All You Got to Do Is Act Naturally

A trip to country's real home: Bakersfield

Photo by Jack GouldWell, I hope you'll come and see me in the movies," Buck Owens sang. "They're gonna make a big star out of me." And they did. And scrappy Buck made good and bought some radio and TV stations. And Buck lost some of his tongue to cancer. And Buck created Buck Owens' Crystal Palace on Bakersfield's Buck Owens Boulevard, where Buck plays every Friday and Saturday night for the ravening hordes-people like Fern, a sweet, pushy old biddy who knows everyone in country music and isn't shy about cornering a young country crooner or two, badgering them into coming for drinks. And bullying. And guilt tripping. Sometimes it works.

And Buck, in his Madonnaesque headset mic and his black-on-black-on-black outfit (and all of his blacks matched, unlike the blacks worn by ace photographer Jack Gould, which were unfortunately of both the blue-black and the brown-black variety; don't never say mama don't know nothin' 'bout fashion), stood before his band, the demeaningly named Buckaroos (who all have Stepford smiles), and warbled in his phlegmy old voice, and he sounded pretty damn good, especially when you consider he's only got part of his tongue. And even though he looks like a mean old Republican, everyone was happy to see Buck, fat and comfortable and getting kisses blown at him from blond hotties while showboating lindy hoppers threw one another about and made lingering eye contact with women who were clearly not their partners and goateed Bakersfield hipsters smacked their partners in the face with their own arms and didn't notice because they were so intent on swingin'. Buck deserved it just for being alive. Willie Nelson's always in trouble, Johnny Cash is dying before our eyes, and Hank Williams lived to what-29?

But how far Buck has fallen! Sure, he may have big bronze statues of himself in the lobby of his Grand Ole Opry-ish dinner theater. And he may have a weird big mural of himself and his family. But in between standards like "Act Naturally" and "Together Again," Buck sang "Macarena." And "Play That Funky Music, White Boy." It was wrong and obscene, and country giant Buck should know better than to pander like that, acting like he ain't nothing but a beer-bar cover band. And if I'd had one more beer, I would have cried into it.

It was a melancholy night: we were in Bakersfield, after all, and even in the late '90s, the Central Valleystill screams "Dust Bowl Okie." You can just see Henry Fonda striding toward the oil fields. (Looking for a breakfast place on Saturday morning, we stepped out of our motel rooms and saw a bunch of people milling about the parking lot next door-including a couple we recognized from the show the night before. We figured this was the breakfast joint in Bakersfield, with 15 hungry customers willing to wait for a table. It turned out to be TAASK Inc., an unemployment center.) And we were already creeped out by the Crystal Palace, a big box with a pastel Western façade (inside and out) with signs saying "General Store" and "Jail." We could have forgiven that. Not to forgive it would have smacked of cultural elitism; people in the Central Valley like Franklin Mintcollectible plates and Parade Magazine, and as that old killjoy Aunt Eller sings in Oklahoma!, "I don't say I'm no better than anybody else." (And while we're on the subject of cultural elitism, telling "dumb redneck" jokes and jokes about trailer parks is just as prejudiced as those hysterical nigger and kike jokes.) But the place was a third-level simulacrum: it pretended-pinkly-to be Universal Studios, which pretends to be a movie set, which pretends to be a Western town. Instead of the Buckaroos (who were pretty simulated themselves), Buck's backup band should have been animatronic bears. Videos before Buck came on (to simulated thunder and lightning) played silly songs combined with footage of Civil War battles. (I'm pretty sure they were re-enacted.)

Bakersfield, which has always been the real country as opposed to that Nashville pap you hear on the radio, has been swallowed whole. It's about as real now as Anaheim's Tinseltown theme restaurant. And the winner is . . .

BR5-49, who played with Buck on Friday, has been accused of its own special brand of fakery. Music critic Buddy Seigal once said of them, "BR5-49 is to Junior Brown as The Monkees were to The Beatles." (In fact, BR5-49 used to open for Brown a lot, and apparently, he's a real cock!) The fact that they're a Nashville band rankles purists who see them as Nashville's attempt to grab up some of the young alt. country purveyed by the likes of Austin's Wayne Hancock. And there is something a little bit inauthentic about them: it's their niceness, their willingness to jaw with old ladies after the show, and their inability to step away from a nattering fan. That very gentleness, the Hee Haw appeal to both old and young-indeed, the Monkees-like lack of threat-screams "commercial" and turns off some of the snobbier folks in town. Two sweet old ladies waited in the throng after the show to get autographs, with tears in their eyes; they had gotten their pictures taken with the boys last time they were in town, and now they needed signatures. BR5-49 are true lovers of old-time country; they can play forgotten standards like Bobby Helm's "Fraulein" at a moment's notice. And their musicianship is uniformly excellent. And that's not enough for some people. (Although I do have a friend who used to shoot up with Courtney Love-you can't get much hipper than that-and he likes them, so I figure I'm safe.)

They're more real and have seen more real life than the hipsters I know will ever get through their pretty little heads. I talked to the Hank Williams-y lead singer, Gary Bennett, for a couple of hours after the show. He grew up in a trailer in Washington. His mom was nervous, so she took off. He loves his mom and tirelessly defends the fact that she booked when he was 15 and his brother was even younger. "She couldn't even eat solid foods," he says. "She was a wreck." Daddy, a drunk, took off, too, so it was just the two boys and their trailer. Until the property taxes came due, that is. Bennett has a new girlfriend; she has two kids, and he's in love. He's always in love with women with children. He's the kind of profound adult child of an alcoholic who tries to give everyone else the warm parenting he didn't have. He's good and kind. And he knows all the words to "Fraulein." So what if the old biddies like him, too?

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