Various Artists: The Bakersfield Sound

Awe-inspiring anthological history of the Bakersfield scene

Bear Family is well-known to collectors for the imagination and thoroughness of their box sets. Their cataloging of American country music in artist-based collections is unparalleled in its detail. But even against that high bar of quality, this set is something else, as it draws a comprehensive picture of a scene, rather than a more easily defined artist or label catalog. To assemble this set, producer Scott B. Bomar needed to develop a deep understanding of the history, connections and influences that forged the Bakersfield Sound over thirty-five years. They needed to identify artists, producers, engineers, studios, labels, clubs, radio and television stations, and records, and they needed to dig deep beneath the commercial surface, to find the rare materials that spurred and cross-pollinated artistic advances. The results are ten discs, nearly 300 tracks, and 224 pages that demonstrate how the scene developed, how lesser-known players contributed to those who would become stars, and how the stars themselves grew from their roots. It’s an astounding achievement, even on the Bear Family scale.

Situated at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, Bakersfield is a commercial hub for both the Central Valley’s agriculture and the surrounding area’s petroleum and natural gas production. The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl drove many Texans, Oklahomans, Arkansans and Missourians west, with many migrants resettling into agricultural and oil work. The Owens family moved from Texas to Arizona in the late ‘30s, and Buck Owens eventually settled in Bakersfield in 1951. The Haggard family moved from Oklahoma to California in the mid-30s, where Merle Haggard was born (in Oildale) in 1937. Bakersfield became both a physical confluence of refugees from the Plains states, and an artistic melting pot of their musical tastes; a place and time in which influences could combine and grow into something new.

As Bomar notes in his liners, Bakersfield was really more of an aesthetic than a singular sound. The range of artists ascribed to Bakersfield (including some who never actually lived or recorded there) are as varied as the influences that shaped the city’s music. As Joe Maphis chronicled, Bakersfield’s honky-tonks – including the Blackboard, Trouts, Lucky Spot, Tex’s Barrel House, and the Clover Club – were genuine dens of dim lights, thick smoke and loud, loud music, and as Nashville softened its approach in the 1950s, Bakersfield hardened its own. As Nashville toned down the twang and added strings and backing choruses, Bakersfield plugged in electric guitars to complement the fiddle and steel. As Nashville sweetened the arrangements and slowed the tempos for crooners, Bakersfield picked up the beat and highlighted vocalists singing harder-edged lyrics. Bakersfield wasn’t necessarily reacting to Nashville’s changes, but acting outside its commercial forcefield.

Owens’ and Haggard’s legends are rooted in Bakersfield’s honky-tonks, where they developed and honed their particular brands of music alongside the many foundational acts documented here. Bear Family has cast a wide net to haul in field recordings, radio and television broadcasts, live sessions, vault finds, vanity recordings, alternate takes, demos, rare local singles, B-sides, album tracks, and a selection of hits, to tell the story of Bakersfield’s development, rather than recite the well-known riches at the end of the creative rainbow. The set begins with early ‘40s field recordings gathered in the Central Valley migrant work camps that were run by the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The rustic vocal, guitar and banjo music of the camps’ residents was as important a cultural touchstone as were the physical wares they’d packed into the trucks and beat-up cars that carried them west, and its mix of influences the roots of the Bakersfield music scene.

The set moves to 1944 with a fiddle-heavy cover of Fred Rose’s “Home in San Antone,” and establishes radio’s role in expanding local musicians’ regional reach with transcriptions from Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, the Maddox Brothers and Rose, and Elwin Cross & The Arizona Wranglers. The latter group, whose “Back in Dear Old Oklahoma” strikes a nostalgic, homesick note, included Bill Woods, who would soon become a pillar of the Bakersfield scene as a bandleader at the Blackboard. From these earliest days of the Bakersfield scene, the upbeat tempos of swing and boogie drove many of the original songs, with twangy steel, guitar and fiddle prominently featured throughout. Billy Mize is heard on 1949’s “Got a Chance With You” and Roy Nichols’ influential guitar playing on 1950’s “Baby Blues.”

