“So that’s it, then, huh?”
Two years ago today, standing in a Bakersfield, California parking lot, I said this to my husband, Alex. Or he to me.
We kind of say this a lot to one another.
Last summer, trudging through the noonday sun in the July heat of a drought-ravaged Iowa to see the spot where everyone but Waylon Jennings had died in a cornfield.
“So that’s it, then, huh?”
Nearly three years ago, and breaking away from our lunch partners to take a little walk past New York’s Union Square in search of the storefront where the legendary nightclub Max’s Kansas City hadn’t been in over 35 years. 35 years being longer than either of us had even been alive.
“So that’s it, then, huh?”
Braving our way through a throng of meth-toothed, ankle-monitored revelers at a street carnival in Hannibal, Missouri, to see the street where Mark Twain grew up.
“So that’s it, then, huh?”
Spending an afternoon taking in not one but two of Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood Kentucky homes, both reconstructed in log, neither really historically sound.
“So that’s it, then, huh?”
And Michael Jackson’s home, just north of Abe’s in Gary, Indiana Gary Indiana Gary Indiana let me say it once again. (Once a member of the River City Chorus, always a member of the River City Chorus.)
“So that’s it, then, huh?”
A house outside of Nashville that might have once belonged to Tammy Wynette. Or maybe it’s that other one.
“Is that it?”
“I don’t know. Never mind, just keep driving.”
We’ve driven the length of Kentucky west to east on a rumor that if you seek out Loretta Lynn’s younger brother in the general store he operates in Butcher Holler, he’ll give you a tour of the cabin where they grew up, the one immortalized in the film Coal Miner’s Daughter.
“Well, that’s it I guess.”
We’ve driven rainy highways where the only other travelers were semi drivers carrying loads of whoknowwhats on their trailers, they transporting goods, we in search of the site where Patsy Cline’s plane went down so many years ago.
“So that’s it, then, huh?”
In our years together, Alex has followed me around a lot. I suppose it might seem an insult to call into your mind some sort of pathetic puppy dog image of him but well, uhhmmm I suppose that describes him pretty well. But let’s scrap the “pathetic” descriptor, and replace it with devoted, easygoing and patient, the happy-go-lucky puppy, not pathetic at all. Perhaps what he lacks in direction or initiative he makes up for in a willingness or more accurately the good sense to follow someone who just tends to have really good ideas, a.k.a. me.
These really good ideas have taken us to the farthest eastern suburbs of the Twin Cities, our home – and you know how scary those are to a kid like Alex who grew up in the western suburbs – because I’d heard a rumor that David Allan Coe would be hanging out at some divey bar after performing at another bar in the far western suburbs earlier in the night. Was he actually hanging out in this bar all the way across town? Of course not. My adventures need to end in disappointment in at least fifty percent of their attempts, otherwise they could no longer be described as adventurous and would just be predictably awesome. On this night, it turned out to be a ploy by a bouncer from the first bar to get me to hang out with him after the show at the second. A big fat bouncer and his big fat lies. No David Allan Coe, but I did get drunk, sing with the band playing that night in the bar in the scary eastern suburbs, and dance with a guy who looks like Kenny Rogers while Alex sat through it all, smiling, without judgment. We chalked it up to a fun experience.
We visited Elvis’ birthplace in Tupelo, and stood under the toilet where The King passed on at Graceland. We visited his gravesite out back in the yard, camped out in our bright blue Honda at the official RV Park across the street, then drove to Alabama to see Hank Williams’ boyhood home and gravesite and the baby blue Cadillac he OD’d in early New Year’s Day, 1953. We purchased gris-gris and communed with a barroom ghost named Nikki who used to be a Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader the next day in New Orleans. When this Nikki tried to play “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” that Nikki shut off the jukebox. When this Nikki played “Darlin’ Nikki” on the same jukebox, that Nikki was totally cool with it. What you’ve heard about Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders is all true.
