When a story makes you smile: the boys from Enniskillen

Love of Buck 1 webjhI want to write about something nice today. It’s been a rough couple of days in the Bakersfield journalism community, with the expected yet still painful loss of one of our legendary reporters, Steve Swenson. It’s time to smile, and this is a story from an assignment that has brightened things every time I’ve thought about it since I shot it in August, 2002. One of the pleasures of the job is when a seemingly ordinary assignment proves to be a treat even for you, the supposedly detached observer and recorder, one that manages to stick with you and leaves you smiling for years. It’s no small feat; we shoot dozens of assignments per month, hundreds per year, thousands in a career. They tend to blend together, we have so little time to really process what we have recorded before moving on to the next one, then the one after that, and after that.

The assignment was simple enough. Head over to Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace and take some shots of a couple of visitors from Northern Ireland who were in town to spend a Friday night at the Crystal Palace. They were big Bucks Owens fans. Well, there wasn’t really anything unusual about that. The Crystal Palace is a genuine Bakersfield tourist attraction, Owens’ homage to his country music roots, a great restaurant, concert hall and nightclub and the best part – visitors could watch the hometown legend perform on most weekend nights for just $5. It was not unusual for tourists from around the United States or other countries to make a stop at Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace. Not unusual at all. I found my subjects, two young brothers named George and Edward Bracken, sitting in the audience. I asked if we could go outside for a few minutes, I thought a picture of them outside the famous “Bakersfield” sign that Owens had reconstructed outside the Crystal Palace would be nice. We began talking, and I was immediately taken by these two pleasant, polite and engaging young men. Edward was 22, a postal worker. George, 20, was a student at the University of Belfast.

George (in black and white shirt) and Edward Bracken travel to Bakersfield from Northern Ireland just to see Buck Owens perform at the Crystal Palace.  The brothers were invited on stage by Buck, where they did a couple of songs with the legendary singer as well as a few by themselves.
George (in black and white shirt) and Edward Bracken traveled to Bakersfield from Northern Ireland just to see Buck Owens perform at the Crystal Palace. The brothers were invited on stage by Buck, where they did a couple of songs with the legendary singer as well as a few by themselves. (Original cutline)

It’s called “the reveal.” It’s a component of story telling – written or visual, in newspaper articles or novels, movies or multimedia stories, doesn’t matter – that we all look for. It’s like finding a little nugget of gold. The “reveal” is a usually unexpected surprise that suddenly adds an extra layer to your story. It’s what we photographers are looking for when he hang around long after you would think we’d be gone, why a reporter keeps asking questions that sometimes seem so unnecessary and trivial. Depending on the story, it can make you laugh out loud or break your heart, it can suddenly draw you in if your interest was waning, or spark a social consciousness and spur you to action of your own. (OK, knock it off John, no deep shit today; let’s get back to our pleasant story.) As I was chatting with the Bracken brothers, I naturally did what any American would do when meeting visitors from a foreign country. I asked them what other places they’ve visited on their trip. Obviously you’d assume New York City for sure. Then out West, maybe Disneyland or Universal Studios or Venice Beach. Nope, said the Bracken brothers, we’ve been nowhere. We come to Bakersfield just to see Buck, and then we go home. No Mickey Mouse, no Statue of Liberty or Empire State Building. Just Bakersfield, a room at the Best Western, and Buck. We’ll take two tickets, Belfast to Bakersfield direct, if you can. Thank you. And there, my friends, was the “reveal.” One heck of a “reveal.”

But my interesting photo shoot wasn’t over yet. Back inside the Crystal Palace, Owens tells the audience that he has a treat for them. He calls the Bracken brothers up on stage. And the boys from Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, are now performing with their idol. And I mean, performing pretty damn well. Karaoke this was not. I’m sitting on the stage shooting, and watching these two boys in their glory, with their idol. Imagine that for a minute. How many of us would be delighted to just meet someone we greatly admire, maybe get him or her to sign an autograph or pose for a quick picture? And here are George and Edward Bracken, from 5,000 miles away, on stage singing “Streets of Bakersfield” with Buck Owens. Listen for yourself. Here is a link from their Facebook page of the brothers singing at the

That would be me, sitting on the stage at The Crystal Palace, shooting what would become one of my favorite assignments.
That would be me, sitting on the stage at The Crystal Palace, shooting what would become one of my favorite assignments.

Crystal Palace with Buck Owens. The first 10 minutes are from the first time Buck invited them up, in 2001. At 46:16 you can listen to the performance I shot in 2002, and if these things interest you, that’s me sitting on stage shooting the performance. The whole video is fantastic to listen to, as the brothers so endeared Buck Owens that he invited them to perform on all their visits. Here is a link to a great profile of the brothers that Californian columnist Herb Benham wrote.

This job we do is something else. So much heartache, so much despair, tragedies that sometimes seem unfathomable. But then there’s the other part. Simple stories, uplifting, fun and a joy to shoot. When we do shoot, our primary goal is to make an image that will connect with our readers. They don’t have to rave about it, they don’t have to go find the scissors and cut it out of the paper. If it gives them pause for only a second or two, reaches them on some kind of emotional level, whether that be a laugh or empathy or yes, even anger, then we’ve done our job. And then there’s something else: what the picture means for the subjects of our photographs. When I look at that picture of the now departed Buck Owens with George and Edward Bracken, the smiles on their faces, the joy of being on stage with their idol, I think I made something they will treasure for the rest of their lives. I think I nailed it. And that makes me smile.

Together Again: Buck, Merle and the “Country Music Super Summit” of 1995

Buck_Merle_14Buck 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.

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Dwight Yoakam, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens

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Merle Haggard signs autographs for fans.

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Buck Owens with Bonnie Owens

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