fuzzy owen

Members of the "Cousin Herb" show. From left, Lewis Talley, Fuzzy Owen, Bonnie Owens, Roy Nichols, Al Brumley Jr., and Cousin Herb Henson.

Put down that old vinyl record and put your shoes on. Is the car gassed up? Good. Print out this article, open up Google maps and take this tour, which we have plucked from the pages of Robert Price's 2015 book, "The Bakersfield Sound: How a Generation of Displaced Okies Revolutionized American Music."

The Sunset Labor Camp, 8301 Sunset Boulevard, just east of Lamont’s Sunset and Vineland schools. Just three of the original buildings remain from the defining Okie migrant camp of the late 1930s. Parts of the humble housing project, also known as the Arvin federal labor camp and the Weedpatch camp, were used as a location for the 1940 film The Grapes of Wrath. The more historic buildings aren’t much to look at today, but the camp still brings out powerful emotions in many of the people who grew up here. Homely or not, it is the scene of an annual Dust Bowl Festival every fall. Bakersfield Sound expert Bob Mitchell has personally chauffeured several film industry people out to the camp for tours. “They practically have a religious experience when they see those buildings,” Mitchell told me. Accompanying song: “They’re Tearin’ the Labor Camps Down” by Merle Haggard.

Hag’s boxcar, 3801 Chester Avenue. This small, exceedingly modest house, which originally stood at 1303 Yosemite Drive, is the holy grail of any Bakersfield Sound tour. It’s the place all songwriters want to visit. Hag mentions it as the influence for many of his classic songs. His long-suffering mother Flossie lived here for years after he left home for trouble and fame. The house originally sat about 250 feet from the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks and a mile from the Kern County Sheriff’s Office, appropriately enough, but in 2016 preservationists moved it to the Kern County Museum on Chester Avenue, about two and a half miles away.

One of Haggard’s favorite themes is the railroad; in “Oil Tanker Train” he remembers his mother awakening him as a boy and telling him to hurry outside their boxcar home to watch a passing train. Haggard mourns the deteriorating condition of the old house in his 1999 autobiography, My House of Memories, expressing relief that his parents didn’t live to see their “wood and stucco jewel box” reach its present condition. 

The Blackboard, 3801 Chester Avenue. At least that would be the address if the most famous honky-tonk in Bakersfield history were still standing. The building (in its later years a shooting range, pizza parlor, and sports bar, among other things) was knocked down the week of September 7, 2001, to make way for eventual expansion by the Kern County Museum and its parent agency, the Kern County Superintendent of Schools office. But there's some debate here about whether the museum folks knocked down the actual building, or if the Blackboard came down years ago and was replaced by strip mall, and it was the strip mall that came down in 2001.

In any case, it was on this approximate spot that the Blackboard building, a museum piece in and of itself, once stood.

Truxtun Avenue and Kern Street. When Lewis Talley and Charles “Fuzzy” Owen launched their own record label, Tally Records, in 1954, this was their first recording studio. They stayed here only about three months, but that was long enough to get Buck Owens on vinyl singing a couple of rockabilly songs. Owens, fearing he’d be blackballed for straying outside Nashville’s accepted parameters, used a pseudonym: Corky Jones. The old studio, vacant for at least twenty years, was most recently an upholstery shop, a very small upholstery shop. Accompanying song: “Rhythm and Booze” by Buck Owens/Corky Jones.

Tally Records, versions two (911 Baker Street) and three (419 Hazel Street). Talley and Owen moved their recording studio to Baker Street, next door to Saba’s Men’s Store, in 1955. It was there in early 1956 that Owen and Talley recorded a rock ’n’ roller named Wally Lewis. His song “Kathleen,” leased for production and distribution to another company, reached number fifteen on the charts in 1957. A few months later, Talley built a new recording studio in the backyard of his house on Hazel Street, alongside the garage. That would have been convenient for both Talley and Owen, since they lived next door to each other. Whether the other neighbors found it convenient is a matter lost to history. (Don’t bother the present occupants.) Merle Haggard, Tally Records’ first and biggest signing, recorded “Skid Row” for them in 1962. It was his first recording. Accompanying song: “Skid Row” by Merle Haggard.