We drove sixteen hours round trip to meet a pair of 90s country has-beens at a rodeo in Cheyenne, Wyoming, got drunk with the middle-aged lady who ran the “WYO Campground” where we’d set up tent, and detoured to look at some really old Oregon Trail wagon wheel ruts along the way.
“So that’s them, huh?”
The highlight of that trip was definitely the gaggle of Latter-Day conservative girls who gawked at my tattoos and Supertramp-emblazoned sleeveless top as they sought out the names of their ancestors etched into nearby sandstone cliffs. At the time, I imagined I was an inspiration to them, all epitomizing wild and reckless freedom, free-spiritedness, self-determination. In all likelihood, I was not. Their ancestors traveled West pulling all their earthly belongings in handcarts in pursuit of freedoms of their own, and many of them died en route. Look it up, it’s pretty badass. I doubt I’m much of an inspiration to anyone, Supertramp shirt or no.
There was the summer that Alex and I – or was it just me? I plead drunk – rode the bull at the county fair, then fornicated in a cornfield. Except that we didn’t really do that, but if we did I’m pretty sure that was all his idea, anyway. And we’ve driven down a BIA highway at noon on a Monday, following a swervy drunk driving a wrecked-up beater going 15 in a 55 zone, because I wanted to find some old abandoned fort sitting in shambles on the reservation.
There’s the time we drove around for hours looking for the rural Tennessee cabin where Grandpa Jones discovered the body of his friend, Opry co-star Stringbean Akeman, after Stringbean and his wife had been murdered by a pair of intruders. I had no directions to this cabin – only the name of the town it was generally located in or around, and a total trust in my intuition, that trust entrusted in me by Oprah, whom I trust wholeheartedly. We never found that cabin, but I still think Oprah’s an okay lady. Later and to greater success we’d seek out the cabin where Bill Monroe was born, and I’d navigate us straight into an active forest fire while searching out the abandoned town John Prine sings about in “Paradise,” a town now buried in coal soot and, well, ash from frequent forest fires, I guess. Now I know better.
I made Alex dance country with me at the Broken Spoke Saloon in Austin, Texas (I think he liked it), buy me a stuffed bullfrog playing a banjo in that same town (I think he liked it), then drive with me to the middle of nowhere, Luckenbach, Texas to be exact, where we ate a sandwich and then turned back around. I made him go with me to Dallas in search of Gilley’s, deemed its newest incarnation “absolutely awful,” made him endure my temper tantrum as we redirected for Fort Worth, holed up in a fleabag motel and got drunk with some cowboys (I think he liked some parts of that, but not others). To be fair, the next day he made me accompany him on a goose chase of his own, when he attempted to track down the house he lived in briefly as a toddler in suburban Dallas. We maybe found it. He wasn’t totally sure. That day, we twice listened to my favorite ever episode of This American Life, one entitled “A House Divided,” which details the story of a family traveling through Texas in a van who collectively get their father and husband, the van’s driver, into a bit of a misunderstanding with the law. You’ve heard the saying, a house divided against itself cannot stand. (Imagine that voice.) Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it’s This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I’m Ira Glass. When you start throwing around the phrase, a house divided against itself cannot stand, you are trafficking in one of the most ominous and overwrought sayings in Western history.
After three years together, our house is still standing. But he’s also learned to give me a look, a look he flashes me when he’d like to convey that just maybe this time my idea is too ill-planned, too out-of-the-way, too harebrained, too rash or fangirl or stupid or potentially flammable and deadly.
But two years ago today, he hadn’t yet started giving me that look. It was a Friday night, January 21, 2011, and we’d pulled the Chevy we’d rented in Los Angeles into the parking lot of The Crystal Palace nightclub in Bakersfield, California, having traveled all that way to see The Buckaroos, Buck Owens’ old band, who still play at his old nightclub every weekend, even though he has himself passed on.
I’d presented the idea to Alex a month before, while sitting out a snowstorm in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
“Winter sucks,” I groaned.
“Sure does,” Alex agreed.
“Let’s go somewhere warm.”
“Where do you want to go?”
