Mr. Bubba paused to consider the question.

How does a rural, modest Mississippi town pack its hotels, restaurants and nightclubs practically 365 days of the year with tourists from every corner of the world?

"It's bizarre," Mr. Bubba finally acknowledged. "You can't explain it. It's a phenomenon."

But really — how? Well, for starters, there's this:

The area around Clarksdale has produced some of the most revered names in the history of Mississippi Delta blues. After overlooking the tourism potential of that fact for decades, Clarksdale broke out of its self-imposed anonymity in the 1990s, embraced its compelling legacy and became an essential pilgrimage site for music historians and casual fans alike.

That story line ought to interest those who've wondered why Bakersfield, pop. 400,000, with its rich connection to American music history, has not fully exploited its own possibilities as a music Mecca and, in doing so, multiplied its tourism dollars. (Visitors spent $92.8 million on Bakersfield hotels in FY 2018-19, to put a number on one key measurable.)

Maybe Bakersfield should take a lesson from Clarksdale, pop. 16,000 — about the size of the Kern County farm town of Lamont.

"What you've got in Bakersfield is something no one else has," Mr. Bubba, aka Kinchen O’Keefe, director of the Coahoma (Miss.) County Tourism Commission, told me Friday. "How do you do it? I don't know, but I know how we did it."

Start with an incredible roster of talent incubated along a 200-mile stretch of the Mississippi River's eastern banks — a succession of artists who date from the late 1930s: Robert Johnson, Sam Cooke, Ike Turner, Muddy Waters, B.B. King and John Lee Hooker among them — and add the proximity of music capitals to the north (Memphis) and south (New Orleans). Throw in some seed funding and mix well.

Bakersfield, of course, has Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, who lifted this city from cultural obscurity in the 1960s with an unprecedented string of No. 1 blue-collar hits, as well as adopted stars of the past and present such as Wynn Stewart and Dwight Yoakam. 

Country-music aficionados, both foreign and domestic, have long known about the Bakersfield Sound but they don't visit this city in the same numbers as places like Memphis, Nashville, Austin, New Orleans and Clarksdale.

How does Bakersfield change that?

Each of those other places has a robust digital presence, with online listings, updated regularly, that help visitors find live music venues. Some, like Nashville, have street signage that points the way. Some, like the Mississippi Delta, have historical markers that help guests conduct self-guided tours of the locations, however humble, where the magic took place. Most have themed museums, several apiece in the case of some cities, that celebrate local history with photos and artifacts from the glory years — and docents who can point tourists to venues making music that very evening.

Memphis has street-level "way finding" signage that helps tourists on foot locate venues and historical sites that might interest them, Kevin Kern of Memphis Tourism told me Friday. "We try to make it easy for people," he said.

Live music must be playing somewhere for any of this to makes sense, of course, and this isn't 1962. The Blackboard is gone, and so are the Clover Club, Lucky Spot and Tex's Barrel House. Plenty of others are out there today, however, playing one type of live music or another: Not only Buck Owens' Crystal Palace, but also the Bakersfield Music Hall of Fame, Temblor Brewing, World Records, Sandrini's Public House, Bellvedere Lounge, Pyrenees Cafe, Padre Hotel, the Park at the Mark, Ethel's Old Corral Cafe, Rustic Rail Saloon, Long Branch Saloon, Jerry's Pizza, Fox Theater, Spectrum Amphitheatre, Kern County Museum, Bakersfield Museum of Art, CSU Bakersfield, Bakersfield College, Rabobank/Mechanics Bank Arena and more.

It might seem like cat herders' folly to try to organize those places into a latter-day trail of Bakersfield Sound venues, but we ought to try, and award those that choose to participate with durable signage: Hear the Bakersfield Sound Here.

It's important to note that a 21st century version of the Bakersfield Sound need not be limited to Buck and Merle tribute bands or covers of Red Simpson songs. Original music by homegrown talent, countrified or not, should qualify. Big House and Truxton Mile, to name two, can speak more to this.

But first, a plan is in order.

"We start by defining what we're trying to do," said David Lyman, manager of Visit Bakersfield, the city's tourism agency. "It's multi-pronged. Do we just put up a sign (near a venue) because that will get the attention of someone who happens to be driving by? If they're coming to town this week or next month, we would need to have that info (in advance), not just who's playing at Ethel's tonight.

"We get visitors in here (at Visit Bakersfield) all the time that we ask, 'How long will you be staying in Bakersfield?' The answer often is, 'Well, I don't know, it depends what's going on.' If we can't give them a good answer, we've lost them."

