On June 16, 1995, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens staged a joint concert at the Kern County Fairgrounds. It was the first time the twin pillars of the Bakersfield music scene had shared a stage in nearly three decades, and the event attracted national media attention. The Nashville Network sent a correspondent to interview the two country legends on Merle’s bus before the show. When asked for a definition of the “Bakersfield Sound,” Buck responded, “It’s what Merle and I do.” Merle nodded, adding, “Good answer.” Neither man elaborated.
It was likely as good an answer as any. No doubt Buck and Merle had been asked to define the Bakersfield Sound thousands of times by thousands of interviewers over the years. They were probably sick of it. It’s likely, however, that the only reason anyone ever felt the need to come up with the term to begin with was simply an attempt to make sense of the fact that the biggest country star of the 1960s and the biggest country star of the 1970s both happened to emerge from the seemingly random (to outsiders, anyway) city of Bakersfield, more than 2,000 miles from the country music mecca of Nashville.
While both Buck and Merle apprenticed in legendary Bakersfield nightspots such as the Blackboard and the Lucky Spot, their respective sounds aren’t particularly similar. The Telecaster guitars and the aggressive pedal steel guitar work of Ralph Mooney that adorned both men’s early recordings are the hallmarks of what most casual fans imagine when they hear the term Bakersfield Sound. But no one would ever mistake a Buck Owens record for a Merle Haggard record, or vice versa. Both artists explored musical ground beyond popular notions of the Bakersfield Sound and perhaps even the majority of Haggard’s recorded output eschewed the so-called “hard-edged” character that supposedly marked Bakersfield’s musical identity.
Perhaps the Bakersfield Sound was actually just the Wynn Stewart sound filtered through Buck Owens. Perhaps, as some have suggested, it was really an era in the city’s musical history more than a prescribed set of instruments or musical characteristics. Maybe the whole thing was a myth. At a minimum, the term is an oversimplification.
No other artist ever shined a spotlight on the limits of the label to the degree that Merle Haggard did. Simultaneously contributing to and defying notions of a Bakersfield Sound, Haggard was a complex musical creature who incorporated a variety of disparate elements — folk, honky-tonk, Western swing, blues, popular songs, jazz, and more — into a fresh stew of American music that included many ingredients but always bore the inimitable flavor of Haggard’s unique identity.
Although he started out as a Lefty Frizzell imitator, Merle developed his own sound by incorporating a handful of musical influences into his repertoire. He explained the process to Jonny Whiteside in a 1999 interview for L.A. Weekly: “I thought, ‘You know what I'll do? I'll take a little bit of Lefty, a little bit of Elvis, a little Wynn Stewart, a little bit of Ernest Tubb and the other influences I had — Jimmie Rodgers, Chuck Berry, Grady Martin and Roy Nichols, Bob Wills — and just be honest with it, try to make somethin' out of what I was.’ Well, it worked.”
Of course a musical genius and singular artist like Merle Haggard is much more than simply the sum of his influences, but understanding Haggard’s artistry begins with recognizing the importance of his musical heroes. It’s something the man himself wanted us to understand. “Eliminate all his albums and songs intended to express gratitude and admiration for other artists,” author David Cantwell pointed out in his 2013 book “Merle Haggard: The Running Kind,” “and you’d very nearly halve his catalogue.”
Some of the most influential of those artists were:
Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys
The Texas-born “King of Western Swing” began recording with his band in the mid-1930s. He found major success with hits such as “New San Antonio Rose” in 1940 and, following a short stint in the Army, relocated to the Los Angeles area in 1943 where he began reorganizing the Texas Playboys. Laborers from all over the country were migrating to industrial jobs on the West Coast during the war years, and many Southern and Southwestern transplants flocked to the dance halls to hear Wills and his band. They became at least as popular — if not more so — than big bands fronted by Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman.
Wills and his band moved to Fresno in 1945, and toured relentlessly up and down the coast. For more than a year, they played a weekly gig at Bakersfield’s Beardsley Ballroom. At least once per month the show was broadcast live on the radio. One of the most dedicated young listeners was Merle Haggard. “Bob Wills’ band,” Merle claimed in his second autobiography My House of Memories, “was the best in the history of live radio.”
But it was more than the stellar musicianship that Merle came to appreciate. “Our people were often looked down on by the natives as being dumb and ignorant Okies,” Haggard noted. “We needed a hero, and Bob was certainly that and more.”