“I dunno,” I countered. “What’s cheap? Puerto Rico?”
Or maybe I already had an idea lined up. “I know. We could go to Bakersfield.”
“Bakersfield. The town in California.”
So I booked our tickets to Los Angeles, and made plans to grab a rental near LAX and embark for Bakersfield. We were escaping the weather, I suppose – there was no snow in Bakersfield. I didn’t think so, anyway. I mean, it was California! So right, no snow, right? Yes, we were escaping the winter, but not to a place where it was warm enough to don bikinis and sip margaritas.
No bikinis? No margaritas? How could you.
I could and I did, and it wasn’t even hard. Alex was as convinced this was a good idea as I was. Though to be fair, he may not have known where exactly Bakersfield was when he so readily agreed with my scheme. Maybe he thought it was a beach on the coast, or a quaint little town in vineyard country. A camping spot hidden away in the Redwoods, or last party stop en route to Tijuana. Alex had spent plenty of time in California touring with his band over the years, but usually Los Angeles, San Francisco, or a spot in the state’s marijuana country, all locales where his band was popular enough to warrant stops along the way to or from Portland.
Maybe he just trusts my judgment and thinks I’d make a fine travel partner, no matter what the setting. Perhaps it helped that I enticed him with promise of visiting Merle Haggard’s birthplace, across the Bakersfield border in a suburb called Oildale, or seeing the Buckaroos perform on a Friday night. In any case, he agreed, because he’s an awesome puppy.
Whatever Alex’s motivation in joining me, my motivation in visiting California had nothing to do with bikinis or margaritas, warm weather or sunshine. There was something else I needed to see.
The place where Don Rich died.
Who’s Don Rich?
Who’s Don Rich, you ask?!? Only the coolest fiddle and Telecaster player in all of country music!
Only the bandleader of Buck Owens’ inimitable Buckaroos!
Look. I know I can’t convince everyone of my fixations as readily as I can Alex, so why bother trying. Just trust me – Don Rich is awesome, and in 1974, at the age of thirty-two, he crashed his motorcycle in California after wrapping up a recording session with Buck in their adopted hometown of Bakersfield, California, a boomtown for Dust Bowl-era migrants – Okies – and West Coast country music Mecca. I wanted to go to that place.
Why do you ask so many questions? I was fascinated with Don Rich’s death because of something Buck Owens, happy ol’ Buck Owens, had said in an interview decades after his friend Don had died. “He was like a brother, a son, and a best friend. Something I never said before, maybe I couldn’t, but I think my music life ended when he died. Oh yeah, I carried on and I existed, but the real joy and love, the real lightning and thunder is gone forever.”
Who is Buck Owens?
Oh, shut up. Go watch some YouTube videos.
Okay, now that you’re as big a fan of Buck Owens as I am, you know how much weight these words carry. The thought of happy ol’ Buck, smiling his toothy ol’ grin and strumming his red, white and blue acoustic alongside Roy Clark on the set of Hee Haw, performing thunderless for some twenty, thirty years after his death. Of Buck dragging himself onto the stage of his Crystal Palace nightclub in Bakersfield night after night, until at the age of 76 he ate his final meal of chicken fried steak, took that stage one more time, and died in his sleep in 2006. Well, that stuff pert’near breaks your heart.
So I wanted to go to the spot where Don Rich crashed his motorcycle, a stretch of Highway 1 at Yerba Buena Road in Morro Bay, California… but I didn’t tell Alex that, because that would be weird.
“Bakersfield is where the Bakersfield Sound got its start. You know, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard… you like those guys, right?”
“Yeah, sure do.”
“Maybe we can find some nightclubs, and listen to some good country music. And go to the Crystal Palace! Oh, and we can see the very boxcar Merle Haggard’s dad built into a house for him when he was a kid. That’s cool, right?”
“Yeah, that’s cool!”
So we flew to Los Angeles, but only stayed for a night.
“Los Angeles kind of sucks, right?” I suggested. “There’s nothing to do in L.A., right?”
