Get Along Down to Town
Bakersfield, California is a long way from Nashville – a little under 2,020 miles west, actually. But the distance isn’t quite as great when one considers how much significant country music came out of the city in Kern County. Recent years have seen numerous reissues from legendary Bakersfield artists like Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, as well as a fine exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame. But now Bear Family Records has delivered the ultimate tribute to the city’s remarkable legacy of music. The Bakersfield Sound: Country Music Capital of the West 1940-1974 is a beautifully sprawling chronicle of how Music City West came to be, as told via 10 CDs, almost 300 songs, and a definitive, 224-page hardcover tome.
While the sound of Bakersfield came to signify a raw, grittier honky-tonk country style (as opposed to the lush strings and choirs of The Nashville Sound as pioneered in the 1960s by Chet Atkins and others), folk, western swing, and so-called “hillbilly music” all figured into the embryonic Bakersfield Sound Those individual sounds are all explored on the early discs of the box set before local discs cede to the major label releases from Capitol Records and others which drew on the city’s talented artists. Once Bakersfield was established, its artists touched on further genres like rock, pop, and even psychedelia.
Baby I Like Your Style
The story begins not in a professional recording studio but in field recordings made by migrant workers in the San Joaquin Valley labor camps in 1940-1941. The six songs that open the very first disc of The Bakersfield Sound are rooted in both the folk tradition and the sounds of the day that these workers may have heard on the radio. They reflect on the singers’ hardscrabble conditions as well as their migrations to California, “where the sun always shines.” The compilers then introduce the cast of characters in chronological fashion, from early Bakersfield musicians like Lloyd Reading, Bob Manning, Leo “Tex” Butler, and Herb Henson to inspirations like Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, who appeared weekly at Bakersfield’s dance hall (and were “the main attraction in Bakersfield in the mid-1940s” per the collection’s compiler-annotator, Scott B. Bomar) and, in 1945, recorded a number of transcriptions for local KERN radio. (California musician Elwin Cross’ “Back in Dear Old Oklahoma” finds the singer proclaiming that “my heart always thrills when I listen to Bob Wills.”)
So many of the early artists featured here influenced rather than participated in the eventual Bakersfield Sound, like the “hillbilly band” The Maddox Brothers and Rose whose guitarist Roy Nichols would prove a major link to the city’s major talents. (Their raucous proto-rockabilly stomper “Water Baby Blues” showcases his incendiary guitar licks.) One pivotal figure whom the box set celebrates is Bill Woods, Bakersfield’s first artist to get a release on an established label. Bomar points out that he “never toured as a solo artist, released an album, or appeared on the Billboard chart,” but quotes Capitol’s Ken Nelson that he “furthered the careers of practically every artist that emanated from Bakersfield.” The multi-hyphenate (bandleader, multi-instrumentalist, DJ, manager, producer, and promoter) is heard seven times on the box, first on the sprightly “Have I Got a Chance with You” with singer Cliff Crofford.
Ferlin Husky became the first artist from the community to sign with Capitol Records, later the home of its two most famous exponents: Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Husky appears four times here (twice under the stage name of “Terry Preston”) including two records of tremendous significance. “Hank’s Song,” inspired by the late Mr. Williams, was Husky’s first Capitol single, and the Jean Shepard duet “A Dear John Letter” was Bakersfield’s first chart-topper. Then there’s Hillbilly Barton, writer of “A Dear John Letter” (itself presented in three unique versions here) and founder with artist Fuzzy Owen of the city’s first country label, Tally Records. If these names were unfamiliar before, they won’t be after an immersion in the box.
One of the many pleasures of The Bakersfield Sound is how well it sheds light on names that may be familiar to aficionados but aren’t household names. Billy Mize may be best known as a songwriter with a “Who’s Who” of artists having recorded his songs (including Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Glen Campbell, Bobbie Gentry, and Dean Martin) but the performer and television personality is featured on ten tracks as a solo artist including his original recording of “Who Will Buy the Wine,” famously covered by Charlie Walker, Haggard, Ernest Tubb, and Jerry Lee Lewis. (Keeping it all the family, there’s also a track by Billy’s younger brother Buddy Mize.)