In 1968 Wills was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. A stroke the following year left him partially paralyzed. Reflecting on his hero’s contributions to the music he loved, Haggard mastered the fiddle in a few short months and started work on recording the awkwardly titled “A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (Or, My Salute to Bob Wills).” Released in 1970, the songs were near note-perfect imitations of Wills’ records. In addition to his regular band, the Strangers, Merle recruited several of Wills’ Texas Playboys for the session, including Eldon Shamblin, Tiny Moore, Johnny Gimble, Johnnie Lee Wills, Joe Holley, and Alex Brashear.
“You know what I learned from Bob Wills?” Haggard asked during a 2010 interview. “Everything!”
While Bob Wills taught Haggard about being an effective band leader, it was the Texas Playboys vocalist, Tommy Duncan, who was one of Merle’s greatest influences as a frontman. “I think the first to impress me with his good singing voice was Tommy Duncan,” Haggard revealed in his 1981 autobiography, “Sing Me Back Home.”
Duncan and Wills began working together in 1932 after Tommy auditioned with dozens of other singers for a spot in Wills’ Light Crust Doughboys. The pair formed the Texas Playboys the following year. Tommy sang lead on most of the Playboys’ hits until his boss’s drinking created tension between the bandleader and singer. Duncan was fired in 1948, though he and Wills would work together again in the future.
In his early days as a Bakersfield picker, Haggard was called to play guitar in a one-off band that was assembled to back Duncan at a show in Hanford. “There wasn’t nobody in the band that I recognized and it was an awful band,” Merle recalled in 2009. “Tommy got onstage and did ‘Deep Water,’ and when he got through with it he walked over to me. . . . He said, ‘Would you mind helping me keep these songs going?’ And I just turned red all over, you know. But it took him one song to identify that out of the thirteen people, there was one guy onstage that might be able to play. Boy, that was the thrill of my life to get to play with Tommy.”
Like Bob Wills and Tommy Duncan, Frizzell was a Texan. He burst onto the national scene in 1950 with the double-sided hit “If You’ve Got the Money (I’ve Got the Time)” and “I Love You a Thousand Ways.”
Frizzell relocated to the West Coast in 1953, where he joined the cast of the televised country music show “Town Hall Party” in the Los Angeles suburb of Compton. Lefty enjoyed 15 Top 10 singles on the Billboard country charts in the 1950s, including the No. 1 hits “I Want to Be with You Always,” “Always Late (With Your Kisses),” and “Give Me More, More, More (Of Your Kisses).”
Haggard loved the Lefty Frizzell songs he heard on the radio. “I found myself trying to sound like him,” Merle confessed in “Sing Me Back Home,” “sometimes without even realizing it. Lefty gave me the courage to dream.”
The Los Angeles-based hitmaker appeared frequently in Bakersfield, including a 1953 show at the Rainbow Gardens dance hall. A 16-year-old Haggard managed to get backstage where his friend goaded Merle into letting Lefty hear how closely he could imitate his singing style. Frizzell was impressed and insisted Haggard take the stage to kick off the next set with a couple of songs. Billy Mize, who was hosting the performance, took note of the teen’s performance and later invited Merle on his locally televised “Billy Mize Show” to sing Lefty’s “King Without a Queen.” It was the first time Haggard appeared on TV.
More than 30 years after first getting on stage to sing like Lefty, Merle won a Grammy Award for best country vocal performance for “That’s the Way Love Goes,” a song co-written by Frizzell.
“I believe,” Merle noted of Lefty in 1981, “the impact he made on country music, and on me, at that time was not even measurable.”
Lefty Frizzell’s 1951 debut album on Columbia Records was called “Songs of Jimmie Rodgers.” When Haggard heard one of the tunes on the radio, he loved it. “I said, ‘Mother, listen to Lefty’s new record,’” Merle remembered in a 1999 interview with Bill De Young. “And she said, ‘No, no, that’s a Jimmie Rodgers song.’ I said, ‘Who’s Jimmie Rodgers?’”
Known as “The Singing Brakeman” Rodgers hailed from Mississippi. Like Haggard, he was chronically restless and began wandering from home at an early age. During a stint as a radio performer in Asheville, N.C., in 1927, Rodgers traveled to Bristol, Tenn., to audition for Victor Records’ Ralph Peer.
Rodgers’ professional recording career began soon after with his first major hit, “Blue Yodel,” also known as “T for Texas.” Tuberculosis cut his life short in 1933, but today he is considered the father of country music.
Haggard recorded Rodgers’ “Rough and Rowdy Ways” on his “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” album in 1967 and included his version of “California Blues” on the “Pride in What I Am” album in early 1969. Soon after, he released an entire double album in tribute to the legendary country rambler called “Same Train, A Different Time: Merle Haggard Sings the Great Songs of Jimmie Rodgers.”