Alex, having been there numerous times on tour, agreed. I mean, L.A. is just not our kind of trouble. What important has even happened there? Who has ever even died there?
A lot of people have died there.
Okay, fine, but whatever would we find to do there? Taco trucks? Over it. Nothing.
“So, let’s rent a car and go to Joshua Tree and then go to Bakersfield.”
And we did. I convinced Alex we should ditch out on L.A., head two hours east to the desert, and check into a room at the Joshua Tree Inn.
“But it’s gotta be Room #8. If we can’t get Room #8, might as well push off for Bakersfield.”
Why Room #8?
Well now you’re asking useful questions. That’s a very good question, reader! Because Room #8 of the Joshua Tree Inn is the very room where Gram Parsons kicked the bucket in 1973, after spending his day swilling Jack Daniels, which competed for space in his liver with god knows what else. Accounts by friends and an autopsy report would indicate the whiskey competed with some combination of heroin, morphine, barbiturates, and/or cocaine. Sheesh. Actually, he’d overdosed earlier in the night in a different room at the Joshua Tree Inn, but his friends revived him that time using an old street remedy, an ice cube up the asshole. Then they went out for a bite to eat, leaving him to die all over again, this time in Room #8.
Who’s Gram Parsons?
Okay, again with the YouTube. Go.
So my big plan, before going to find Don Rich’s bike crash site, was to commune with the ghost of Gram Parsons in Room #8 where, as rumor has it, he occasionally makes the giant circular mirror on the wall shake during the night, the mirror the only piece of furniture still remaining from the room’s decor on the day he died.
“Oh shit,” I exclaimed as we left Los Angeles. “We need a Ouija Board.”
I pulled our rented Chevy off the congested L.A. freeway, and found us a Target. They’re kind of everywhere in L.A. See? L.A.’s not even cool. Best to leave that city right away, before you manage to have even less fun.
We bee-lined for the toy section. The fact that we were looking for something in the toy section of Target to help us communicate with the ghost of Gram Parsons already made it seem like maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. Or, that this was the best idea ever.
“They only have the glow-in-the-dark one,” I moaned, picking a box up off the shelf. “Think it’ll still work?”
“Don’t see why not,” Alex reasoned. “A Ouija Board’s a Ouija Board.”
Once we got to Joshua Tree, we picked up some beer and champagne, which Alex put in the old mini-fridge located in the walk-in closet of Room #8. A walk-in closet which, we learned upon check-in, is like, the most haunted spot in Room #8. Like people have seen ghosts in there. Alex is so brave.
We went to Pappy and Harriet’s, the hotspot located one town over, and had a few drinks with the locals. Including one who was dead. But not a ghost! Just some dude who requested his ashes be place in an urn above the bar. It was that kind of place. And we ordered some BBQ ribs to go.
We got back to the room, settled on the bed with our ribs, and Alex – so brave! – went into the walk-in closet to fetch our drinks.
“Goddammit!” Alex hollered from behind the wall.
“What happened?” I clamored… from my totally safe spot still on the bed, ribs in hand. “Are you… okay… in there?”
Alex walked out of the closet, a broken bottle of champagne in his hand. “Graaaaam,” he scolded.
The ghost of Gram Parsons had totally just broken my bottle of champagne, the rascal. It had nothing to do with the fact Alex had perched the bottle precariously in the refrigerator door.
Gram’s ghost made several appearances during our two nights staying in Room #8. A CD would skip as we listened to a recording of Emmylou Harris performing live with Parsons the year he died. Gram! Bathroom heater’s broken down and we freeze our tooshies off when we sit on the toilet. Gram! The only thing on the damned TV is an episode of Friends where the Friends get into a fight over a Hootie & the Blowfish concert, and Monica gets a hickey from someone in the band (officially titled “The One With Five Steaks and an Eggplant.”)
Graaaaaaa-aaaaaaaam! The ghost of Gram Parsons had obviously shut off our HBO.