Capitol Records and producer Ken Nelson – both key elements of Bakersfield’s commercial success – enter the collection with Ferlin Husky’s 1951 single “I Want You So,” recorded under the stage name of Terry Preston. Buck Owens first turns up at Capitol as a studio picker on Tommy Collins’ “You Better Not Do That,” and Capitol’s Hollywood studio was the site of Bakersfield’s first national hit with Jean Shepard and Ferlin Husky’s “A Dear John Letter.” The song had been recorded twice before on local Bakersfield labels Grande and Kord, which along with Mar-Vel and others featured early performances by Bakersfield figures Bill Woods (who was so important to building the Bakersfield scene, that Red Simpson released a tribute to him in 1973), Fuzzy Owen, Lewis Talley, Billy Mize and Bonnie Owens. Many of the records most deeply associated with Bakersfield were actually recorded in Los Angeles, including the Blackboard Club-inspired honky-tonk of Joe Maphis & Rose Lee’s 1953 “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music).”

The early songs of home and homesickness quickly gave way to songs of romantic infatuation, love and recrimination, often with a forwardness that was disappearing from Nashville’s productions. The Farmer Boys’ “It Pays to Advertise” is surprisingly direct with the romantic boast, “when it comes to making love, I don’t leave girl neglected,” and Billy Mize’s “Who Will Buy the Wine” is scathing in its appraisal of a wayward spouse’s downfall. By 1956, rock ‘n’ roll was influencing Bakersfield’s players as Wanda Jackson’s “I Gotta Know” features a tug of war between upbeat rockabilly verses and a slow country chorus, Dusty Payne & The Rhythm Rocker’s “I Want You” has a rockabilly backbeat, Sid Silver’s “Bumble Rumble” offers up countrified skiffle, the bluesy guitar of Johnny Taylor’s “Sad Sad Saturday Night” is backed by Bill Woods’ piano triplets, and Buck Owens’ jangly guitar adds flair to Bill Woods’ “Ask Me No Questions.”

Buck Owens’ first session for Capitol as a leader included the bouncy 1957 single “Come Back to Me,” and his charting single, “Second Fiddle,” is also included early in the set. Owens quickly became a monumental presence in the Bakersfield scene as he dominated the country charts throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. Owens had one or more Top 10 singles every year from 1959 until 1974 (including fourteen straight #1s from 1963 to 1967), with 1974 marking the death of Don Rich, and not coincidentally the year that ends this set. Owens’ catalog is detailed elsewhere, including three Bear Family box sets [1 2 3], and so the producer has cherry-picked sides that demonstrate Owens’ evolution as a singer, songwriter, producer and live performer, including the classic Buckaroos’ lineup first session on 1964’s “Close Up the Honky Tonks.” The Buckaroos were such a prolific, powerhouse group that they had a parallel career without Owens out front, represented here by selections fronted by Don Rich and Doyle Holly, the instrumental “Chicken Pickin’,” and sides backing artists who recorded at Buck Owens’ Bakersfield studio. The latter includes a track from Arlo Guthrie’s 1973 album Last Of The Brooklyn Cowboys, and Don Rich’s last session, backing Tony Booth’s “A Different Kind of Sad.”

Wynn Stewart also recorded for Capitol, but it was at Challenge and its subsidiary Jackpot that he waxed the singles most associated with the Bakersfield sound. Included here is his superb 1960 take on the Bakersfield club favorite “Playboy,” but his hits – 1958’s “Come On,” 1959’s “Wishful Thinking” and “Above and Beyond (The Call of Love),” and 1961’s “Big Big Love” – showed off an artistic range emblematic of Bakersfield’s many influences and musically adventurous spirit. Though not as commercially successful as Owens or Haggard, Stewart was highly influential, and he left behind a rich catalog (documented in full on Bear Family’s box set Wishful Thinking) that’s worth its own investment.

Haggard was in and out of juvenile detention and jail as the city’s music scene developed, but a late-50s stretch in San Quentin renewed his interest in a music career in which he’d previously dabbled, and upon his release in 1960 he began performing and subsequently recording for Tally. Like Owens, Haggard was both an artistic and commercial force. Though born in California, his autobiographical songs were rife with the hardship of Dustbowl refugees, and the struggles of outsiders. He first appears on this set as a songwriter and bassist for Johnny Barnett’s 1963 Tally single “Second Fiddle,” and he debuted on Tally’s next single with “Singin’ My Heart Out” and its flip, “Skid Row.” Haggard’s early Tally releases also included themed song, “Life in Prison,” as well as his first duet with Bonnie Owens, “Slowly But Surely.” Haggard’s transition from Tally to Capitol was meant to be heard in two versions of “I’m Gonna Break Every Heart” (one recorded for Tally, one recorded for Capitol) but the earlier unreleased Tally version ran into legal issues, and though described in the book, has been elided from the disc. A well-curated selection of his Capitol sides threads through the remainder of the set, and shows off both his commercial and artistic reach.