Saloon singer Bonnie Owens, The First Lady of The Bakersfield Sound and so much more than just Mrs. Buck Owens and Mrs. Merle Haggard, makes her first appearance on the first disc. Throughout, The Bakersfield Sound gives full, deserved accolades to the female progenitors and practitioners of the style, including Joyce Yours, Louise Duncan, Bonnie Blu Bell, Jan Howard, Georgia Lynn, Vancie Flowers, Anita Cross, Kay Adams, Susan Raye, and many others equally deserving of mention.
Artists like Wanda Jackson, Barbara Mandrell, Wynn Stewart, Liz Anderson (mother of Lynn and accomplished songwriter in her own right who provided Merle Haggard with his first top ten and first chart-topper), legendary Nashville tunesmith Harlan Howard, and folk hero Arlo Guthrie (!) may not be typically associated with Bakersfield, but the set places their contributions in context and offers fresh perspective on their careers. Mandrell’s debut single “Queen for a Day” has a Bakersfield-Hollywood mélange with Glen Campbell on guitar, joined by Buck Owens pal Bob Morris on bass and Bakersfield pro Gene Moles also on guitar.
Semie Moseley, a luthier and founder of the Mosrite label (which released records by Mandrell, Tommy Duncan, Doyle Holly of The Buckaroos, and others), is one of the many unsung heroes getting a richly-warranted turn in the spotlight here. Tommy Collins, another unsung hero in the city’s history, opens CD 2 with “You Better Not Do That” featuring young Buck Owens on guitar in his first session work for Capitol Records. It’s Buck’s first appearance here but far from his last.
Before going solo, Owens is heard accompanying Bud Hobbs on “Louisiana Swing” by “Purple People Eater” writer Sheb Wooley (sometimes recognized as the first “Bakersfield Sound” record, a fact which the box set disputes with ample evidence). The rollicking tune’s prominent fiddles and barroom piano, however, would certainly become part of The Bakersfield Sound as it grew. Hobbs also drew attention to the musicians themselves, name-checking them throughout the song. Buck’s then featured as the co-writer and credited bandleader of Forrest Lee and Clete Stewart’s “When I Hold You.” The box highlights his first solo single, “Down on the Corner of Love” – one of 27 appearances as a solo artist. It’s not unwarranted. As Bomar writes, “there is no more central figure in the story of The Bakersfield Sound” than this talented musician, independent thinker, and pioneering entrepreneur. “Down on the Corner of Love” is early Owens, to be sure; he’s not yet the confident vocalist he would become. But it’s a fascinating curio. Later songs showcase Buck’s abundant skills as a bandleader, songwriter, singer, and musician who remained faithful to an unvarnished, “pure” country sound to tell musical stories ranging from heartbreak to euphoria. With his high public visibility as both a hitmaking recording artist and the host of the long-running Hee Haw, Owens brought Bakersfield to the masses (even if his recordings were made for Capitol in Los Angeles).
He didn’t do it alone. His band The Buckaroos, including (at various times) the prodigiously gifted Don Rich, Doyle Holly, Jim Shaw, Tom Brumley, and Willie Cantu, became one of the most well-regarded groups in the entirety of country music. The Buckaroos became recording artists in their own right; seven of their own selections get a spot of honor as well as solo spots for Rich (“Your Heart Turned Left (And I Was on the Right)” and Holly (“The Dumb Thing”). Buck later brought his son Buddy Alan Owens into his professional orbit, and as his three tracks on Discs 7-10 prove, he inherited more than just Buck’s looks. Like Buck, Merle Haggard elevated his band, The Strangers to headline status, and they get a pair of tracks here.