Municipal government, economic development organizations, private businesses and the music community need to be part of the answer. With cooperation, funding (such as hotel tax revenue) and patience, Bakersfield can create jobs, meaningfully diversify its economy and further enhance the image its new branding campaign ("The Sound of Something Better") seeks to spread.

Might state tourism funding also be available? One would hope so, given Sacramento's clearly expressed intent to manage the decline of the California oil industry, a vital part of the Kern County economy. The state Environmental Protection Agency is coordinating a study that, in part, will be exploring ways to boost the Central Valley economy in a post-oil environment. Well, here's one avenue. 

Bakersfield will never be Memphis, which boasts Graceland, Sun Studios, Stax Records, Beale Street and much more. But neither should civic leaders here listen to the miserable drone of its abundant, change-loathing nay-sayers. 

It can be done, as long as Bakersfield heeds Mr. Bubba's wisdom in this matter.

"This was not an overnight project for Clarksdale," O'Keefe said. "It's been a process. And it might be for you, too."

Contact The Californian’s Robert Price is the author of "The Bakersfield Sound: How a Generation of Displaced Okies Revolutionized American Music." Reach him at at 661-395-7399, rprice@bakersfield.com or on Twitter: @stubblebuzz. His column appears on Sundays, Wednesdays and Saturdays; the views expressed are his own.

(18) comments

GeoffDW

After being a resident of Bakersfield during a 30 year career I moved to the Nashville area. Nashville is talked about across the country because it is known as one of the top spots in the country to visit. Why? It's the music scene and a well developed and executed plan to get tourists here, who then spend billions each year, like 7 billion last year. What I find interesting is that "Bakersfield" is a known place here. There is at least one restaurant here called/referred to as Bakersfield (https://www.nashvilledowntown.com/go/bakersfield), the chamber and others have had a "Bakersfield" music exhibit here (again, after it occupied space in the Country Music Hall of Fame for years) last year there were billboards advertising the Bakersfield music scene, and almost every years it is advertised that it has connections to the Bakersfield part of country music. So how come a town only twice as populated as Bakersfield (in population) brings in hundreds of times more tourist dollars? For years I have been saying that a properly planned and executed vision and marketing plan for downtown Bakersfield would help revitalize the city. It would take time and vision and money to rework the downtown area but it certainly isn't out of the realm of possibilities. There is nothing on the west coast that could capitalize on its "Nashville" connections like Bakersfield could. Someone needs to have the vision, spend time with the Nashville chamber discussing how it could be done, and develop a team of local leaders, investors, and developers. Yes, every place has the homeless, even Nashville does. Every place has crime, even Nashville does. What Bakersfield lacks is a plan to capitalize on its history, though Nashville recognizes it.

mrdwm1

With the exception of downtown, Bakersfield seems to have developed as an extended, out of control, bedroom community. Perhaps the present push to ease redevelopment of downtown buildings is a start.

Bibliophile1000

Instead of turning the city into a year-long tourist destination, aim for a week-long event like Austin, Texas’ South by Southwest. Fill every day with a myriad of entertainment options - concerts, panel discussions, art exhibits from well-known galleries, plays, comedy shows - something for everyone. We don’t have much in the way of high-end hotels, but there are beautiful homes that people might put on Air BnB for the event. We also have some clean, comfortable mid priced hotels/motels that would appeal to people who want to spend their money on event tickets and merchandise rather than fancy hotels.As for the time of year, what about mid-October? The weather right now is perfect!

DocM

My wife has an antique space in one of the downtown malls. I was in there dusting a year ago and I turned around and actress Diane Keaton was there. She is an avid collector and said Bakersfield's Antique District is a well kept secret. Kudos for Andrae for trying to carve out an arts and antique district. I don't like the stupid back in parking on 18th (really dumb idea) but can city staff give some kind of break for artists, gallery owners and antique vendors trying to set up shop? Instead of headaches and red tape? Ditto for live music venues... maybe some kind of civic encouragement and assistance with permitting etc.?

PedoHater

Russian Blavaknit is the top contributor to McClown’s election fund....why not write a story about this????

GetReal2

Save your breath Truth is fake news.

DogPark

Good article Mr. Price. I've spent plenty of time in the past in Austin at small shows with locals Dale Watson, The Derailers, The Gourds, Damnation, TX and other assorted Alt country bands. . Their ears perk up when I mention Bako.. They and the locals largely think of Bakersfield in a good light and want to know more about it.



