Driving through California's Central Valley it's easy to speed right on by Bakersfield, the southernmost of the Valley's good-sized cities and the last one you'll pass before you head up the Grapevine toward Los Angeles. But next time, consider this: You're passing through Music History and it just might be worth your while to stop.
That's especially true if you're a country music fan. Long after the Nashville sound had taken hold and made that Tennessee city the capital of what was then called "country-western" music, some brave musicians in the city of Bakersfield challenged the status quo. Coming out of the honky-tonk bars in Bakersfield was a sound that was a little rough around the edges and not as slickly produced as the music produced in Nashville in the late 1950's. Bakersfield groups started including some elements of rock and roll and, by the early 60's, such artists as Merle Haggard and Buck Owens were taking the Bakersfield Sound national.
And so it's no surprise that Bakersfield today still has an active country music scene – Buck Owens made sure of that. Although Owens died a few years ago, Buck Owens' Crystal Palace remains a testament to the musician's influence on country music and especially on Bakersfield. The Crystal Palace is a modern entertainment complex too elaborate to dub a simple dance hall – it's a place where the locals go to dine on hearty food while enjoying a show put on by Buck's group, the Buckeroos, or other visiting musicians, some of them famous.
On a recent trip south from Northern California, we stopped in at the Crystal Palace for one of their early evening shows and were glad we did. Bakersfield is a convenient place to break up that long drive through the Central Valley and the entertainment made this stop-over more than worth the time.
Buck Owens' Crystal Palace is an all-ages kind of place, perfectly designed to accommodate music-lovers, diners and dancers. The main room is set up so that everyone can get a good look at the entertainment playing on the gigantic stage. Immediately next to the stage is a dance floor big enough to accommodate any combination of line or couples dances. Wrapped around the stage and dance floor on three sides are two levels of restaurant-style seating. With the main shows beginning at 7:30 p.m., it's the perfect place to combine dinner with a show.
The headliner during our visit was Monty Byrom, former lead singer of Big House, a "soul country" band that was a big part of the Bakersfield Sound. The Crystal Palace now has Byrom coming in once a month to front the Buckeroos, Buck's old band, and the combination is entertaining indeed. Slinging his own guitar and belting out song after song, Byrom's performance was far from just a requiem for the past – the set list is filled with contemporary country and appealed to all ages in the audience. A friend of ours with rock tastes came along just out of curiosity and was quite impressed with both Byrom and the musicianship of the Buckeroos (who, by the way, seem to bear no resemblance musically to the group that once was on the late 60's television show Hee Haw).
The Bakersfield Sound really grew out of the music created and loved by the Dust Bowl migrants who moved from Oklahoma and Texas to the Bakersfield area. Today it's still possible to hear some of that original music in a setting probably not unlike the bars of the 50's and 60's, when you go to Trout's, another stop on our musical tour of Bakersfield. This place features a big stage, but is a grittier look at the Bakersfield music scene with absolutely no pretense. Unlike the Palace, this is adults-only and it's here that average every-day working stiffs come in to swig their beer while they listen and dance to the most basic of country music.
The stage and dance floor are big enough to accommodate a crowd – which, incidentally, had not quite arrived by 10 p.m. on a Saturday night when we were there. With tables about half full and two couples on the dance floor, we're guessing this was just a slow night. On this night the featured band was not on a par with the Buckeroos – or even close – but we're told that Trout's does get some good bands.
Another stop on the Bakersfield Music Tour was the one-room "Bakersfield Sound" exhibit at the Kern County Museum. In several glass cases, the museum has displayed artifacts from the 50's and 60's, including clothing and other memorabilia of such local stars as Lewis Talley, Fuzzy Owen, Bonnie Owens, Merle Haggard, and Rose Maddox.
The Kern County Museum, in fact, is much more than a tribute to the Bakersfield Sound. The museum is an elaborate look at life in the Bakersfield area with its centerpiece being a 50-building Pioneer Village that, with its depictions of life in historic Bakersfield, can take an hour or more to walk through. When you go into each building there is an authentic display showing how that building might have looked many decades ago – for example the drug store has shelves filled with early 20th Century bottles and vials used to dispense drugs of that era. The buildings come from as early as the late 1800's and include more recent buildings such as the fallout shelter used during the Cold War.
Since the oil business played such an important role in Bakersfield history, the Kern County Museum has put together a $4 million science, technology and history exhibition called Black Gold: The Oil Experience. It took four years to create and is presented in a 9,640-square-foot exhibition offering a complete overview of the oil industry – how oil is created, how it's discovered and how it's extracted. Visitors experience simulated travel under the sea in a diving bell to learn how oil is formed and other interesting aspects of the oil business.
If you're considering a stop in Bakersfield, you'll be glad to know there are some excellent visitor accommodations in the city. We stayed at the Holiday Inn and Suites Bakersfield North, a short distance from the Crystal Palace. The Holiday Inn brand has made great strides in the past few years with its efforts to update hotels and bring an older brand into 21st century. This hotel, which was built in 2008, is no exception.
With newer hotels like this one, there is great emphasis on designing rooms that have an upscale feel yet don't break the bank for guests. The Holiday Inn and Suites Bakersfield North accomplishes this by creating an efficient suite arrangement with the room seemingly a little longer. It includes a sitting area with a couch, easy chair, coffee table and LCD television. There is also a work desk and a small kitchen counter and cabinets where you can prepare your morning coffee. In the main sleeping area, our unit had two queen-sized beds.
The hotel includes an indoor pool and fitness center. We especially liked the way the Holiday Inn and Suites Bakersfield North handled the breakfast – offering a $10 credit toward anything we wanted off the breakfast menu of the downstairs cafe. This hotel really is a comfortable place to stay, with a good location and we think it's another reason to consider a stop-over in Bakersfield on your next trip through the Central Valley.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Bakersfield is about 100 miles north of Los Angeles in the Central Valley and is located on the main Highway 99 freeway. If you're traveling on the parallel Interstate 5, Bakersfield is just a few miles east of the freeway.
WHAT: Bakersfield is a surprisingly interesting place to visit. It's a must-see for country music lovers, but other visitors will find the downtown to be modern and comfortable and the Kern County Museum well worth exploring. There also are several Basque restaurants in town that are worth visiting.
WHEN: Any time of year.
WHY: Bakersfield may not be a place you think of as a destination, but its location makes it the perfect stop-off for a trip up or down the Central Valley. Not only do you get to rest up during the long drive, but you will find interesting attractions and learn things about California you never knew.
HOW: For more information on Bakersfield, please phone the Bakersfield Convention and Visitors Bureau at 866-425-7353 or visit www.visitbakersfield.com. For more information on the Holiday Inn and Suites Bakersfield North, please phone 800-315-2621.
Photos, from top, Buck Owens' Crystal Palace; Bakersfield Sound exhibit at Kern County Museum; Pioneer Village has 50-plus historic buildings; Holiday Inn and Suites Bakersfield North
Photos by CARY ORDWAY