“There was this hillbilly show that came from Nashville on Saturday night,” Merle said of the Grand Ole Opry while reflecting on his earliest influences during a 1999 interview. “But I didn’t hear any singers on there that I wanted to sing like. Bing Crosby had probably the best voice at the time of anybody I’d heard.”
Even though Crosby’s smooth, crooning style might, on the surface, seem like an unlikely inspiration for a country singer, there are clear dots that can be connected between Merle’s various influences. “A shorthand description of [Tommy] Duncan’s vocal approach,” David Cantwell wrote in 2013, “would be to say it was a cross between Jimmie Rodgers and Bing Crosby.” Crosby and Duncan were friends who stabled their horses together, and Crosby even found success with a pop take on The Texas Playboys’ “New San Antonio Rose” in 1941.
As the bestselling recording artist of the 20th century, there are few from Haggard’s or Duncan’s generation who were not somehow impacted by Crosby’s smooth vocal style. Because his rise to fame coincided with improvements in recording technology, Crosby was able to pioneer a dynamic vocal approach in the studio that captured subtle nuances in ways that were not previously possible.
One of the songs most associated with Crosby is “White Christmas,” which Merle recorded on his 1973 album “Merle Haggard’s Christmas Present.” In 2004 he recorded “Pennies From Heaven” and several other Crosby-related titles on the “Unforgettable” album.
The Maddox Brothers and Rose (and Roy Nichols)
The first time Haggard attended a live show was when his older brother took him to see the Maddox Brothers and Rose perform in Bakersfield when Merle was 12.
Known as “America’s Most Colorful Hillbilly Band,” the Maddoxes were a sharecropping family who made their way from Boaz, Ala., to the West Coast in the early 1930s by thumbing rides and riding the rails. They worked as farm laborers up and down the coast before settling in Modesto. They scored their own radio show in 1937 and landed a recording contract with the 4 Star label in 1946, followed by a stint on Columbia in the early 1950s.
The Maddox boys and their younger sister combined honky-tonk, cowboy songs, Western swing, boogie-woogie and proto-rockabilly into a revved up and rollicking stage show that influenced virtually every would-be country musician in California.
As taken as he was with the sibling performers, Merle was also mesmerized by guitarist Roy Nichols, who performed with the Maddoxes while still a teen in 1949. Roy would go on to play in Lefty Frizzell’s band before joining the cast of “Cousin Herb Henson’s Trading Post” TV show in Bakersfield. In later years, Nichols joined Haggard’s band, The Strangers. “Roy became the architect of my instrumental sound on my early hits,” Haggard explained in his autobiographical “My House of Memories.”
Nichols can be heard bending the strings on both the Maddoxes’ 1949 recording of “Sally Let Your Bangs Hang Down” as well as Merle and then-wife Leona Williams’ take on the song from their 1983 album “Heart to Heart.”
Haggard once declared, “Roy Nichols was and still is my idol.”
While there are few overt rock influences present in Merle Haggard’s music, Elvis Presley, like Bing Crosby, was a powerful social force who impacted virtually every would-be singer of Haggard’s generation.
Perhaps because California embraced Western Swing and dance music, the advent of Elvis Presley’s brand of rock ’n’ roll was not as shocking to Bakersfield’s country music community as it might have been in more refined country circles. In a 1957 interview with the Tulsa Tribune, Bob Wills mused, “Rock and Roll? Why, man, that's the same kind of music we've been playin' since 1928. . . . It's just basic rhythm and has gone by a lot of different names in my time.”
Merle’s “My Farewell to Elvis” album was released in 1977 and went to No. 6 on the country albums chart, thanks in large part to the Top 5 single, “From Graceland to the Promised Land.”
“Before his death, I’d been working on a tribute album to him,” Merle revealed in his 1981 autobiography. “When he died, I didn’t think I could finish it. I didn’t want to be accused of hopping on the funeral bandwagon for profit. Then, after a while, I didn’t care what people thought. . . . It was for Elvis because, like everybody else, I loved him.”
“I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool fan of many people,” Merle declared at the height of his fame, “but I’m a true Cash fan.”
While Haggard and Cash didn’t share a close friendship, the Man in Black influenced Haggard at a few key moments in his development. The first was when Cash played a show at San Quentin prison on New Year’s Day, 1959, when Merle was an inmate there. “He had the right attitude,” Merle recalled. “He chewed gum, looked arrogant and flipped the bird to the guards — he did everything the prisoners wanted to do. He was a mean mother from the South who was there because he loved us. When he walked away, everyone in that place had become a Johnny Cash fan.” It was that show that inspired Merle to dedicate his efforts to a singing career upon his release.
