As Robert Price states in the preface of his long-awaited book, “The Bakersfield Sound: How a Generation of Displaced Okies Revolutionized American Music,” back in the 1990s he wrote “a series of newspaper articles on the twang that made Bakersfield famous.”
A decade after those articles first appeared, I found myself turning to them time and again while researching the life and music of Buck Owens. But as Price makes very clear in “The Bakersfield Sound,” Owens was merely one of a multitude of musicians who made their way West during the Dust Bowl era. In fact, the author is quick to note that the Dust Bowl gets a bit too much credit for the massive California influx, pointing out that it actually began with the Gold Rush of 1849 and “peaked not during the mid-1930s, but a few years later, during World War II….”
Early on in the book — before going into well-researched detail about Buck, Merle, and the rest of Bakersfield’s musical cognoscenti — Price shares the mystery behind the Sound itself: “The secret is that the Bakersfield Sound isn’t a sound at all so much as a time, a place, and a shared dream — a synergy of economic hardship, determination, kinship, and dumb luck.” Lest one think this non-definition a bit of a cop-out, it should be noted that the exact same attributes apply to what is known as the Muscle Shoals Sound. Sometimes the only commonality is the region itself and the aforementioned “dumb luck.”
Price proves to be not just a fine researcher, but also a fine writer. In discussing Hank Thompson’s hit “Wild Side of Life,” the author writes, “The song’s narrator ruminates on the cruel nature of this unfaithful new kind of woman — the honky-tonk woman. So long before the Rolling Stones were glimmer twins in each other’s eyes, ‘honky-tonk women’ had already been tagged as fallen women, sexual predators, femme fatales, vamps in sequins and snaps.”
Later, while covering the Edison Highway Strip, Price describes the distance between Bob’s Lucky Spot and the Clover Club thusly: “Bar stool to bar stool, they were a mere five-minute stumble apart from each other.”
In the chapter on Buck Owens, Price writes of Don Rich’s guitar work, “Here were mini-dramas of conflict and resolution that momentarily raised tensions and released them, that suspended the listener in space and then placed him securely back on the rooted earth.”
On the other hand, Merle Haggard’s guitarist, Roy Nichols, had fingers that “seemed to bend time itself, turning the music back on itself in swirling eddies of twang.”
Throughout the book, the author tackles subjects that — in the hands of one less talented — could have come out drier than happy hour at an A.A. meeting. Instead, despite covering a seemingly endless string of contributors to the Bakersfield Sound —from musicians to club owners to runners of record labels — Price manages to keep the story moving with a clarity that prevents the reader from getting bogged down amongst the host of characters who weave in and out of each other’s lives. This is truly no easy task.
Herewith a tip-of-the-iceberg example of just how intertwined some of the parties managed to become: When Buck and Bonnie Owens first arrived in Bakersfield, they were still husband and wife.
After Buck and Bonnie divorced, Bonnie started going with a man named Fuzzy Owen (of the non-“s” variety). Fuzzy Owen and Lewis Talley jointly owned a record label called Tally (not Talley). While Fuzzy Owen was still Bonnie Owens’ boyfriend, he signed Merle Haggard to Tally Records, and even became Merle’s manager. Then, while Fuzzy Owen’s girlfriend Bonnie Owens was playing a series of dates in Alaska, Merle Haggard made his way to our northernmost state and somehow talked her into marrying him — which she did — in Mexico two weeks later.
Bakersfield of the 1950s and ’60s seems to have been filled with larger-than-life characters. No two were larger, of course, than Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Rightfully, each gets his own chapter in Price’s book, as does Ken Nelson, the man who signed them both to Capitol Records.
Particularly fascinating is the chapter titled “What’s on TV?” The fact that there were so many different country music TV shows emanating from a town the size of Bakersfield in the early days of television is mind-boggling. It’s also a rather thought-provoking aspect of the whole Bakersfield music phenomenon not generally given the kind of attention it receives here. Surely the number of people who saw Bill Woods, Jelly Sanders, Bonnie Owens, Roy Nichols, Tom Brumley, Billy Mize, Red Simpson, and so many others on Bakersfield’s local music-based television shows far outnumbered the people who saw those same performers at the Blackboard, the Lucky Spot, and the other local honky-tonks that have become so romanticized and immortalized over time.
An act might be seen by a few hundred people during a one-week engagement at the Clover Club, but that same act could be seen by thousands of people in a matter of minutes on “Cousin Herb’s Trading Post” TV show. The various nightspots in and around Bakersfield have gotten the vast majority of the headlines and credit for the city’s musical success, but the exposure and experience gained by appearing on “The Jimmy Thomason Show” or Billy Mize and Cliff Crofford’s show, “The Chuck Wagon Gang,” must surely have been invaluable to the likes of later national TV stars Buck Owens and Barbara Mandrell.
Interjected between some of the chapters of “The Bakersfield Sound” are two- to five-page sidebars, each titled “Snapshot.” They are precisely that — little flashes of enlightenment that fall outside the linear storyline of the book, but are simply too good to exclude. And speaking of snapshots, the book is filled with numerous photos of artists and venues from the era.
Seldom is an appendix section as attention-worthy as the three appendices that conclude “The Bakersfield Sound.” In the first two — “The Founders,” followed by “And a Cast of Thousands” — all of the major and minor Bakersfield players (musical and otherwise) are given their due. In the third, “The Landmarks,” Price takes the reader on a virtual tour of many a spot (including the Lucky Spot) that played a part in the saga of the Bakersfield Sound.
In the end, do I wish there had been a bit of time devoted to the Broadcaster, Fender’s precursor to the Telecaster? Or that more of the people listed in photos as “unidentified” had been identified? Yes, I do. But those are minor quibbles. Overall, “The Bakersfield Sound: How a Generation of Displaced Okies Revolutionized American Music” is a fascinating story well told.
As Robert Price writes in his book’s afterword, “Much bigger things are at stake in resurrecting and celebrating the legacy of the Bakersfield Sound: civic pride, but also a greater understanding of the city’s place in history — musical, economic, and cultural.” No small amount of that “greater understanding” can be achieved by reading Price’s book.
Randy Poe is the author of a half-dozen books, including the bestseller “Skydog: The Duane Allman Story.” Most recently he co-authored “Buck ’Em! The Autobiography of Buck Owens,” which will be released in paperback for the first time in March 2016. A Grammy-nominated record producer, Poe is president of Leiber & Stoller Music Publishing in Los Angeles, and is the former executive director of the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Along with Scott B. Bomar, he recently cohosted a 50-song countdown called “The Best of the Bakersfield Sound” on SiriusXM Radio.