As a fitting tribute, legendary musicians Merle Haggard and Buck Owens will be the recipients of CSU Bakersfield’s highest honors in a ceremony on June 14, 2013.
Haggard will receive the 10th honorary doctorate to be awarded by the university and the first Doctor of Fine Arts in its history. Owens will receive the venerated President’s Medal, the first person to get the award posthumously.
The honors will be presented at the Spring 2013 commencement ceremony for the School of Arts & Humanities, and Alvis “Buddy” Owens will accept the President’s Medal on his father’s behalf.
“We consider these honors as equivalent, although what will be bestowed is slightly different,” CSUB president Horace Mitchell said in a statement. “Merle will receive an honorary doctorate. Buck would have received an honorary doctorate as well, except that the CSU system does not award the degree posthumously. Instead, Buck will be awarded the President’s Medal, which is an honor of the highest magnitude an individual CSU campus can bestow.”
Buck Owens boasted deep roots in Bakersfield. A child of the Depression and the Dust Bowl Migration, Owens overcame the extreme poverty of his sharecropper upbringing to reach iconic status in the world of music. He and Haggard are being recognized by CSUB to honor their work, their legacies and their hand in making Bakersfield a vital part of the American music landscape.
Haggard’s music industry accolades include six Country Music Association and 15 Academy of Country Music awards. He was elected to the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 1977 and inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994. In 2010, he was one of five honorees to receive the Kennedy Center Honors, which recognizes those in the performing arts for their lifetime of contributions to American culture.
The California State University awards its honorary doctorates to men and women whose lives and significant achievements serve as examples of the CSU’s aspirations for its diverse student body.
“Recognition of Mr. Haggard’s intellectual and humane values is especially appropriate for the CSU system in light of his championing working-class virtues and the dignity of the common man through extreme adversity,” said Mitchell. “It is especially fitting that Mr. Haggard receive this award from CSU Bakersfield.”
Haggard’s brutally honest lyrics were the ideal complement to the hardcore honky-tonk rhythms of the Bakersfield Sound. His status as a Bakersfield hero was celebrated in 2009 on the CSUB campus through “Oildale and Beyond: Interpreting the Region through Words, Images, and Music,” a conference held with CSUB in conjunction with the Oildale Centennial.
The President’s Medal is awarded for leadership, commitment and service to the community. Owens personified Bakersfield as the architect of “The Bakersfield Sound.” With its signature tinny guitars, twangy, high-pitched harmony duets, driving drum rhythms and mix of rock-a-billy and western swing, the Bakersfield Sound was the defiant antithesis of the softer, heavily-orchestrated, cosmopolitan-country Nashville Sound. Buck’s band featured fellow tenor and guitarist Don Rich and the band’s first bass player in Haggard, who gave the band its name, “The Buckaroos.” Buck and the Buckaroos popularized and mainstreamed the Bakersfield Sound which became one of the blueprints for modern country western music.
“Buck’s power of self-determination to overcome adverse circumstances to reach personal achievement is identical to what is required to reach similar academic success for our students. Self-efficacy, as Buck demonstrated throughout his life, is a value and a skill that we strive to develop in our students, many of whom face similar social and economic challenges,” said Mitchell.
The timing of the awards coincides with the 75th anniversary of the publication of John Steinbeck’s classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath, with a celebration of the cultural legacy of the Dust Bowl migration to California. Perhaps best known for his song “Okie from Muskogee,” Haggard generously has agreed to support this celebration by dedicating his annual concert at the Fox Theatre in downtown Bakersfield to CSUB’s yearlong celebration which will be called, in his honor, “Proud to be an Okie: Celebrating the 75th Anniversary of The Grapes of Wrath.”
The honors also coincide with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s tribute to the Bakersfield Sound in a 21-month major exhibit through December called “The Bakersfield Sound: Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and California Country.”
After more than 30 years of performing on separate stages, Haggard and Owens reunited at a 1995 Kern County Fairgrounds concert that also featured Bonnie Owens and Dwight Yoakam.
Asked to describe the Bakersfield Sound, Owens responded simply, “It’s what Merle and I do.”
In Haggard’s own summation, “We represent the end result of all of the years of country music in this town.”
For more information on CSUB, visit www.csub.edu.