In our house, growing up, it was Buck Owens and Merle Haggard and then everybody else. My dad knew all of their songs and he sang us to sleep with them when he wasn’t working graveyard shifts at the Tosco Oil Refinery.
It’s no wonder the first song I ever played on my guitar was “Tiger by the Tail.” I sang it for everyone on the block. I’d sit on the front porch and if someone was walking by, I’d sing it for them.
Forging my own path
But I hit my teenage years in the early 1970s, the era of ZZ Top and the Doobie Brothers, Steve Miller, Jimi Hendrix and Creedence Clearwater Revival. I found their sounds irresistible and, as did so many others my age, I turned my back on the music of my parents and forged off in my own direction.
Determined to become a rock star, I left Bakersfield for San Francisco and, for a time, was a force to be reckoned with. I fronted a band called Billy Satellite and later joined up with Eddie Money, who made my song “I Wanna Go Back” a bonafide hit. At our peak, Eddie, the band, and I were pulling off three- and four-part harmonies like the Everly Brothers squared. We were so tight, one night in Detroit we had Bob Seger and his wife on their feet over in the wings, screaming along with 13,000 other people. Bob freaking Seger!
By 1985, I was writing with and for everyone from the Stray Cats to Don Felder and Timothy B. Schmit of the Eagles. But, like the prodigal son, “I Hadda Go Back.”
It didn’t happen overnight, of course. For a while I was living two completely different musical lives: playing with Eddie amid the dying throes of my rock 'n' roll dream and contributing my own unique flavor to a new generation of Bakersfield Sound practitioners.
People like Max Reese and Ronnie Wayne, Chuck Seaton and David Neuhauser, were always playing in one country band or another. I would drive over the hill from L.A. to Bakersfield and sit in with whomever was playing. It wasn’t long before I was producing some of Bakersfield’s top country bands — the Sideburns, the Wayne/Seaton Band and others — and those country roots of mine had come flooding back.
In 1995, I started Big House and in 1996 we were signed to Universal/MCA Nashville by the King of Nashville himself, Elvis Presley’s longtime piano player, Tony Brown.
At one point in 1997 we were the No. 1-selling country act in the U.S. We’d barely scratched the country top 20 with “Cold Outside” and yet we were outselling other bands that were ranked above us. In other words, the public liked us despite our lack of airplay.
When the 1997 Academy of Country Music nominations came in, and we were up for top new vocal duet or group, I had high hopes. Deep down, though, I knew that because the winner was voted on by the radio stations, not the record-buying public, we didn’t stand much of a chance. And I was right.
But it became clear to me the weekend of that show just how much the name Bakersfield meant in the country music world. The night before the ceremony, I sat in a room at the Universal Sheraton Hotel with a handful of country stars. The great Charlie Pride was there too, and for hours we had fun trying to stump him on his Merle Haggard repertoire. We couldn’t — he knew every single Merle song as if he’d written it himself. The next night at the show I had Garth Brooks sitting in front of me, Clint Black next to me, and George Strait on the other side, and all of them were so nice to our little ol' band from the San Joaquin Valley. I couldn’t help thinking we were riding on the coattails of all the great Bakersfield artists who’d come before, because we were.
Uncle Buck and cousin Merle
As heady an experience as that was, the most memorable event of 1997 was playing live for a CMT show direct from the Crystal Palace, Buck Owens’ brand-spanking-new dinner club and museum in Bakersfield. It wasn’t the lights and the cameras that put a lump in my throat so much as it was meeting Buck Owens for the first time. Yes, here I was almost 40 and I still hadn’t met the man himself. And now I’d be playing with him. On national television. Live. Gulp.
We did some TV interviews the afternoon of the show and then it was just the two of us, for the most part, hanging out all day. Then soundcheck, rehearsal and showtime. Buck sat in with Big House for a few numbers, including his great, underrated song “Big in Vegas,” and he was in full voice. I saved the master tape of “Big in Vegas” and released it 18 years later on my first solo record, “100 Miles South of Eden.” I don’t know that I’ve ever been more proud of a recorded track.
