BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — After the final chord in “The Streets of Bakersfield,” Dwight Yoakam’s mouth quivered just a bit as he hugged Buddy Owens, who had just handled the lyrics in the song associated with his late father.
It was a rare moment of sorrow, likely imperceptible to much of the crowd at Bakersfield’s Crystal Palace nightclub and restaurant, during the Buck Owens Birthday Bash, the first such celebration since the Country Music Hall of Fame member’s death in March 2006.
More often, a celebratory mood held sway Tuesday (Aug. 14) as a parade of acts — including Raul Malo, Chris Hillman & Herb Pedersen, Lance Miller, ex-Big House singer Monty Byrom and the Buckaroos, among others — ran through material for more than four hours at the house that Buck built.
The focus was clearly on Owens. U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield announced plans to rename a local mail hub as the Buck Owens Post Office, and a between-act photo montage on the venue’s video screens pictured Owens with such figures as Brad Paisley, Dierks Bentley, Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Jones and Garth Brooks. And most of Owens’ classics were trotted out in one form or another during the evening. In fact, some were even performed twice.
No one spent more time on stage than Yoakam, appropriate enough, since he headlined the event and is something of a musical heir to Owens. Yoakam is preparing for the release of a tribute album, Dwight Sings Buck, on his 51st birthday (Oct. 23), and the connection became particularly apparent during Yoakam’s 29-song set.
He slid his trademark slurs and hiccups into remakes of “Under Your Spell Again,” “Act Naturally,” “Crying Time,” “Together Again” and “Close Down the Honky-Tonks,” but it was less the material selection than the sonic vibe of the performance that underscored the closeness of two musicians from different generations.
Owens ascended to country’s throne during the age of AM radio, and his producer, Ken Nelson, encouraged him to tone down the bass and turn up the treble sounds in his recordings to provide a boldness that would cut through the static on the tiny speakers that came standard with car radios in the 1950s and ’60s. Owens, whose career took off after country had experienced a dip at the onset of rock ‘n’ roll, injected much of his material with a driving energy influenced by early rock artists and by the demands of the raucous California club scene. He must have done something right, racking up nearly 50 Top 10 hits during his career.
Yoakam’s sound is clearly more modern. Where Owens remade spirited Chuck Berry records, Yoakam has covered the Clash and fit into his Crystal Palace show a version of hard-rocking Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me.” Many of his performances — particularly the chugging “Little Sister” and the high-powered “Fast As You” — employ an air of danger befitting the roots-rock club scene in Los Angeles where Yoakam found his center.
Like Owens, Yoakam also put an extreme emphasis on the sonic high end. That’s not to say that Yoakam’s sound is anachronistically unbalanced. Bass player Kevin Smith brought a distinct, muscular foundation to the instrumental stack. But Yoakam’s intense rhythm playing created a buzzing undercurrent to many of the songs, and drummer Mitch Marine’s relentless attack of the cymbals put a big, shiny sheen on the proceedings, further emphasized at times when Eddie Perez gouged the air with a brash guitar chord.
Of course, the evening’s other artists found their own ways to incorporate Owens’ influence into the birthday bash. Malo treated the Owens-penned Ray Charles hit “Crying Time” with a jazz-combo lilt. Owning the night’s purest voice, Malo also wrapped his expressive vibrato around covers of Elvis Presley and Hank Williams, two artists who so influenced Owens that bigger-than-life bronze statues in their likeness stand in the Crystal Palace entry.
Hillman and Pedersen, both former members of the California-bred Desert Rose Band, laced “Together Again” with an impressive balance of conflicting emotions. Pedersen’s soft tenor harmonies offset Hillman’s steely lead voice, while the band imbued the performance with a vaguely hesitant quality. That proved a perfect complement to the song’s inherent emotional conflicts: a joyful lyric about romantic reunion surrounded by a weeping steel guitar.
Nashville Star alum Lance Miller joined the Buckaroos for a sturdy version of “Mama Tried,” a classic by Owens’ Bakersfield peer Merle Haggard. Buddy Owens wore one of his father’s rhinestone-studded jackets while singing a medley of his hits, and Byrom added soulful vocal twists and a smoky sound to “Big In Vegas,” the last song Owens ever sang in public.
Owens would’ve been 78 on Sunday (Aug. 12), and while he’s certainly missed, the Crystal Palace held very little sadness at the bash. And that’s as it should be. Many of the employees at his company maintain they’re still working for Owens. Meanwhile, much of his music is still working for — and through — the artists who continue to bear his influence.