In other words, it was a pretty quiet couple of nights. During our second day there, we went to Joshua Tree National Monument and its infamous Cap Rock, the spot where Gram’s buddies had drunkenly whisked his body away in a borrowed hearse after stealing if from LAX, and attempted to immolate it before being captured by authorities and charged with Gram Theft Parsons (no shit). Word to the wise: Ask any crematorium owner. It takes more than a few gallons of gasoline and a bottle of Jack to transform a human body into ashes.
We’d hoped to find a little inspiration from this site for our second and final night in the room. Perhaps it would do more than simply remind us of the one thing we all have in common in this crazy, cosmic universe, that one common thread being this: we all have at least a few well-meaning, if not super smart, drunkass friends. No one is alone, or unique in this respect. It’s truly humbling. But more importantly, we hoped it might provide us some mystical, cosmic connection to the ghost of Gram Parsons.
Returning to our room that night, we leave a broken bottle of champagne at the shrine to Gram outside Room #8, one moved years ago by the park service from his funeral pyre site to the hotel where he died. And with guidance from our glow-in-the-dark Ouija Board, we hope to see that mirror move tonight.
We set the board up on our bed, and Alex and I sit cross-legged facing one another on either side of it. We turn off the lights, and the board illuminates yellowy green as we place our fingertips on its plastic pointer.
“Graaaaaaaaaaam,” I ask the board in a low, ghostly voice. “Did yooooooooooouuuuuuuu steal my keys?”
The pointer slides deliberately to the corner reading, “NO.”
“Good. I was just testing you, because my keys are not missing. Graaaaaaaam, is there anything you’d like to say to us?”
The pointer goes nuts, then slides deliberately to the letter, “G.”
“Gram, did you just say ‘F-U’ to me?”
Apparently ghosts don’t take glow-in-the-dark Ouija Boards all that seriously. Fine. Time to go to Bakersfield.
I’d talked Bakersfield up plenty. Told Alex about Merle Haggard’s boxcar house, a refrigerated boxcar his father James, that Okie from Muskogee, had lovingly converted into a home for the family he’d moved west via 66 from Oklahoma during the Great Depression, a boxcar located not far from the rails that would take a young runaway Haggard on a number of adventures that would eventually land him in San Quentin Prison. I described what it would feel like as we drove up to the Crystal Palace, this nightclub propped up in the middle of nowhere and still paying homage to Buck and the Bakersfield Sound, and promised to take Alex to see a show by the Buckaroos.
I was so excited! I was so excited, that I forgot to even check whether the Buckaroos were still playing that night. And after traveling all that distance, I’d also forgotten all about my weird fixation that started this all, my fixation on seeing the spot where Don Rich died. Yeah, I still don’t know what that was about.
My friends tried to warn me off of “wasting” my vacation time and dollars traveling to a “hellhole” like Bakersfield. There were mentions of methheads, cowfields, and a whole lotta nothin’ doin’. As we moved out of California’s high desert, leaving Joshua Tree on a Friday afternoon, we entered into the misty tule fog of the valley. A landscape of green, rolling hills revealed itself to us, covered in countless cattle munching grass on some of the largest and oldest ranches in our country’s history, miles and miles of land ready to be planted, crops plentiful in the area’s temperate climate.
In Bakersfield, we found a city that unlike most places – consistently updated by suburban renewal – was still living in the skeleton of its own various booms of grandeur, from local discoveries of gold and oil in the 1850s and 60s to the manufacturing and agriculture that keep the city growing still today. In contrast to the metropolitan areas hugging Los Angeles to the south and San Francisco to the north, Bakersfield feels very much like a very big small town, largely eschewing the early Twenty-First Century sprawl of shiny shopping malls in favor of the crummy strip malls from some bygone era of urban renewal, and here and there, the alternating primitive and extravagantly beautiful architecture left behind by the city’s early inhabitants.
Sure enough, Bakersfield was, by a vacationer’s standards, a bit of a hellhole. After driving into town through all those rolling hills and the fog and whatnot, we found a whole lotta concrete, accented by raggedy looking palm trees and rundown houses. Whatever its actual use, each commercial building looked like an “auto mechanic shop” operating as a front for a lab producing methamphetamine or a place where you could find the guy who knows the guy with the cheapest crack in town.
