BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Ever since Buck Owens and Merle Haggard emerged out of Central California, music executives have tried to define the Bakersfield Sound.
It was easy to describe Wednesday night (May 25): It was the sound of Trisha Yearwood saying “yes” when Garth Brooks popped the question. The couple got engaged in front of 7,000 people on a makeshift stage on the parking lot at Owens’ Crystal Palace as 10 country music artists were commemorated with statues during an evening billed as Legends in Bronze.
Though their personal moment played out on a video screen, Brooks managed to keep the engagement somewhat private. When his statue was unveiled, he pointed out the figure’s left hand to Yearwood, apparently asking her to take a close look at the ring finger. He then got down on one knee, away from any microphones, and asked, “Will you marry me?” After she said yes, he slipped a ring on her hand, and both of them wiped away tears. Brooks then told the crowd it was “one of the greatest days of my life.”
The “greatest” was certainly a theme for the evening, as Owens paid a nod to some of the most influential musicians in country music history. Owens’ statue, which was paid for by his sons, was actually installed in his club when it opened in October 1996. Sculptor Bill Rains, who created all of the statues, completed the monument to Johnny Cash in time for the Man in Black to see his replica about a year before his 2003 death.
The rest of the figures had not been seen publicly before, as Owens highlighted Haggard, George Jones, Willie Nelson, Elvis Presley, George Strait, Hank Williams and Bob Wills.
“Every one of us has achieved a lot of awards,” Jones told the audience. “This is the best one any of us could ever want.”
The crowd received its own rewards, as all the artists on hand — except for Jones –performed at least a pair of songs, many of them paying tribute to the acts immortalized in the statues that are 15 percent larger than life-sized.
Dierks Bentley sang Williams’ classic “Hey, Good Lookin'” and Jones’ “The Race Is On” with Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson backing him on guitar. In addition, Benson gave a notable impression of Cash’s dark, trembling resonance on “Big River.” Bentley also stepped to the background while Joe Nichols joined Benson for a rendition of Nelson’s “Whiskey River.” Nichols considered a Presley tune briefly, with the Buckaroos band striking up the opening chords of “Jailhouse Rock,” but that plan was quickly abandoned.
Haggard, dressed in a pinstriped suit and sunglasses, recalled Wills’ Western swing by passing solos among his band, the Strangers — even mimicking Wills’ habit of chatting through the solos, calling out, “Swing ’em down on the farm, yeah!” during a vamp by sax player Don Markham. Haggard spent an hour onstage, applying his rich timbre and judicious guitar work to such familiar titles as “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” “Silver Wings,” “Mama Tried” and “Okie From Muskogee.” He also chimed in with Owens’ instrumental “Buckaroo,” apologized for Nelson’s absence due to film commitments and brought wife Theresa Haggard up to share a microphone on the Johnny Cash and June Carter classic, “Jackson.”
But the couple most on the minds of the fans was Brooks and Yearwood. Brooks delivered two songs that held a bit of irony, considering he’d just proposed: his own “Friends in Low Places” (in which he portrays an unwanted guest at an ex’s wedding reception) and Strait’s “Amarillo By Morning” (with its line, “Left a wife and a girlfriend somewhere along the way”).
A number of fans used camera phones to snap pictures of Brooks during his performance, a reminder of just how long he’s already been retired from the road. Such devices were not available when he last toured in 1998.
Owens hinted that more statues may be commissioned, though he laughed that he could do it only “if I get another half-a-million dollars.”
Plenty of influential performers could certainly be added, including such figures as Loretta Lynn, Kitty Wells, Tammy Wynette and Bonnie Owens — the ex-wife of both Haggard and Buck Owens.
“You gotta do the women,” Haggard insisted. “If I’ve got to come up with half the money, Buck … we’ve got to have the ladies.”