For anyone who loves country music, "The Bakersfield Sound" are three words that carry a tremendous amount of meaning. In its heyday of the 1960s and early '70s, many fans considered it one side in a war for country's very soul. To proponents of the Bakersfield Sound, it was the anti-Nashville — tough, lean and mean honky-tonk music. It stood in sharp contrast to the records being recorded on Music Row, its admirers felt, where "the industry" was drowning country's soul in a sea of strings and vocal choruses.
On the other side, many in Music City considered the Bakersfield Sound nothing but a marketing term. Hardcore honky-tonk and traditional country could still be found in Nashville alongside the softer sounds. Pop-oriented country was just as common on the West Coast, and the hits that were coming out of Bakersfield, the Nashville cats argued, were no more than variations on they'd already done.
As is usually the case, the truth is somewhere in between. Finding that truth is what the exhibit The Bakersfield Sound: Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and California Country, opening this week at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, sets out to do. The story is told through a combination of artifacts, pictures, music, video and some of the most amazing stage costumes and guitars that one could ever hope to see.
The tale of Bakersfield country music — or perhaps more properly, the story of country music in California — begins with the great Dust Bowl migration. Between 1935 and 1940, more than 200,000 migrants from Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and a variety of Southern states streamed into California. A great many of them settled in the San Joaquin Valley, a region that stretches from just south of Sacramento to the Tehachapis Mountains just north of Los Angeles.
To these hardscrabble refugees, it seemed a literal land of opportunity. Relocated to some of the most productive agricultural land and oil fields in the world, migrants to the region soon found that the cheap labor they provided was welcome on the farms and oil fields. But that same welcome didn't apply in the communities where they tried to settle. This was the vineyard that produced the bitter fruit of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.
And yet the prejudice directed at "Okies" by longtime residents would result in a tight-knit community and sense of camaraderie among the transplants that carried over into the post-war music scene. The Hall of Fame exhibit tells the story of this time in powerful images of the migration, the work and life the migrants found in the supposed "promised land," and the music they brought with them.
The exhibit then moves on to the California country act that most influenced the developing Bakersfield music scene — The Maddox Brothers and Rose. They were based north of Bakersfield, in Modesto, Calif., but their popular radio shows, barnstorming tours up and down the West Coast, and brand of rowdy and outrageous hillbilly music made them superstars in the Bakersfield area. And their over-the-top stage wear — designed by Hollywood tailor Nathan Turk at his flashiest — more than confirmed their claim of being the "Most Colorful Hillbilly Band in America." The exhibit includes a full set of their eye-popping outfits and previously unseen color footage of the group performing in 1953.
The Maddox Brothers and Rose may have set the tone and clothing style for Bakersfield musicians, but the other main element that influenced the developing Bakersfield Sound would be more "solid" in nature. The post-World War II years ushered in innovations in the sound of guitars, spearheaded by several new California-based manufacturers. Although some of the first solid-body guitars were custom-designed by Paul Bigsby, it was Leo Fender's introduction of the mass-produced Telecaster in 1949 that changed the sound of honky-tonk music forever. The Telecaster produced the amplification needed to cut through the loudest of barrooms — and perhaps even more important, it was durable enough to survive all but the most violent bar fights.
For guitar lovers, The Bakersfield Sound is a trove of rare and spectacular guitars. Here on eye-popping display are custom-built Bigsbys, all manner of rare Fenders, and even what has been referred to as "The Great White Whale" for guitar collectors: Speedy West's original, custom-built Bigsby pedal steel guitar — if not the first, certainly one of the earliest pedal steels ever made. It's a treasure that was thought lost for many years, but which was recently discovered by the museum's staff in a Bakersfield warehouse owned by the Buck Owens estate.
The guitar sound, a boisterous style and flashy stage wear all came together in the rough and often dangerous honky-tonks that sprang up around Bakersfield in the decade after World War II. The Bakersfield economy exploded, and many of the former Okies found their income rising. With hard work and more money came the desire to blow off steam, and relief was found in the many dance halls and bars.
This scene was best described by guitar ace Joe Maphis, a West Coast transplant from Virginia. The first time Maphis heard Bill Woods' band play at the Blackboard Cafe in 1951, he said they were "the loudest band I ever heard." That experience inspired him to write the honky-tonk classic "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (and Loud, Loud Music)."
If any one figure emerges from the exhibit as the true godfather of the Bakersfield music scene, it's California honky-tonk pioneer Woods. As co-curator Michael Gray says, "Woods was so central to everything that was going on. He was a radio DJ, owned record labels, and was the bandleader at the Blackboard Cafe, the main cultural center and honky-tonk for the Bakersfield scene." Woods gave many up-and-coming musicians their first professional gigs, and he was also one of the first Bakersfield musicians to regularly make the 100-mile trip south to Los Angeles to play session work for Capitol Records.
But what ultimately made Bakersfield world famous, and more than just another country music talent pool like Dallas, Knoxville or Cincinnati, was the rise of the two stars who embodied the yin-yang of the Bakersfield Sound. Both incredibly talented and influential, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard took the basic up-tempo, electric sound of Bakersfield in different directions. And the majority of the exhibit space is devoted to these two musical titans.
According to a story related by exhibit narrator Dwight Yoakam, one of Bakersfield's proudest disciples, the pivotal moment in Buck Owens' life was when he had to share one toothbrush with his brother and sisters. The shame Owens felt from that poverty instilled in him a determination to succeed in life. Fortunately for the young Owens, he soon discovered he had a great talent for music. He pursued that course with dogged determination to fame and financial security.
A consummate showman, Owens fine-tuned the nascent Bakersfield Sound by taking elements from the country music styles that had arisen during the 1950s and fusing them together into an aggressive, straight-forward form of honky-tonk. It drew equally from the instrumental prowess of bluegrass and the high energy of rockabilly — emphasizing the hot picking of Telecasters and the pedal steel guitar. The formula would pay off in an astounding run of hits.
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