Buck validated us and we came to regard him as our mentor. Uncle Buck, I called him. Certainly he was one of the biggest influences in the life of our band. His encouragement meant more to us than any award or accolade ever could. That he regarded us as equals — well, almost — was incredible. About a week after that CMT show, David Neuheuser, our slide guitarist, who’d moved to Bakersfield from New Orleans a couple of years earlier just to be a part of the Bakersfield Sound, got a phone call. It was Buck, and he wanted David to give him some slide guitar lessons. Think on that: Buck Owens was asking Big House for tips. Yeah, he was that kind of guy.
We worked that Bakersfield connection for all it was worth, and it was worth a lot. For one thing, it got us on stage quite a few times as Merle Haggard’s opening act. Our first show opening for him was in Thousand Oaks, and we were all a little nervous. Having grown up in the shadow of the greatest singer-songwriter of all time, and knowing that we represented a new sound coming out of Bakersfield — his town — added some pressure.
After soundcheck we were hanging out in the dressing room when Bonnie Owens came waltzing in. “I hear you boys are all from Bakersfield,” she said. When she learned we hadn’t even met Merle she marched us down the hall to his dressing room. He was giving an interview to a reporter but she acted as if Merle were the only person in the room, announcing, “These boys are from Bakersfield and they got a hit on the radio.” I was a little embarrassed, but Merle was totally cool.
Opening for Merle Haggard can be daunting for another reason, as we found out that first night. Folks are there to see The Man, not some young, white, swivel-hipped Otis Redding. We had this one heckler who kept yelling, “Bring out Merle!” After two or three songs, I’d finally had enough. “Brother, I don’t kick the shovel outta your hands when you’re working,” I said from the stage, “so please don’t kick it outta mine.” Half the crowd stood up and cheered and the rest of the show was stellar. A song or two later they escorted that gentleman out of the venue, so he never did get to see us “bring out Merle.”
Over time, though, I realized that I was never going to fit in that Nashville box. It was frustrating but I took solace in the fact that Buck and Merle didn’t either; that’s what made the Bakersfield Sound what it was. Buck and Merle just up and absconded with America’s country radio-listening audience and, as Keith Richards or Billy Gibbons might tell you, a good portion of the era’s young blues-rock fans too.
But times were different when I came along and my journey led me in a different direction. It took me 20 years to figure out that I’m Americana — all of it! Blues, country, rock, a little jazz, and some classical thrown in to keep it interesting. Marty Stuart, Rodney Crowell and Wilco can identify: It’s the only format left on the radio where we fit. Americana DJs can play what they want. They’re not single-driven or worried about the latest trend. They’re mostly mom and pop stations that play all kinds of music: Cross Canadian Ragweed, Asleep At The Wheel, Buck Owens, Big House. When I grew up, we had a couple of radio stations that would play Sly & the Family Stone and Marty Robbins within the same hour. Boy, do I miss that. So does the wider world of music, because that cross-pollination is what gave us Creedence, the Eagles and so many others.
Bakersfield's reach stretches far and wide
I’m proud to be from Bakersfield, both the city and the state of mind. From the barrooms of Austin to the hofbraus of Berlin, somebody somewhere is talking about it. Or listening to it. My buddy Tony Wright spent five years traveling the globe, from the jungles of Borneo to the Great Plains of Africa. At one point a monsoon forced him to hunker down for an extended stay in a remote river village in Thailand. One day he darted into the little local bar — basically a big, thatched-roof hut that served warm beer — and sat down. The first three songs he heard on the jukebox were “Act Naturally,” “Mama Tried” and “Love’s Gonna Live Here.”
He stayed and listened for quite a while to Buck and Merle, Bonnie Owens and Billy Mize, the only interruptions being the Thai bartender’s offerings of more warm beer. As he got up to leave, Tony said to the bartender: “No one’s going to believe this back home.” Well, I do!
It’s been this way for fully half a century, whether it be Mick Jagger in the Gram Parsons-inspired “Girl With the Faraway Eyes” or John Fogerty and his “dinosaur Victrola list'ning to Buck Owens.”
It’s always struck me as strange that people all over the world seem to know more about Bakersfield’s musical influence than the natives do. But then, as Jesus tells us, “a prophet is without honor only in his hometown.” I guess that can apply to musical subgenres, too.
— Monty Byrom is a Bakersfield-bred entertainer whose career has run the gamut from 1980s rocker to semi-regular Buckaroos frontman at Buck Owens' Crystal Palace.