Alex and I had rented a room at the LaQuinta Inn; after comparing rates and realizing any hotel in Bakersfield might be a dump, we figured why be picky? We decided on the LaQuinta Inn in recognition of its proximity to the Crystal Palace – not quite as close as the Ramada, but a lot cheaper.
So, where do you go once you pull into Bakersfield on a Friday night? Before checking into our hotel, we parked in the Crystal Palace lot and saw a KUZZ truck situated outside, call numbers for the radio station Buck Owens purchased in 1966, still owned by his estate. We had planned on coming to Bakersfield on a Friday so we could catch Buck and Don’s band the Buckaroos, who in their current incarnation still play nearly ever Friday night at the Palace, Buck and Bonnie Owens’ son Buddy occasionally joining them.
The KUZZ truck was a bad sign; it was parked there for a station event. As it turned out, the Buckaroos had been bumped for the night, a touring musician by the name of Lee Brice who was taking their slot to play to a capacity crowd of fans, singing some brand of country rock with songs generally following a theme of “How do you like me now, bitch?” in honor of the ex-girlfriends who had jilted him.
Bummer. We purchased two of the last remaining tickets, anyway, and planned to return for the show. Country rock dude was predictably below average, but the ribeye I ate and the chicken-fried steak Alex ordered (I didn’t tell him it was Buck’s last meal – figured it might make it taste bad) were both exceptional.
After getting pretty well lit on a few servings of “Buck’s Tele,” a guitar-inspired drink layering strawberry daiquiri, piña colada, and whipped cream drizzled with blue Curaçao, all topped with a cherry, we weren’t quite ready to stumble back to the LaQuinta Inn but we were too drunk to venture out in our rental car. So we landed at that “too expensive” Ramada next to the Crystal Palace, drawn by an enticing sign reading, simply: KARAOKE.
Once inside, we encountered racists in the bathroom and would-be date rapists in the foyer. The karaoke took place on the stage of a run-down lounge bar; the host would soulfully perform solos on his saxophone when he felt the song choices deemed it appropriate. It was weird. We each sang a song to a smattering of half-hearted applause, intended no doubt to usher us off the stage so the next mope could take their turn, and once we felt sufficiently sloshed and no less alienated than when we walked in, we walked out. And unwittingly stumbled into the middle of a police shootout in the parking lot of the gas station separating us from our LaQuinta Inn.
It was an interesting way to kick off our Bakersfield vacation, to say the least. Sure, maybe everyone was right about Bakersfield, though we had yet to encounter a confirmed methamphetamine addict, and the closest cowfield we saw was at least a good twenty minutes out of town, and a little closer to a state penitentiary and what appeared to be a military testing field.
Are you reading this, Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce? Tourism Board? I’m broke; I’ll take any freelance writing gigs you got. Stick with me here – it gets better.
After walking carefully around the unmarked police cars, and out of the way of the spotlight shining down from a chopper above, we felt emboldened. We were ten feet tall and bulletproof. This was our kind of vacation. Palm Springs may be for everyone else, but Alex and I are for narrowly avoiding bar fights and gunfights and sleeping in a LaQuinta Inn by the freeway in a ground-level room with minimal window security within spittin’ distance of potential gunfire. A ground-level room with minimal window security that smelled inappropriately like rotting oranges, which, I’ve since been told, is just the smell of a LaQuinta Inn. We aren’t the pair for a Hawaii honeymoon. And so, the Crystal Palace and other local flavor out of the way, we began planning the rest of our three-day visit.
See, I TOLD you it gets better. Here’s the slogan: Bakersfield: Not for those too pussy to leave Palm Springs. I think we can work with this.
