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Basquing in Buck Country

TIMES STAFF WRITER; Lewis is Daily Calendar Editor in The Times' Orange County Edition

When I heard that country-music great Buck Owens had opened a $10-million restaurant, museum and nightclub in Bakersfield called the Crystal Palace, I wasn’t surprised. Owens isn’t just one of the most important country singers of the last 50 years, he’s also one of its savviest businessmen, worth an estimated $100 million.

But when I learned that he and his renowned Buckaroos band play two shows a night here virtually every Friday and Saturday, I knew I’d be making a visit soon.

I quickly found the club’s Web site (https://www.buckowens.com) and got pretty much all the information I’d need, except for what tickets cost for Owens’ performances. So I called and asked. Then came the jaw-dropping answer: "$5.” Quicker than you could say “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail,” my girlfriend, Cynthia, and I made a beeline up the Golden State Freeway to California 99 into the heart of Bakersfield.

It took a bit of convincing on my part. Before this trip, Cynthia had thought of Bakersfield as the punch line of an imagined Gary Larson cartoon about destinations for people who screw up in hell. A few days after we got back, I excitedly mentioned our weekend in Bakersfield to a friend, who said, “You have my condolences.”

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But I knew better.

Sure, it’s a town without one bed-and-breakfast inn, but it does have what could be the highest concentration of Basque restaurants this side of the Pyrenees. And it’s produced some of the most vibrant country music since World War II. Bakersfield’s two biggest stars are Owens and native son Merle Haggard, who was influenced early on by Buck and later married--and divorced--Owens’ ex-wife, Bonnie (who nonetheless still tours with Haggard).

I’d been told the Crystal Palace puts up musicians who play there at the Best Western hotel next-door, so I booked a room. With my AAA card, we got a weekend rate of $58 a night.

We arrived a couple of hours before show time, and after getting settled, we walked next door. I was surprised that people were sauntering in so casually, as if it were Saturday night at the Sizzler.

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Perhaps because I’ve been writing about country music for 17 years and regard Owens’ music and career with tremendous admiration, it was practically a pilgrimage to see him playing on his home turf.

Owens has said that his main model for the Crystal Palace was the Crazy Horse Steak House in Santa Ana, eight-time winner of the Academy of Country Music’s nightclub of the year award. Evidently it paid off: Last month the ACM named the Crystal Palace its top nightclub.

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The basic motif is Hollywood western saloon, and it holds about 550. We got a table maybe 20 feet from the stage, behind the railing at the perimeter of the dance floor, and a few minutes after 7 p.m., Owens and the band started working their way through his remarkable song catalog.

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He’s charted 21 No. 1 country singles since his first hit in 1959, but Owens is not above taking requests. That night he sang hits of his own, including “Above and Beyond,” “Cryin’ Time” and “Act Naturally,” as well as songs by Haggard, plus Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and others.

He makes dedications to anyone celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, new jobs, retirements--whatever. A couple of newlyweds and their wedding party got most of the attention from Owens the night we were there.

The Crystal Palace’s museum, an entertaining distraction if you have to wait for your table, is dedicated primarily to Owens memorabilia--from a dazzling lime-green suit he wore in the ‘60s to his first Fender electric guitar--but it also includes an expanding number of donated items from his peers and disciples, including Dwight Yoakam, Marty Stuart and others.

The restaurant itself is a study in efficiency and affordability. The menu starts with appetizers (biscuits and gravy, $3.95; Cryin’ Time Onjun Rangs, $6.95) and runs from hot dogs, burgers and pizza ($4.50 to $9.95) to steaks ($13.95 for the chicken-fried; $26.95 for a massive Porterhouse). The petit filet mignon I had--$15.95 with all the trimmings--was better than a considerably pricier one I’d had a few days before at one of the top steak restaurants in Orange County.

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As we ate, the large dance floor filled with all manner of folk--teens on dates, couples with kids, serious square dancers, extended families.

When Owens started singing “Together Again,” one of his signature hits and a song once called “the saddest happy song ever written,” we joined the dancers. I thought I’d died and gone to country-music heaven.

Bakersfield also can be baseball heaven to purists who like the game up close and personal. Unfortunately, the Bakersfield Blaze, a farm team for the San Francisco Giants, was out of town the weekend we went.

I also like poking around antique malls, thrift stores and pawn shops, and Bakersfield has a bounty of all three. One of Bakersfield’s most unusual characteristics is its Basque community, comprising the sons and daughters of shepherds and fieldworkers from northern Spain who relocated in large numbers to Bakersfield in the ‘30s and ‘40s to work in the oil fields and in agriculture. It’s almost a sacrilege to go home without a meal at a Basque restaurant. So early Sunday evening, before heading back, we stopped at Cha^teau Basque on South Union Street.

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Basques are unequivocally hearty eaters, so be prepared for lots of food at places like Chateau Basque. I asked for the most authentically Basque food available. They brought me roast lamb in brown sauce, pickled beef tongue (hammered as flat as a slice of bologna) and pink beans--all served in mounds (the less adventurous can get fried chicken or steak, etc.).

For breakfast in a city that is, after all, a major truck stop, there’s nothing like the inimitable sights, sounds, smells and flavors at any of the many diners in town. No retro chic ambience here; these are the real deal--for breakfasts that defy you to finish their truck-driver-size portions.

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Budget for Two

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Best Western Inn, 2 nights: $129.00

Breakfasts: 23.90

Lunches: 48.31

Dinners: 87.68

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Crystal Palace admission: 10.00

Gasoline: 19.60

FINAL TAB: $318.49

Buck Owens Crystal Palace, 2800 Pierce Road, Bakersfield, CA 93308; tel. (805) 328-7500. Best Western Inn, 2620 Pierce Road, Bakersfield, CA 93308; tel. (805) 327-9651.

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