Drink Up and Be Somebody
Former Bob Wills singer Tommy Duncan’s “Crazy Mixed Up Kid” has a pronounced mariachi influence, and Johnny Taylor’s “Sad, Sad Saturday Night” is torrid R&B, co-written by Bill Woods and the future “Bard of Bakersfield,” Red Simpson (his first credit). The roots and familial connections of the extended Bakersfield family are revealed over and over again in The Bakersfield Sound, emphasizing the shared aspects of the community filled with disparate artists. Gene Breeden, heard on CD 3’s “Pair of Empty Arms” (as Gene Martin), went on to work in Buck Owens’ group before Don Rich joined. Don Markham (whose “Goose Pt. 1” is featured on the same disc) worked with both Owens and Merle Haggard.
Next to Owens, Merle Haggard is the figure most closely associated with Bakersfield’s musical legacy. One of the city’s many Oklahoma transplants, Haggard lived up to his future outlaw moniker, getting involved in small-time crime at a young age. Whereas Buck Owens was professional and organized, Haggard was undisciplined and reckless. But his musical gifts were unmistakable, and he imbued his recordings with unmatched authenticity. His artistic development is tracked via 21 songs (the booklet indicates 29, but eight had to be dropped after legal claims; Bear Family explains the unfortunate situation in a note inserted in each box set) that reflect on his favorite themes including prison, the twin temptations of women and booze, solitude, and life on the edge. His most controversial song, “Okie from Muskogee,” is pointedly not included here while other hits like “Swinging Doors” and “Mama Tried” are present.
Rock-and-roll connections aren’t ignored. What a surprise to find Gary S. Paxton, the “Hollywood Maverick” and onetime partner of L.A. scenester Kim Fowley, here with two tracks. He moved to Bakersfield in 1967 and broadened the city’s musical palette by recording tunes of all genres. (More of Paxton’s diverse Bakersfield excursions were issued by Cherry Red on the 2018 box set I Said, She Said, Ah Cid: The Exploito Psych World of Alshire Records 1967-1971). Clarence White is famous for his work with The Byrds, but before joining that group full-time, he released a couple of singles for Paxton’s Bakersfield International label. (Another Byrd, Gene Parsons, also recorded for Paxton in Bakersfield with and without White.)
The set, proper, concludes in 1974, which means there’s no room for the “new traditionalists” of 1980s country, like George Strait, Marty Stuart, and Dwight Yoakam, whose recordings adhered to the Bakersfield sensibility. (Disc 10 is an appendix of sorts, with live tracks, demos, alternates, and radio performances.) Yoakam even gave Buck Owens a comeback in 1998 with their chart-topping duet entitled, appropriately enough, “Streets of Bakersfield.” Even today, the ethos of The Bakersfield Sound reverberates in every current country artist who eschews pop gloss and gets back to basics with honest emotion and crackling musicianship.
Good Ole Country Sound
Produced by Scott Bomar and Bear Family founder Richard Weize, The Bakersfield Sound is a crowning achievement in the label’s decorated history. The box itself houses five digipaks and a gargantuan 224-page book. Its detailed biographies of every artist, will take hours to devour fully, and it’s worth every second. Reading along with each disc is recommended to get the full impact of every track, but the book is a worthwhile read on its own, too. Over 85 artists were interviewed for this project, and that level of care and attention to detail shows through on every page.
In addition to the artist bios, readers will find an introduction from The Foo Fighters’ Chris Shiflett, an introduction and opening essay by Bomar, a Bakersfield Sound Pioneers scrapbook, a detailed track-by-track discography with as many credits as possible, helpful indexes by song title and artist, and an “Also Available” listing to point listeners in the right direction for further exploration. While there’s a note on sound quality included, one needn’t worry; mastering engineer Christian Zwarg has done a fine job achieving sonic consistency here. He’s also transferred some of the vintage tracks from metal parts and acetates.
If you think you know the Bakersfield sound, you’ll find this set an endlessly fascinating treasure trove from some of the most extraordinary artists in country music history – and you will learn something new, whether about a favorite artist or a once-lost one. If you don’t know the Bakersfield sound, you will by the time you finish a deep dive into this collection. The Bakersfield Sound is a mini-museum and a valuable archive, and the kind of ambitious multimedia project that makes physical formats so indispensable. Ever walked the streets of Bakersfield? This set will take you there.