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Asking for ‘Treble’? Fox has it with screening of Bakersfield Sound documentary

You know Buck Owens, you know Merle Haggard, who both put a spotlight on the Bakersfield Sound, but do you know the pioneers of that musical movement?

Those musicians and their families are at the heart of "Treble & Twang: The Music That Came Out of Bakersfield," the new documentary that will be screened Sunday at the Fox Theater.

It is a passion project for sisters Di Sharman and Glenda Rankin, who have been actively invested in preserving local history since helping move their mother's home, the Lopez-Hill house, to the Kern County Museum in 2008.

Through their nonprofit, Citizens Preserving History, the duo had a plaque in honor of Red Simpson installed at the Rasmussen Senior Center in 2017 and were instrumental in getting Merle Haggard's childhood boxcar home moved to the museum, a four-year undertaking that culminated in a dedication in 2017.

While at a fundraiser for the boxcar project, Sharman and Rankin met a trio — local guitar legend Tommy Hays, quintessential steel guitar player Larry Petree and veteran drummer Jimmy Phillips — that would inspire them to get the ball rolling on their next effort.

"We just fell in love with them and they all had just great stories," Sharman said. "We said at that fundraiser that if we ever got that boxcar to the museum, we would do something to honor them."

Teaming with filmmaker Chuck Barbee and his wife, Tammie, the pair spoke with nearly 70 musicians, both Bakersfield Sound originals and modern-day performers, as well as family members of those pioneers.

Along with Hays, Petree and Phillips, others appearing in the film include Fuzzy Owen, Lillian Haggard Rea, Jerri Arnold, Tommy Collins Jr., Norm Hamlet, Bobby Durham and Ed Rogers.

"It was one little story after another," Rankin said. "Of course, Buck and Merle, but all of these musicians contributed. It was a big family, all the musicians helped each other."

That includes the legacy of Bill Woods, regarded by many as the progenitor of the Bakersfield Sound, not only performing but promoting and championing other musicians, including Owens to whom he gave one of his first jobs playing guitar at the Blackboard.

In gathering all these stories, the sisters and the Barbees found that many of their subjects helped uncover interesting connections.

Gus Snijdewind, grandson of Tex Butler, the first bandleader at the Blackboard Cafe, started posting photos of his grandfather and was contacted by the daughter of Carolina Cotton, known as the "Yodeling Blonde Bombshell." Sharman said in talking the pair figured out that the performers had planned to do a film in Hollywood and Butler had cut a demo of "Carolina Baby" for the singer.

"This history might have been lost forever," Rankin said.

As the stories grew, the initial plan for a 30-minute video expanded into the finished film that clocks in at 2½ hours. The film covers the Dust Bowl migration, which brought many of the musicians that helped develop the unique musical sound to the region.

"These Dust Bowl Okies came with a hard work ethic, came with their music and came with their faith," Sharman said. "Those three things gave them their strength."

They certainly needed it when many worked day jobs to support their families while playing music into the night. Sharman recalled a story from Hays who said when he first woke up in the morning, he didn't know if he needed to put on his milk truck uniform for deliveries or his cowboy boots to go out and perform.

Along with interviews, the film contains old images and footage, some never before seen by the public. Pat Cuviello, son of drummer Johnny Cuviello, was able to provide home videos that his father had shot on the set of Cousin Herb Henson's "Trading Post."

Rankin said because the program aired daily and the cost of film was so expensive they just recorded over previous shows, meaning any professional footage has been lost to time. 

"Chuck did a great job putting it together, pulling out little pieces from the home video," Rankin said. You felt like you were really there watching them perform."

"It's truly iconic footage," Sharman added. "You're seeing the real people on the home movie."

Rankin and Sharman said they are excited to share the film with the community, which they said would not have been possible without the generosity of local sponsors. That team includes John B. Linford, Curtis and Angie Trigueiro, Gary Jensen, Billy Woods Jr. and Debbie Woods, Front Porch Music, Hammons Meats, Media Post, Bear Mountain Sports, Rankin Ranch, Wall Street Imprintables, Sierra Printers, Rosedale Automotive, Milt's Restaurant, Emporium Western Store, Mickey, Casanova & Sack, Lawton Jiles, Smart & Final, Tyack Tires, and the foundations of Harry and Ethel West and Ben H. and Gladys Arkelian.

Because some people are coming into town early for Sunday's screening, other events have been wrapped up into a "Bakersfield Sound Family Reunion Weekend" for country music lovers to get their fill of the sights, sounds and soul of the music. (See sidebar for a rundown of activities including free admission to the Bakersfield Museum of Art's "The Bakersfield Sound: Roll Out the Red Carpet" exhibit, which closes next week.)

Since the film was such an undertaking, the sisters are happy to let others carry the torch to move forward on other projects to preserve local history — for now. Both praised Kern County Museum executive director Mike McCoy's efforts preparing the Bakersfield Sound exhibit.

"When things like this get started, it opens the door for more things to happen," Rankin said. "They'll (the public) be more and more interested to learn more."

Copies of "Treble & Twang" will be available for purchase at the screening for a donation of $30 (or more, if you're feeling generous).

Stefani Dias can be reached at 661-395-7488. Follow her on Twitter: @realstefanidias.