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Editor's Note: This segment was rebroadcast on Dec. 18, 2019. That audio is available here.
Country music is synonymous with Nashville. But there’s a city in Southern California that is often dubbed “Nashville West.”
Bakersfield has its own music hall of fame, and its musical history is even reflected in the motto on the town’s website: “The Sound of Something Better.” The city’s musical legacy is now being documented in a box set called, "The Bakersfield Sound: Country Music Capital Of The West 1940-1975."
Historian Scott B. Bomar wrote the liner notes for the box set. He says he grew up in Nashville and didn’t realize until he moved to California the role Bakersfield played in country music’s legacy.
While both cities influenced country music, Bomar says the intention of the music is what differentiates each city’s sound. In Bakersfield, the music was made for people “to dance to,” while the music in Nashville was intended for “sitting and listening.”
“The Nashville sound is thought of as a little bit more smooth, more polished, more refined,” he says. “The Bakersfield sound is regarded as something that's a little rougher, a little twangier, a little edgier.”
Two of the most famous artists to come out of Bakersfield were Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. Bomar calls them “the twin pillars of the Bakersfield sound.”
“They worked with a lot of the same musicians. They had similar sounds at times,” Bomar says. “But where Buck was really all about that upbeat, fun kind of music, Merle was called the poet of the common man.”
On the origins of the Bakersfield sound as dancing music
“That comes from, really, the story of Dust Bowl refugees who came out to California. It's that ‘Grapes of Wrath’ story. And so many of the people who were pioneers of the Bakersfield sound really adopted that as the story of their own family and said, 'You know, that was really an accurate thing.' And so these folks moved from places like Oklahoma and Arkansas and Texas, and they came out to California and they preserved their traditions. They preserved the type of communities that they had back home and that included the music. And these were hardworking people. They worked in oil fields. They worked picking crops. At the end of the day, at the end of the week, they wanted to blow off steam. So dancing was, you know, going to honky tonks and beer halls, and that's what it was all about. And so they needed music to keep people dancing. And that's really the roots of why Bakersfield music is a little bit more upbeat, more drum oriented, more danceable.”
On field recordings of migrant workers in the 1940s
“It's interesting because the recordings that were done at the camps, and these were government camps where essentially the government had to step in because people were living in absolute squalor, who had gone out to California in search of a better life. A lot of times, they found discrimination, they found terrible wages, they found horrible living conditions. And so the Roosevelt administration stepped in and set up these camps where people could live, and the recordings that you hear from those camps were very much just an acoustic guitar, kind of folk song oriented. You see reflections of artists like Jimmy Rodgers, early country artists. But then as you get into the 1940s, you really get into this Western swing thing where there's fiddles and larger bands. And Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys were a really popular Western swing group that actually relocated to California in the 1940s, and they played up and down the West Coast, actually played in Bakersfield every week in 1946. And so there's some great recordings on the box set of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys live in a Bakersfield radio station. And that really gives you a sense of the kind of music that people were dancing to kind of in the pre-fully electrified era.”
On the Buck Owens’ place in the history of the Bakersfield sound
“Buck Owens is basically the true embodiment. Buck Owens is the archetype of the Bakersfield sound. Buck Owens had his own band, whereas artists in Nashville typically would record with studio musicians. Buck recorded and toured with his own band. And it was a pretty upbeat, revved up, again danceable kind of sound that was pretty unique in that time. And you hear pedal steel guitar, two electric guitars, bass and drums. And it's just Buck didn't write a lot of, you know, crying in your beer type songs. He wrote a lot of upbeat feel good, you know, roll down your windows kind of songs. And Buck really understood — he worked at the radio station for a time — and he understood that it was important to make your record sound great coming out of your car radio because he knew that's how people listened to music. And so he really kind of perfected that thing. And I think that when people say the Bakersfield sound, almost what they mean is the Buck Owens sound. He's the true embodiment of it.”
On how Buck Owens compares to Merle Haggard
“Merle Haggard is one of the few people who was actually born in Bakersfield. A lot of these other folks who were creating what we now call the Bakersfield sound were coming there as children from places like Texas and Arkansas and Oklahoma. Buck's mom and dad had migrated out to California from Oklahoma. But [Haggard] was born there and he was actually raised in a train car that his father converted into a small house for their family. So Merle was a true son of Bakersfield. He grew up in that environment.
“He wrote some really insightful and thoughtful, reflective kind of songs about the migrant experience in California and about heartbreak. And, you know, he just was one of those rare people who was gifted as a true musical poet. And I put him up there with Bob Dylan or Woody Guthrie, you know, the icons of American songwriting. And the two of them together, you know, if anybody says what is the Bakersfield sound? It is Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. But as they both always said, they came from a long line of influences. They came from a community, and, of course, they spawned even more folks in that community. And so, it wasn't just about the two of them, but they represent kind of the best of what the city had to offer.”
On how the Bakersfield sound influenced country music today
“It's funny because I think today people who maybe are not really into country music, but they just kind of have an idea maybe of what country music is, they're probably more apt to be thinking of Bakersfield than they are to be thinking of the stuff that's coming out of Nashville. Bakersfield is that real honky tonk, twangy, electric guitars, pedal steel guitar, you know, and I think if people just have a rudimentary understanding of well, what is country music, that's kind of what they think about. And so, oddly enough, I think Bakersfield influenced the public concept of what country music is almost more than any other strain of country music's history. And Ken Burns recently did this fantastic country music documentary and really shone a spotlight on all of the various roots and branches that make up country music's complex story. But Bakersfield is so important in that. And it really, I think, what Buck Owens and Merle Haggard did was take that music from a local musical scene, introduced it to the world in a way that people really just latched onto, and it had reverberations that we continue to hear in modern country music today.”
Book Excerpt: 'The Bakersfield Sound'
This segment aired on November 12, 2019.
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