CSU Bakersfield today announced that it will award its highest honors to Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. Haggard will receive the tenth honorary doctorate to be awarded by the university, and the first Doctor of Fine Arts in its history. Owens joins an elite list of honorees to receive the venerated President’s Medal. He is the first to be so awarded posthumously. The distinguished honors will be presented at the Spring 2013 commencement ceremony for the School of Arts & Humanities on June 14, 2013.  “Buddy” Alan 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,” stated CSUB President Horace Mitchell. “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 was a Bakersfield and national treasure. Merle Haggard is an American icon and living legend. 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. Born and raised in Oildale in a converted railroad boxcar to parents who also migrated during the Dust Bowl, Haggard triumphed over poverty and youthful missteps to become “with the arguable exception of Hank Williams, the single most influential singer-songwriter in country music history” (Country Hall of Fame and Museum’s Encyclopedia of Country Music, Oxford University Press). Both personify the hard work, creativity, and character exemplified by residents of Kern County, in particular, and California, in general. The two 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.

The timing of the awards is not accidental. In 2014, CSU Bakersfield will commemorate 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  2013, “The Bakersfield Sound: Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and California Country.” “These awards recognize Mr. Haggard’s and Mr. Owens’s preeminence in their fields and their roles as emissaries to the world in part through disseminating the Bakersfield Sound,” said Dr. Richard Collins, Dean, School of Arts and Humanities.  

One purpose of the honorary doctorate is “to recognize excellence and extraordinary achievement in significant areas of human endeavor, within which are embodied the objectives and ideals of the California State University.”  Haggard’s music industry accolades include six Country Music Association and fifteen 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. He was one of five honorees to receive the Kennedy Center Honors for 2010, which recognizes artists “who have spent their lives enriching, inspiring and elevating the cultural vibrancy of our nation and the world,” said Kennedy Center Chairman David M. Rubenstein. “The honesty of Merle Haggard’s music and poetic lyrics has helped to shape the world of country music for nearly five decades.”

Another purpose of the honorary doctorate is “to recognize men and women whose lives and significant achievements should serve as examples of the California State University’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,” commented 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 local 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.

When asked how he felt about being called a “legend,” Haggard has replied, “I’d be more comfortable with something like ‘professor.’” With this award, California State University, Bakersfield lauds him as a legendary poet and professor of the common man.

The President’s Medal is awarded for leadership, commitment, and service to the community. Owens, without question, 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, Merle 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,” added Mitchell.

Buck created a music empire, Buck Owens Enterprises, which includes a publishing house, booking and management agency, recording studios, and radio stations, including KUZZ in Bakersfield, and the $6.7 million Crystal Palace, a restaurant and country music museum. In addition, he gave generously to charity, especially local charities including establishing a non-profit that gave scholarships to music students at Bakersfield College.

He reflected on his lean early days, “That was where my dream began to take hold, of not havin’ to pick cotton and potatoes, and not havin’ to be uncomfortable, too hot or too cold. That in itself had driven me to try to find some better way of life,” Owens said. And when asked once how he’d like to be remembered, he responded, “I’d like to be remembered as a guy that came along and did his music, did his best and showed up on time, clean and ready to do the job, and wrote a few songs, and had a hell of a time.”

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 Yoakum. Asked to describe the Bakersfield Sound, Owens responded simply, “It’s what Merle and I do.” In Haggard’s summation, “We represent the end result of all of the years of country music in this town.”

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