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Is country music dying in Bakersfield, a city once called Nashville West?

Those lucky enough to attend last month's preview of excerpts from Ken Burns' newest PBS documentary, "Country Music," at the Fox Theater, saw proof of the depth and richness of the genre's history in Bakersfield.

But what about country's present?

Trout's is gone. The Blackboard is ancient history. The Funny Farm is a distant memory. And a visit to Buck Owens' Crystal Palace, practically a country music mecca, is as likely to result in the Latin ska of Mento Buru or the rock and soul of the John Hollins Band (or its successor) as it is latter-day Buckaroos, or the truly traditional country crooning of Vince Galindo.

Drive by the Bakersfield Music Hall of Fame and the electronic billboard outside advertises tribute bands playing the classic rock of the Doors, Santana, Led Zeppelin — a veritable who's who of ’70s album rock.

In a city that was once known as Nashville West, some are asking: Where has Bakersfield's country music gone?

"I hate to use the word dismal, but that's kind of where it's at," said Ray McDonald, a longtime friend and tour bus driver for country music legend Merle Haggard.

"It's disappointing to me that Bakersfield people don't want to go out anymore," McDonald said.

During those long days and long miles on the road, the Hag would tell stories of Bakersfield's country music scene in the ’50s and ’60s, when musicians could make a living performing in the city's nightclubs and honky-tonks — and there was live music pouring from those "Swinging Doors" almost every night.

Now, with few exceptions, musicians in Bakersfield must have a "day job" to pay the bills.

One of Bakersfield's favorite musical sons, Monty Byrom, has also been worried about where his hometown is headed musically. His credentials with "soul country" recording artist Big House, his creative affiliations with singers as diverse as Eddie Money and Barbra Streisand, lend him a level of credibility few can match.

"The club scene in Bakersfield is still alive but on life support," he said, "because they pay the musicians less than the dishwashers — unless you're willing to sit behind a palm tree and not sing too loud. Then you might make a little more."

While working in Austin, Texas, he noticed that the respect level goes up for writers and artists.

"Here it goes down," Byrom said.

"In Nashville and Texas, they support their own. Here we eat them for lunch."

Sylvia Cariker, a former country music radio DJ who was known to her loyal listeners on KUZZ for decades as Casey McBride, said it's hard to know where to start.

"Beginning in the ’50s through the mid-’80s, lots of good local clubs featured good local country bands. On any night in the ’70s and ’80s, you could find line-dancing nights and live country music — but it all started to fade in the ’90s," Cariker said in an email.

"In the ’80s Garth Brooks, George Strait, and Brooks and Dunn led the charge — all very danceable music. They made numerous appearances in town and regionally so there was plenty of access to tier-one acts and that may have contributed to the slow decline," she said.

In the ’90s, younger patrons left the country night spots for the lights of disco and rock bands, she said. There were a couple of clubs that still featured country music — but not live country music.

"Why hire a band when a DJ could play your favorite songs at half the price (and sometimes less!)," she wrote.

When friends or relatives from out of town visit Bakersfield, many want to experience the things the city is known for: dinner at a Basque restaurant, dessert at Dewar's, maybe a trip up the Kern River Canyon or a visit to Pioneer Village — and a night out at a local country honky-tonk or nightclub.

Where to go?

"Rustic Rail, I believe, is the closest replacement to Trout's, with a wide range of patrons all enjoying traditional country music," said Carol Knapp, who has been active for years in support of local country music.

But Knapp said the Rail has a band only on Sundays, from 6 to 10 p.m.

Every other Friday night at the Moose Lodge on Stine Road, Tommy Hays' band plays, alternating with Ed Shelton and the CRS Riders.

The Tejon Club in Oildale has a new name and the old neighborhood tavern is trying to bring music back.

"Ethel's Old Corral has a variety of bands and about half play country," Knapp said. The Monte Carlo on Taft Highway plays country as well, alternating with rock acts.

"Have you heard Johnny Owens and the Buck Fever Band?" she asked. "Buck would be very surprised to hear Johnny sing. He sings Buck songs and sounds like his dad. The band does Merle and Red Simpson songs.

"Jennifer Keel sings a Bonnie Owens song. Johnny Owens packs the house most of the time," she said.

But Knapp doesn't go to the Crystal Palace as much anymore "because the dance floor is crowded with line dancers who will line dance even to the slow songs."

Among country fans, there is a bit of a divide between so-called traditional country and newer country that can at times sound like ’70s rock with a twang, and at other times like pop music radio with the occasional hip-hop fused in.

But another divide exists between the line dancers and the country dancers.

"Merle would say, 'Now they're doing that damn line dancing,'" Ray McDonald recalled. "He'd say, 'How you supposed to make babies?'"

Indeed. At the Crystal Palace, line dancers — 95 percent are women — often fill the dance floor, making life tough for Texas two-steppers and 10-steppers, and leaving men sipping their beers back at their tables.

"In the old days, people went to dance and not just listen to the music and sit and drink," Knapp said. "Yes, there was drinking but I remember ... how crowded the dance floor was at the Blackboard."

Kip Sullivan, who for years co-owned Fishlips, on 18th Street in the city's downtown, supported many a local band, and also brought in name Americana and Red Dirt country acts such as the Band of Heathens and Dave Alvin.

Fishlips closed in 2011.

"The audience is so much younger now," Sullivan said. 

And just as legacy brands like Harley-Davidson are hurting as many millennials look elsewhere, so local country may be entering a down cycle.

But what goes down may go up again.

One bright spot is Ryan Coulter and his band, Truxton Mile. Even as country music is struggling at the local level, Truxton Mile is getting traction with its original songs, its latest video and shows up and down the valley, along the Central Coast and across the country.

But what about Bakersfield?

"You gotta go to a Marty Stuart concert or to Holland to hear and see real country music," Byrom said.

"The people behind the Bakersfield Sound ... are all gone and there was no one to replace them," he said. "While Nashville had the machine behind it, we didn't."

Many fans don't pay for recorded music and won't support live music. Nightclub owners expect musicians to work for very little, or for free — and in many clubs in L.A. expect bands to actually pay to play.

Before his recent death, the Bakersfield trumpet player and bandleader John Hollins, after years of playing at one well-known local venue, was finally getting a raise for his seven-piece band, Byrom said.

"From $350 a night to $500. You do the math," Byrom said. "I spend more on guitar strings.

"I could write a book about it. I've come full circle twice."

Cariker says if music fans want something bad enough, they have to demand it.

"I’d say if you want live country music now, beg or tip the band to play it for you," Cariker said. "There are so many who honor the legacy sound of country. But just as many want to hear Thomas Rhett and Miranda Lambert — the list goes on. So speak up and make a request. And write it on a five-dollar bill.

"I can’t begin to count the number of listeners who accused me of not playing 'real' country over the years and it's all based on perspective and your personal taste," Cariker said. "If you love the more traditional country, or if you love the more contemporary country, any station will play it for you if you ask.

"And if you ask and they say 'no,' find another station."

Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.

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