If you can’t make it to Nashville to see The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s just-opened The Bakersfield Sound: Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, And California Country exhibition, the Country Music Foundation Press has just published a 96-page companion book chockful of pictures and documentary text that explains one of country music’s most colforul subgenres and periods.
As the book and exhibit shows–and as Dwight Yoakam relates in his “Survivors’ Voices” foreward, the Bakersfield Sound came out of the hardships faced by 1930s Dust Bowl and Great Depression migrants from Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma and the Midwest, who brought their music with them to the West Coast.
Centering in the Bakersfield area, this music found new and transformative expression by the likes of Tommy Collins, Wynn Stewart, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, whose voices, “still carrying the raw-edged echoes of irreverent outcasts, not only demanded the attention of listeners around the world, but would ultimately influence the future of country music and its performers for decades,” notes Yoakam.
Characterizing the music, Bakersfield Sound fiddler Oscar Whittington is quoted calling it “western swing meets hillbilly with an electric guitar.” Buck Owens himself likened it to “a mix of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and Little Richard.”
Chapters focus on the overall historical background of the Bakersfield Sound and its two central figures, Owens and Haggard. As the artists, locale and era were so visual, the pages are filled with evocative photos: There’s a great one of Owens, from 1965, sitting in his dressing room, smoking a pipe while perusing the latest Music City News, with Bill Anderson on the front page and a full-page Webb Pierce ad on the back; Haggard is pictured visiting his former prison cell at San Quentin, many years later.
Much is made, too, of the importance of “a town south of Bakersfield.” For sure, Los Angeles, with its recording industry (Capitiol Records and producer Ken Nelson, in particular) and many radio, TV and film exposure outlets, was integral to the spread and success of the Bakersfield Sound, but two hours north.
But as seen in both the The Bakersfield Sound: Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, And California Country book and exhibit, the Bakersfield Sound itself was every bit as significant and influential as the pop, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll that made Los Angeles so vital.
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