Bear Packaging

"The Bakersfield Sound: Country Music Capital of the West, 1940-1974" is an epic effort by historian Scott Bomar consisting of a 10-CD boxed set and 224-page hardcover book.

Several things impress about Scott B. Bomar's exhaustive history in word and song of Bakersfield's (mostly) post-war music legacy, but two stand out.

One is the staggering level of commitment it must have taken for Bomar to dig up, clean up, pare down and obtain rights to the 299 tracks on his new 10-CD boxed set, "The Bakersfield Sound: Country Music Capital of the West, 1940-1974."

The other is the sheer weight of the final product. Including the 10 separately sleeved music discs and the 224-page, photograph-rich hardcover coffee table book within, this full-term baby comes in at an authoritative seven pounds-plus. 

Bomar, a Los Angeles writer and musicologist, has researched the Bakersfield Sound extensively enough over the past 15 years to have become familiar with most of this city's better dining experiences as he immersed himself in the music history. He has produced an epic work here, another collaboration with Germany-based Bear Family Productions, that not only deserves the gratitude of Bakersfield's historians and legacy keepers, but also merits a special shout-out from the Library of Congress.

Many, if not most of the tracks in this set — more than 12 hours of music — likely would have been lost forever had Bomar not unearthed them from the shoeboxes and garage shelves of obscurity.

To be honest, several tracks should have just stayed there, but the unevenness of the talent levels and production values, especially on the some of the recordings from the 1940s, underscores the fact that this is not merely an entertainment product. It is a historical document.

But there is plenty here to appreciate, enjoy and share for the average fan of the Bakersfield Sound, a country-music subgenre championed by two noteworthy practitioners, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, who broke out with hit singles in 1959 and 1964, respectively.

They, along with Ken Nelson of Capitol Records and the thriving honky-tonk scene of the 1950s and '60s, helped transform this city into what some called Nashville West, which for a time was a legitimate challenger to Nashville's commercial country dominance.

Bomar's anthology begins with 1940s field recordings of Dust Bowl migrants and concludes, appropriately enough, in 1974, the last full year Merle Haggard lived in Bakersfield, the year of Buck Owens' final Top 10 hit as a solo artist, and the year Buck's Fender Telecaster virtuoso and high-harmony partner Don Rich was killed in a motorcycle accident.

The set, which includes many previously unreleased studio and live recordings, radio recordings and demos, has tracks by Ferlin Husky, Dallas Frazier, Jean Shepard, Wynn Stewart, Tommy Duncan, Red Simpson, Kay Adams, Dick Curless, Joe Maphis, David Frizzell, the Gosdin Brothers, Clarence White and others.

Bomar, a Grammy-nominated writer, said he sought to explore how, in his words, "the twin pillars of the Bakersfield Sound (were) shaped by the city's larger musical community. ... Who were their influences, and what were the musical markers along their paths to success? In what ways did their achievements reshape the local scene from which they emerged?"

Bomar succeeds to that end better than anyone ever has or doubtlessly ever will, with recordings by local performers such as Cousin Herb Henson, Jimmy Thomason, Dave Stogner, "Hillbilly" Barton, Fuzzy Owen, Lewis Talley, Bill Woods, Tommy Collins, Semie Moseley, Billy Mize, Bonnie Owens, Jelly Sanders, Johnny Barnett, Bobby Durham, Roy Nichols, Kay Adams, Gary Paxton, Freddie Hart and others.

Among the special gems are Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys in a Bakersfield radio studio in the mid-1940s; previously unknown live recordings of Buck Owens and the Buckaroos at the very last of Buck's annual Toys for Tots shows prior to Rich's death; and radio broadcasts from the stage of the infamous Blackboard saloon.

The vinyl record album-sized book includes hundreds of photos, a foreword by Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett, Bomar's substantial essay-analysis, profiles of each artist, and track-by-track commentary.

There's not much to nitpick here. The appealing layout and design of the book and box set packaging by Mychael Gerstenberger sacrifices readability for graphic impact in a few instances. And one could argue that the names of the four performers featured on the front of the boxed set — a posterized takeoff of Bakersfield's once-famous Sun-Fun-Stay-Play freeway sign — should have been slightly different than Bear Family's choices of Woods, Haggard, Owens and Mize (where's Red?).

But overall, Bomar's "The Bakersfield Sound: Country Music Capital of the West, 1940-1974" is a remarkable achievement well worth the retail price of around $200.

Hey, that's only about $28 a pound.

The Californian’s Robert Price is the author of "The Bakersfield Sound: How a Generation of Displaced Okies Revolutionized American Music." Contact him at 395-7399, rprice@bakersfield.com or on Twitter: @stubblebuzz.

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