The second great influence Cash had on Haggard was encouraging him to be honest with the public about his prison record. “I was bull-headed about my career,” Merle admitted. “I didn’t want to talk about being in prison, but Cash said I should talk about it. That way the tabloids wouldn’t be able to. I said I didn’t want to do that and he said, ‘It’s just owning up to it.'” Merle, of course, ultimately took the advice.
In a 1984 interview with Music City News, Haggard revealed he was working on a Johnny Cash tribute album. Though the project never materialized, Haggard’s original song “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash” was included on his 2015 duet album with Willie Nelson, “Django and Jimmie.”
Born Leonard Sipes in Bethany, Okla., Collins came to Bakersfield in the early 1950s on a family trip with his girlfriend, future rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson. After surveying the local music scene, he decided to stick around.
Tommy found work with Ferlin Husky, who was living in Bakersfield and performing under the name Terry Preston at the Rainbow Gardens dance hall. It was Husky who helped land Collins a recording contract with Capitol Records, where he scored a handful of Top 10 hits in the mid-1950s, including “You Better Not Do That,” “Whatcha Gonna Do Now,” and “It Tickles.”
While successful as an artist, Collins also established a strong reputation as a songwriter. His “If You Ain’t Lovin’ (You Ain’t Livin’)” was a hit for Faron Young in 1955, and again for George Strait in 1988. Buck Owens did an entire album of Tommy Collins songs, and Red Simpson had a hit with his “Roll, Truck, Roll.”
A few years older than Haggard, Tommy became a friend and mentor to Merle just as the younger singer’s career was beginning to take off. The two would often drive around Bakersfield analyzing the songs they heard on the radio. “Tommy Collins was a great songwriter,” Merle reflected in 2010. “We’d discuss how songs were written – what subjects mean something and what didn’t. What worked, and all kinds of things like that.”
Merle fell just shy of the national Top 40 with Tommy’s “Sam Hill” in 1964. He went on to record several songs from the Collins catalog, including “High On a Hilltop,” “I Made the Prison Band,” and the #1 hits “Carolyn” and “The Roots of My Raising.” In 1981 Haggard scored a Top 10 hit with “Leonard,” a song he wrote in tribute to his old friend.
“He was,” Merle mused in later years, “an enormous influence on me.”
Missouri native Wynn Stewart moved to California in 1948. He signed with the Intro label in 1954 before moving on to stints with Capitol, Jackpot, and then back to Capitol, where he experienced his greatest success. With Top 5 hits such as “Wishful Thinking” and “It’s Such a Pretty World Today,” Stewart was one of the most influential artists on the West Coast.
In the early 1960s he performed regularly at the Nashville Nevada nightclub in Las Vegas, with a band that included Roy Nichols. "Wynn's sound was what influenced Buck and me both," Haggard told Jonny Whiteside in 1999, "and in a strange twist of fate, his band was the heart of the old Frizzell band -- Roy Nichols was part of the Lefty band, and he went to Wynn Stewart and ran into Ralph Mooney, who played the steel, and they were the basis of the modern West Coast sound."
During a trip to Las Vegas in the early 1960s Merle stopped at the Nashville Nevada club. Wynn wasn’t on stage, but Nichols invited Merle up to play guitar and sing. Before Haggard finished, Stewart appeared in front of the bandstand. Impressed, he offered Merle a job to replace his departing bassist, Bobby Austin. Haggard accepted and apprenticed in Stewart’s band for several months.
It was a Wynn Stewart tune, “Sing a Sad Song,” that would become Merle’s first charting single in 1963. Haggard recognized the song’s potential when he heard it and asked Stewart to let him record it. His instincts were right. The song made it into the Top 20 on the Billboard country chart and Haggard, a devoted student who had absorbed the lessons of his mentors and heroes, began his own journey to becoming an American musical icon.
— Scott B. Bomar is an award-winning author and researcher. In 2015 he was nominated for a Grammy Award for his liner notes to the CD compilation “The Other Side of Bakersfield,” which he also produced. Additionally, he produced the five-CD box set “Hello, I’m Red Simpson,” and wrote the accompanying hardback book. He was a contributor to the companion book for the Country Music Hall of Fame’s exhibition “The Bakersfield Sound: Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and California Country,” and is currently working on a new book, “Bakersfield Sounds: The Rise and Fall of Country Music’s Nashville West.” He co-hosts the podcast “Songcraft: Spotlight on Songwriters” at www.SongcraftShow.com.