There was something about the California sound of country music. It sparkled on the airwaves as much as the flamboyant stage attire that the artists who made the music wore on stage. For a while, it seemed like there was somewhat of a tug-of-war between the music scene there, and the one in Nashville.
However, the two worlds come together with the opening of The Bakersfield Sound: Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and California Country, a new in-depth exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Music City. It takes a look at the history of the unique musical sounds that have taken place in the town once referred to as “Nashville West.”
The exhibit begins by telling the story of families who moved west to California from places like Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas in the 1930s. For many, it was comparable to The Grapes Of Wrath. In most cases, they brought nothing but a few possessions and their dreams, many brought a love for country music with them.
Early pioneers that are featured include Speedy West, Merle Travis, Joe & Rose Lee Maphis, as well as Texas Playboys legend Bob Wills — who had a weekly performance gig at Bakersfield’s Beardsley Ballroom in the 1940s. Several of the early instruments used by some of these legends are on display at the Hall.
Also of note was the vibrant — if not somewhat dangerous club scene in Bakersfield. Though the Beardsley burned to the ground in 1950, the area was filled with such night spots as the Rainbow Garden, the Lucky Spot, and, possibly the best-known of all the clubs in Bakersfield — the Blackboard. It was there that people flocked to hear a style of music that had a little more spice, a little more kick than the sounds that were coming from anywhere else. It was country, for sure, but the twang factor was high and loud — and infused with a rock and roll energy that was unlike anything else.
The most prominent musician at the Blackboard was area radio and TV personality Bill Woods. His band was one of the best known in the town, and included a hot-shot guitarist by the name of Alvis Edgar “Buck” Owens.” Already developing a reputation as one of the top session players in Los Angeles, Owens was featured on sessions by such top acts as Tommy Collins.
Others included in the exhibit include Jean Shepard and Ferlin Husky — whose “A Dear John Letter” was a major hit in 1953 — though of interest to fans might be a 78 RPM of the original recording, between Fuzzy Owen and Bonnie Owens.
The Bakersfield Sound picks up steam in the late 1950s, with Owens becoming the ringleader of the musical movement. Starting with “Under Your Spell Again,” the singer began a streak of successes that qualify as legendary, dominating the charts throughout the 1960s. Of course, attention is paid to the legacy of his backing band, the Buckaroos. Over the years, some of the musicians that played for Owens included steel players Ralph Mooney, Tom Brumley, and Jay Dee Maness, drummers Willie Cantu and Jerry Wiggins, bassist Doyle Holly, and “Dangerous” Don Rich.
Rich started playing for Owens while still a teenager, and developed into one of the greatest lead guitarists / fiddlers / harmony singers that the format has ever known. His Telecaster is on display, and in one of the more emotional inclusions in the exhibit — a list of notes that Owens made before giving the eulogy at Rich’s funeral in July 1974 — following his death in a motorcycle crash.
While Owens was never the same musically following Rich’s death, another former Buckaroo had picked up the baton and was running with it. Merle Haggard — a native son of Kern County, and former resident of San Quentin — shot to prominence in 1963 with “Sing A Sad Song,” and had created a long line of classic recordings such as “Branded Man” and “Just Between The Two Of Us,” a duet with Bonnie Owens — Buck’s ex-wife. The two were married from 1965-1978, and Bonnie sang harmony in Merle’s band, the Strangers, for years thereafter. Many lyric transcriptions of Haggard classics are on display at the Hall, including “Today I Started Loving You Again.” Also included is the 1972 document granting Haggard a full pardon — signed by then-California governor Ronald Reagan!
Haggard is also featured on a video that plays throughout the exhibit featuring a conversation with the man who took over where Owens and Haggard left off in popularizing the Bakersfield sound, Dwight Yoakam. There is also some Yoakam-related memorabilia at the Hall, including many items from Yoakam’s 1988 video with Owens, “Streets Of Bakersfield.”
Walk through The Bakersfield Sound, and we think you will hear that musical legacy loud and clear. You will also see it — up close and personal. The rhinestones still shine, and the instruments are all there in full view. If only they could talk.