Buckaroos on Friday and Saturday nights. Yoakam, who famously joined Owens on the popular “Streets of Bakersfield” hit, is a crowd favorite.
“We announce the shows and they sell out in hours, if not minutes,” Shaw says.
Some of the most famous who have graced the stage did so in 2002 when the Legends in Bronze project was unveiled. Ten larger-than-life-sized statues of such musical icons as Elvis, Bob Wills, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams Sr. reside at the museum. The unveiling occurred May 25, with Garth Brooks, George Jones, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Owens himself there to see their likenesses.
“Garth Brooks dropped to his knees and proposed to Trisha Yearwood that night,” recalls Shaw. Brooks worked with the sculptor ahead of time to make sure his statue had a wedding band on it. Yearwood said yes, adding another bit of country music history to the location.
Amongst the other museum pieces are several prototypes of the red, white and blue guitars Owens was famous for playing, sparkly silver and gold Telecasters, outfits Owens wore on album covers, and memorabilia given to Owens by his famous friends, including Mickey Mouse ears worn by Annette Funicello. “It’s kind of all over the place in that respect,” says Shaw, “but its focus is on western country music.”
The Crystal Palace Museum has sent Owens’ memorabilia to such places as the Ryman Auditorium and Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville and Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. Particular favorites are the numerous glitzy showman outfits Owens wore, designed by Nathan Turk and Nudie Cohn.
With so many of his favorite things and people at the Crystal Palace, it’s only fitting that it was the site of Owens’ last meal: chicken fried steak. It was a weekend evening in 2006 like many others, but this time Owens’ wasn’t feeling well. He was preparing to cancel his show and leave the premises when he came across a couple from Oregon who were thrilled to see him as they were walking into the building. They excitedly told him how they had been to the Crystal Palace before to see Owens, but that he’d had to cancel the show on their previous visit. Their enthusiasm to see Owens in person was palpable and so he turned himself around and played the show.
“He had his favorite meal and played his music and was who he was and went home and died in his sleep,” recalls Shaw, who relishes the opportunity to keep the memory and music of his dear friend alive.
Shaw met Owens in 1969 when he stopped by Owens’ recording studio to hear him play. As it turned out, Owens needed a keyboard player that day so Shaw stepped in for the recording. “Then he offered me a chance to be in the Buckaroos,” he says. “We were on ‘Hee Haw’ for 17 years and had a lot of fun in those old days.”
While keeping the legacy of a dear friend and musical icon alive is a tall order, it’s one that suits Shaw well. “It’s ideal, as far as I’m concerned,” he says. “It feels like family.”
Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace
2800 Buck Owens Blvd., Bakersfield
(661) 328-7560 • www.buckowens.com