Buck Owens and Merle Haggard are the two legends most associated with “The Bakersfield Sound” genre of country music. They performed together in the early years as the gritty, simple music born of the Dust Bowl and itinerant farm era took root, but as their careers took on meteoric paths to super stardom, those performances stopped. There had always been rumors of a rift between the two sons of Bakersfield. In June, 1995, Owens and Haggard delivered a stunning announcement: they were going to play together, for the first time in 25 years, in their hometown of Bakersfield. Excitement blanketed the city and the world of country music like a fine layer of Tulare dust in a farm boy’s nose. This would be the hottest ticket in town. And if the idea of two of the music business’s legends playing together wasn’t enough, Dwight Yoakam, the red hot new-era link and adopter of The Bakersfield Sound, and close friend of Owens, would be joining them.
Haggard and Owens and Yoakam together could easily fill any major arena in the United States for consecutive nights. But they chose a small, intimate venue, the Bud Light Pavilion at the Kern County Fairgrounds, for the June 16 performance, which could hold hundreds but not thousands. The event would be an unusual mix of concert and music video production.
There are some assignments a news photographer really wants. I wanted this one, and thankfully, I got it. I had gotten to know Buck Owens throughout my years as a Bakersfield Californian photographer. Many people forget that he was just not a country music singer. He was also a powerful and successful businessman, and his entertainment empire was substantial. I photographed Owens as frequently in his role as businessman as I did performer. He was always very nice to me. I had also photographed Haggard numerous times, but never met him. (And in one of the more pleasant surprises of my career, long after this concert, Yoakam invited me up to Owens’ office at The Crystal Palace, after Owens’ death in 2006, where I photographed him reminiscing about his friend.)
Access was especially good for the preparations, sound checks and show itself, which allowed me to make some nice, behind the scenes photos. Because this was 1995, the pictures the public would see would be limited by the usual limitations that go with producing a product printed on paper – space, news-to-ad ratios, the other news of the day. I’m sure the paper gave my photos the best play it could – this was a huge story and event – but still, imagine how we could present this today, in the Internet-era. Newspaper online photo galleries are among the most heavily trafficked items on their web sites. So let’s have a little fun. I present to you a look at the great “Country Music Summit” of 1995, some pictures published that day, many not, as you would have seen it had it been held today.