We were not pussies who vacationed in Palm Springs. And so the next morning, we set out to find some of the old honky-tonks and other haunts we’d heard about as we learned a little of the history of this town. First up, the Blackboard, located at 3801 Chester Avenue. The building, after its heyday as the most famous honky-tonk in Bakersfield, was home to a shooting range, pizza parlor and sports bar before being purchased by the Kern County Museum… who knocked it down to make way for an eventual expansion. What we found on the grounds were a number of historic buildings, from old log cabins to old trains to the old jail, all of which had been moved to the lot as a kind of one-stop-shop Bakersfield “Centennial Village,” which is what we called a similar display in my own hometown, this one situated on the fairgrounds and only open during the fair, for karaoke. Inside the museum, we found a shockingly modest exhibit of local musical memorabilia, overshadowed in size and content by a much larger exhibit dedicated to the oil industry. Where the historic Blackboard club once stood, we found an empty lot. Nice work, Kern County historians.
We hoped to have better luck with the Rainbow Gardens at 3201 South Union Avenue. Down a long stretch of highway, we found the old all-ages dance hall where Ferlin Husky and the Maddox Brothers and Rose used to play, and where Buck Owens and Merle Haggard first saw their idols, Bob Wills and Lefty Frizzell. This is also the very spot where Haggard had an impromptu audition with Frizzell prior to a show, making such an impression that Frizzell let him go on stage as his opening act.
Today, Rainbow Gardens is the Basque Club, a meeting place and event center for another group of folks – Bakersfield’s sizable Basque population. As we pulled up, we found a packed parking lot, and people coming and going for a weekend pelota tournament. We didn’t venture inside.
Instead, we set out for Edison Highway, in search of two locations on the far east side of town. The first, the Lucky Spot at 2303 Edison Highway, was once the honky-tonk where Bonnie Owens used to sing. It’s the only building on the block that’s been torn down, replaced by an asphalt lot and, back a little, the Lucky Spot Auto Body Shop – the business owner’s nod to history, bless him. It was here, along with the Blackboard, that the Bakersfield sound really got on its feet.
Just down the street, we crossed our fingers and hoped the Clover Club would still be standing at 2611 Edison. Many local stars including Bonnie Owens worked here, and it was also home base for the cast of Cousin Herb’s “Trading Post” TV show. Alas, what we found was not the Clover Club or the building that once housed it, but what appeared to be a long stretch of desolate salvage yard.
Along with the Rainbow Gardens, there are two more spots still standing. Tex’s Barrel House, at 1524 Golden State Highway, was a raucous country juke joint in the 1950s and 60s. Today it’s a monstrous strip club, part of the trashy Deja Vu franchise, which boasts “a thousand beautiful girls… and three ugly ones” or some such nonsense. You can still drive by Fred & Gene’s Cafe at 3331 State Road. It was here, in December 1957, that Merle Haggard schemed to burglarize the cafe… despite the fact that it was still open for business. He was drunk. This, combined with his previous record, led to him being incarcerated at San Quentin. The building is still there but today, it’s an insurance office.
As raggedly persistent as a drunk Merle Haggard once was as a burgling kid, we set out for a spot we were fairly certain would still be standing – the Haggard family’s old boxcar, located at 1301 Yosemite Drive, where the road meets the train tracks in the suburb of Oildale. We navigated the neighborhood’s streets, many named for American Presidents: Grant, Taft, Lincoln, Washington, Woodrow and Wilson, and pulled up a dirty stretch near the intersection of Yosemite and El Tejon, our car greeted by a couple scrappy Chihuahuas out roaming in the afternoon sun. Pulling slowly past the front of the lot, we saw that house where Flossie Haggard raised her difficult son on her own, where “Mama Tried,” quite literally and within just a breath of the train tracks to which her strong-willed son was often called.
We approached the house as if approaching a shrine. We stopped, and then sat for a moment in the car, glancing at the house. Then at the Chihuahuas. Then at the neighbors across the street, moving something from their car and glancing over at us every so often. We wondered if gawkers and superfans like us come by often, and figured they probably do. Then we glanced back at the house.
“So, that’s it, huh?”
