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But Owens wasn't just a music innovator. He knew that talent might make you money, but it wouldn't keep it for you: that took a good head for business. Owens had the rare combination of musical talent and good financial sense. This enabled him to build a support system for his growing fortune, and also provided opportunities for his fellow Bakersfield-based musicians through his local ownership of radio stations, booking agencies, song publishing, studios, and the most famous Bakersfield nightclub, the Crystal Palace.
With the cooperation of the Owens estate, the museum was able to gain access to an astonishing display of instruments, stage costumes, artifacts of all varieties, photos, and video, including clips from the seldom seen 1965 Buck Owens Ranch Show. These items tell the story not only of Owens' rise and success, but also of how he was able to create and spread the image of the Bakersfield Sound.
Merle Haggard, on the other hand, came to his life's calling down a much longer and rockier road. The idea of being a musician appealed to the young Haggard because it meant he "didn't have to pick cotton or go to school." But unfortunately for Haggard and the nerves of his long-suffering mother, he would not truly find his calling until after several scrapes with the law landed him in a solitary confinement cell in San Quentin.
The career and legend that Haggard created through his music is not only country music's greatest redemption story — convicted felon to poet laureate of the common man — but also the tale of one of America's greatest songwriters and performers. Haggard started with the same base of up-tempo, electric-guitar honky-tonk as Owens, but freely mixed in elements from blues and Western swing. He constructed lyrics built around poetic images of poverty and self-pride with such depth and complexity that during the 1960s he was a hero to both the right and the left — audiences that sometimes heard the same song (such as "Okie from Muskogee") in drastically different ways.
For the very different career of Haggard, the museum chose to focus on his music and songwriting accomplishments through a multimedia theater in the round. But even though Haggard was not the archivist that Buck Owens was, that doesn't mean there aren't wonders to behold. The exhibit features many original song manuscripts that were preserved by his then-wife, transcriptionist and collaborator, Buck's ex Bonnie Owens. Among the most illuminating: rare documentary footage of Haggard and Owens working their way through the writing of a song, and previously unseen archival footage from Haggard's return visit to San Quentin in 1971 with his band.
Even with the main focus on Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, the exhibit also pays proper tribute to other stars and important personalities that emerged from the Bakersfield scene, such as Tommy Collins, Ferlin Husky, Jean Shepard, Fuzzy Owen, Lewis Tally, Wynn Stewart, Red Simpson, Billy Mize and many others.
One of the greatest impressions left by the exhibit is the strong sense of community and the close ties shared by the people who made the Bakersfield Sound. Their bonds originated in those early days of migrants banding together to survive hard times, and they remain today in a local music scene that is still active. As Red Simpson prepared to make the trek to Nashville for the exhibit's opening, his hometown threw him a tribute and party in celebration.
Ultimately, Bakersfield failed to unseat Nashville from its country music throne. But in retrospect, what was happening in country music in both cities wasn't so much a battle between opposites as a case of parallel evolution. Many of the same elements that were shaping country music in Nashville during the decades after World War II went into the musical scene in Bakersfield. They just emerged in different and unique forms.
But if Bakersfield did indeed "lose the war," the music produced by the city certainly won the hearts and minds of country music fans in ways that resonate to this day. That was the case for Dwight Yoakam when he began playing his own brand of the Bakersfield Sound in punk clubs in Los Angeles in the 1980s. It's still that way today for country music traditionalists on both sides of the line between mainstream country and Americana.
So it's highly likely that sometime during the next few months, some young visitor to the Country Music Hall of Fame will see the costumes and the instruments, hear that hot Telecaster sound, and say to themselves, "Now that's great country music!" And they'll be exactly right.
"A Dear John Letter," Jean Shepard and Ferlin Husky (Capitol 1953)
This massive 1953 hit not only established the careers of Jean Shepard (who played Bakersfield frequently) and Ferlin Husky (who was a DJ in Bakersfield), but it was the keystone in building the Bakersfield legend. Written by Billy Barton, it was originally recorded by Fuzzy Owen and Bonnie Owens (after her separation from Buck Owens, while she was dating Fuzzy, but before her marriage to Merle Haggard — it's complicated ...). For Shepard's and Husky's version, the backing musicians were almost all Bakersfield personnel, including Fuzzy Owen, Lewis Talley, Tommy Collins and Bill Woods. Owen and Talley reportedly traded a 1947 Kaiser automobile to Barton for the publishing rights; they used their profits to launch Talley Records, which would release Merle Haggard's first recordings.
"Big, Big Love," Wynn Stewart (Challenge 1961)
If Bill Woods was the godfather of the Bakersfield Sound, then Wynn Stewart was its obstetrician (or something like that). Although Stewart was never based in Bakersfield, he frequently played there, and the majority of his backing band was recruited from the Bakersfield talent pool (and would eventually evolve into Merle Haggard's band The Strangers). This 1961 hit for Stewart has all the classic Bakersfield Sound elements that Buck Owens would soon transform into a hit factory: a driving beat, soaring pedal steel, and a Telecaster lead.
"My Heart Skips a Beat," Buck Owens (Capitol 1964)
Though not as well-known today as "Tiger by the Tail" or "Act Naturally" (thank you, Ringo!), this 1964 mega-hit gets my vote as the quintessential Buck Owens song. The a cappella wind-up at the beginning, the trademark "freight train" rhythm, Don Rich's harmony vocals and his killer Telecaster solo, and spot-on perfect drum fills from guest drummer Mel Taylor — big-beat keeper for The Ventures — all add up to a perfect example of Owens' honky-tonk genius.
"Little Pink Mack," Kay Adams (Tower 1965)
This slice of Bakersfield big-rig feminism spunk was Kay Adams' only hit. But even though her career was short, she made some great records that are well worth seeking out. If actual hostilities had ever broken out between Nashville and Bakersfield, I have a vision of an epic catfight between Kay and Loretta Lynn, but perhaps we best not go there ...
"Mama Tried," Merle Haggard (Capitol 1968)
An astonishing record in every way — from the foundation of acoustic finger-picking on the dobro by James Burton to Roy Nichols' precision electric guitar lead — Haggard truly found his songwriting muse in this classic. He mixes autobiography with just the right amount of legend to create a Bakersfield masterpiece. (He did indeed "turn 21 in prison," but certainly not "doing life without parole.") RANDY FOX
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