Owens and Haggard may have garnered the bulk of the scene’s commercial success, but the sheer volume of Bakersfield-related material that’s been collected here is astonishing. The Hollywood-based Capitol (and its Tower subsidiary) had the lion’s share of major-label Bakersfield success, but Columbia and RCA made inroads with Billy Mize, Liz Anderson, Tommy Collins, and others. Even more impressive is the wealth of local indie singles that paint a full color picture of Bakersfield’s deep pool of singers, songwriters and instrumental talent. Bakersfield essentially fielded a country version of the Wrecking Crew with a core group of musicians that formed and reformed in various aggregations to back singers in Bakersfield and Los Angeles. There are too many ace musicians in the crew to name them, but among them, only one regular female presence in Helen “Peaches” Price, a much sought-after drummer who played with Wynn Stewart, and backed Merle Haggard on several of his classic albums and singles.

Gary S. Paxton appears as an artist on 1966’s “Goin’ Through the Motions,” but makes his mark as a producer, both in Los Angeles, and for a time in 1967-68, in Bakersfield. His productions include the Gosdin Brothers country hit “Hangin’ On,” and a variety of singles that includes Leon Copeland’s cover of Merle Haggard’s “I’m Out of My Mind,” the Sandland Brothers’ tight duet “Vaccination for the Blues,” and the sly instrumental “Buckshot” by Larry Daniels and the Buckshots. Many of Paxton’s productions featured the inimitable guitar playing of Clarence White, including White’s unissued-at-the-time cover of “Buckaroo.” Paxton’s stay in Bakersfield wasn’t long, but he was productive, and cut records with Suzi Arden, Dean Sanford, Larry Daniels, Stan Farlow and others.

Each of the ten discs reveals surprises, including Barbara Mandrell’s 1966 single “Queen for a Day,” released three years before she signed with Columbia, the Marksmen’s 1961 guitar instrumental “Scratch,” recorded in Seattle by Gene Moles with the Ventures’ Nokie Edwards on bass, Roy Nichols’ virtuoso version of “Silver Bells,” songwriter Fern Foley’s original version of “Apartment #9,” Harold Cox & The Sooners’ “Pumpkin Center” offering some iffy rhymes in celebration of a local weekly dance, Herb Henson’s Trading Post TV show theme song, “You’al Come,” and songwriter Homer Joy’s original recording of “Streets of Bakersfield.”

The set’s final disc include live tracks, songwriter demos and work tapes from many of Bakersfield’s mainstays. The disc opens with hot live material from Buck Owens’ 1973 Toys for Tots show, featuring Owens, Buddy Alan, Tony Booth, Susan Raye, and the Buckaroos. There’s a treasure trove of songwriter demos and alternate takes from Bonnie Owens, Vancie Flowers & Rita Lane, Billy Mize, Red Simpson, Bill Woods, Tommy Collins, and Joe & Rose Lee Maphis, providing a behind-the-scenes look at how the first nine discs came to be. The disc closes with eight tracks drawn from television and radio broadcasts, giving listeners a feel for a world before records came to dominate media, and consultants came to homogenize playlists. Sadly missing from disc ten are five Merle Haggard alternate takes and a live radio broadcast that were last minute, contractual-dispute scratches.

As overwhelming as is the typical Bear Family box set, the breadth and depth of this anthology is doubly so. The panoramic view of Bakersfield’s music includes folk, bluegrass, country (and western), boogie, rockabilly, rock ‘n’ roll, swing and more. Each disc provides a terrific program of music, and the arc from disc one to disc ten is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying. The accompanying 224-page hardbound book (weighing in at nearly four pounds) is as detailed as the music program, with historical notes, artist biographies, and song notes, and hundreds of photos and record labels. With 298 songs and a running time of more than twelve hours, this is a set to live with, rather than just listen to, and one you’ll be drawn back to over and over as you gain a feel for thirty-five years of Bakersfield’s musical history. No doubt this will be on many country music fans’ holiday gift lists, and by all rights it should be on Grammy’s list too. [©2019 Hyperbolium]

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