“Yep, that one right there. That must be it.”
The house, like many in the neighborhood, was, as I expected, a bit of a dump. It had all the appearances of a place someone just doesn’t care about anymore – someone who is renting, someone with plans to move on. Trim peeling, an incomplete paint job surrounding its replacement windows and window AC unit, the yard accented by a scraggy, unkempt palm tree and overrun with weeds, all fenced in chain link.
We pulled around into the alley to catch a glimpse of the boxcar Merle’s father had originally housed the family in, still sitting in the back of the lot. There was a large tarp covering the top of it, and the alley was full of tires, plumbing equipment, and other assorted junk.
I’d seen Merle’s dejected look upon seeing this scene in an episode of American Masters, when the producers bring him back to see his old homestead. It was only upon seeing the place myself that I began to think about what it’s like to return home, to the place of your idealized youth, and find it in such a state. To find your old swing set uprooted and tossed by new owners, your grandmother’s lilac bushes ripped up and replaced with a cedar privacy fence. To realize nothing’s sacred, and nothing’s what you always thought it was.
“Well, that’s that then.”
After a day of driving by empty lots and scrapyards, our mood was now for the first time dampened. We’d seen potential police shootouts, we’d seen iconic music clubs demolished rather than enshrined, and it took this to really sour our outlook on Bakersfield.
So what do we do? We stayed in at the La Quinta Inn and ordered Pizza Hut, that’s what. And we decided we needed to find a drink in a place without racists, date rapists and saxophone-playing karaoke hosts. So that night we headed to Trout’s, located at 805 North Chester, about ten blocks away from the Haggard boxcar.
Perhaps the last authentic Bakersfield Sound-era bar, Trout’s was originally just a bar and cafe that didn’t host live music, but served as a hangout for many in the local music scene. Starting in the 1970s, local musician Jelly Sanders started playing regularly at Trout’s, and Red Simpson, who wrote songs for Haggard and Owens and became famous in his own right as a musician in the truck-driving sub-genre, still plays there every Monday night.
The place was as hopping as it’s probably ever been, with one room dedicated to live, traditional country music and dancing, the other dedicated to karaoke. When we walked in, the bouncer seemed to think we had ourselves recently migrated to Bakersfield to stay; he instructed Alex to get his new ID ordered well in advance of its expiration date, explaining it takes a long time for the state of California to do anything. As he stuck a paper Budweiser bracelet on my wrist, he called it “Oildale Jewelry”: “Extremely valuable tonight, but you won’t mind losing it come morning because by then, it’ll be worthless.” As we sat down, Alex and I both feeling wistful for the first time about Bakersfield, we kind of wished we could run away from Minneapolis and live out the rest of our days here, together.
People danced to old Bakersfield standards in the back room. In the front room, they took turns on the stage singing along to newer country songs. Men asked women to dance, and brassy older ladies served up drinks from behind the bar.
This place, that bouncer, those people working and dancing and singing in the bar gave us hope for Bakersfield. Gave us a little glimpse of the energy that was so vibrant in that town so long ago, but has now given way to people who seem to want more than anything to get out – or to never end up there in the first place.
It reminded me a little of my hometown, and of so many small towns like it that have rooted themselves as idealized places in my mind and in my heart.
I’d eventually take Alex with me to all of them. To places where people listen to country music’s refrains, and live country music’s stories; places where folks not only live country music, but die by it. I’d take him from the ruins of Bakersfield to the haunts of Nashville, to the places where Patsy and Hank and Elvis met their maker – Stringbean too, if we can ever manage to find it. From haunted hotel rooms in the California desert and chicken fried steak dinners in the Central Valley, to catfish po’ boys and alligator tails in New Orleans and the cemetery where Gram Parsons’ body finally rests, rescued and rerouted from Joshua Tree. Was it all a test, to see when Alex would say, “Enough?” Or worse, to see if he’d respond to my “So that’s it, then, huh?” with an “I came along for this?” I don’t know, but I do know we fell in love along the way, one small town at a time, one country song after another.