Ignore the negative folks commenting. I suspect they see the pint glass half empty no matter what.

Stephen

One idea: A self guided tour past celebrities' homes. These could include not just Buck Owens and Merle Haggard but both Bush 41 & 43, and Chief Justice Earl Warren. Who else? Then an architectural guide to buildings by world class architects including Richard Neutra and Frank Lloyd Wright

Stephen

Businessman Rick Kreiser is certainly doing his part to make stuff happen here in Bako with his Guitar Master series. We've had a season pass for this concert series for several years now.

As far as that Lyft driver wo couldn't think of anything to do for his customers, maybe he should consider haviing a copy of a Thursday TBC with him to refer to. Our biggest problem is to choose which music venue to attend and which to skip owing to the schedule conflict. Can it be said there's too much to do here?

REMUDA

Anyway, looks like Bobby just woke up, struggling to put his dreamscape into print, lacking any other of his usual fantasies . . .

REMUDA

Well, since the Blackboard, Funny Farm, & Trout's are history, the Crystal Palace is all that's left. 'Course, we do have plenty of 'tourists' in our local parks, shops and streets . . . as evidenced by the "Goh" cleanup crews "contraband bags". . .

GetReal2

Comparing Bakersfield to a place in Mississippi is actually kind of apt.

JR

bakadon has already said it better than I could. There's nothing here for tourists. No hotels or even nice motels, absolutely no cafes or coffee shops or more than a couple nice restaurants. And there's no side attractions, like museums or art galleries, or nice downtown shops, or attractive shopping malls. But mostly, Bakersfield is just plain dirty. All over. Dirt yards. Dirt lots. Dirt. So a scenic drive around the city is a joke. And someone else already mentioned the homeless, everywhere. Plus drug dealers dangerously zooming in and out of traffic on those little bikes selling and delivering their wares. And importantly, Bakersfield is an island. There isn't anything remotely close for a tourist to take a short side trip to. Nearest town of any size is Visalia and it's over an hour from here. And there's nothing there, either. In fact, I think it makes Bakersfield look like Manhattan. And 2 plus hours to Santa Barbara or San Luis Obispo is not a side trip. And to get this hokey small town mentality city officials interested in doing more for Bakersfield than just keeping their jobs, ain't gonna happen my friend. Sorry, Robert, good try but no cigar.

Nathane

I drive for Lyft. The other week I picked up a couple. They had flown into Bakersfield to see Garth perform at the Crystal Palace. They had a ride for wal mart. They asked me 2 questions:

1)we hear marijuana is legal in California. Where can we get some?

I answered dispensaries were not legal in Bakersfield or Kern County.

2) we have a few hours to kill. What is there to do in Bakersfield?

The ride took us 15 minutes. During the whole time of travel I couldn't come up with one idea.

Great potential for Bakersfield, we celebrate new bars, Hard Rock Cafe, etc. Let's legalize and take advantage.!

BanditIvy

Until we remove the criminal homeless element from our streets nothing good is going to happen here.

Django

Bakersfield was also home to Mary Osborne, the first female jazz guitarist of note. Brian Lonbek plays like Joe Maphis. Local violinist Paul Cartwright is currently backing up Sir Elton John. World famous artists from LA are buying studio space in East Bakersfield. We are on the map.

bakodon

Hahhaha...you jest...Come to BACKWARDSFIELD! No hardly...this week Bob Dylan and Jimmy Buffet in Santa Barbara...Just out the events and stars in Paso Robles!

Look who runs Mechanics Bank...backwater 3rd rate company. No we get what we deserve!

Comment deleted.
bakodon

Robert, Robert, Robert! We are concert people! We love to go see the stars...why should we have to drive 100's of miles. The bigger question is why these artists do not stop in Bakersfield? Check Save Mart in Fresno? I'm all for change but having had to swallow the BS from BOS and our do nothing Council...We could have it all...What happened to the bike races, Tandy squelched! Why the river bottom is not used all year. Hart Park, a joke, could have been a regional park. Why not improve Truxtun Lake with picnic and fish cleaning area and PARKING! Look what Tehachapi has done, Taft and Westside Park and Rec. We should have a had a major 4th of July at BC stadium. I have resided here for 75 years and not what I thought would have developed over the years! We had the PR, remember the Business Conferences over the years! Tandy and the current council....BAD for Bakersfield!!!!!!

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