Rainbow Gardens, 2301 South Union Avenue. It’s now the Basque Club, but back in the early 1950s, the Rainbow Gardens was an all-ages dance hall. It’s where Buck Owens and Merle Haggard first saw their idols, Bob Wills and Lefty Frizzell, the two spiritual grandfathers of the Bakersfield Sound. That legendary hillbilly outfit from Alabama (by way of Modesto), the Maddox Brothers and Rose, played here too, as did Ferlin Husky, who in many ways got the whole scene started. Haggard, still just a teen, had an impromptu audition with Frizzell here prior to a show. Frizzell was so impressed that he allowed Haggard to go onstage first as his opening act. Accompanying song: “If You’ve Got the Money” byrst as his opening act. Accompanying song: “If You’ve Got the Money” by Lefty Frizzell.

The Lucky Spot, 2303 Edison Highway. Now they call it the Empty Spot. Well, they ought to. The old honky-tonk where Bonnie Owens once sang lustily has been torn down. It’s the only building on the block that’s gone, replaced by an asphalt lot and, fifty feet back from the road, Lucky Spot Auto Body.

The Lucky Spot, according to Mitchell, is “one of the two spots, along with the Blackboard, where the Bakersfield Sound was forged. When the Blackboard and the Lucky Spot were torn down within a few years of each other, I gave up agitating that Bakersfield Sound sites be preserved. It was clear that no one gave a shit.” Accompanying song: “A Bar in Bakersfield” by Merle Haggard.

The Clover Club, 2611 Edison Highway, just down the street from the Lucky Spot. Bonnie Owens was among the local stars who worked here. For the cast of Henson’s Trading Post, this was home base. But use your imagination; it’s a dirt lot now. Accompanying song: “Why Don’t Daddy Live Here Anymore” by Bonnie Owens.

Tex’s Barrel House, 1524 Golden State Highway. It’s now the Deja Vu strip club, but in the 1950s and ’60s, it was a lively country juke joint with an oil field–themed name and advantageous proximity to the Blackboard, less than a mile north. Accompanying song: “If The World Ran Out of Diesel” by Red Simpson.

Bakersfield Civic Auditorium, 1001 Truxtun Avenue. It’s now called Rabobank Theater, but this is the same place where in September 1963 Capitol Records recorded the Country Music Hootenanny live album featuring Collins, Owens, Haggard, Henson, Glen Campbell, and many other popular Bakersfield Sound artists. It was here, at that show, that Capitol A&R man Ken Nelson “discovered” Haggard. On the recording, Tommy Collins has this great cornball line: “It’s great being here with you tonight ... Of course, I only live over yonder a couple of blocks. I’m

Truxtun Avenue and Kern Street. When Lewis Talley and Charles “Fuzzy” Owen launched their own record label, Tally Records, in 1954, this was their first recording studio. They stayed here only about three months, but that was long enough to get Buck Owens on vinyl singing a couple of rockabilly songs. Owens, fearing he’d be blackballed for straying outside Nashville’s accepted parameters, used a pseudonym: Corky Jones. The old studio, vacant for at least twenty years, was most recently an upholstery shop, a very small upholstery shop. Accompanying song: “Rhythm and Booze” by Buck Owens/Corky Jones.

Tally Records, versions two (911 Baker Street) and three (419 Hazel Street). Talley and Owen moved their recording studio to Baker Street, next door to Saba’s Men’s Store, in 1955. It was there in early 1956 that Owen and Talley recorded a rock ’n’ roller named Wally Lewis. His song “Kathleen,” leased for production and distribution to another company, reached number fifteen on the charts in 1957. A few months later, Talley built a new recording studio in the backyard of his house on Hazel Street, alongside the garage. That would have been convenient for both Talley and Owen, since they lived next door to each other. Whether the other neighbors found it convenient is a matter lost to history. (Don’t bother the present occupants.) Merle Haggard, Tally Records’ first and biggest signing, recorded “Skid Row” for them in 1962. It was his first recording. Accompanying song: “Skid Row” by Merle Haggard.

Rainbow Gardens, 2301 South Union Avenue. It’s now the Basque Club, but back in the early 1950s, the Rainbow Gardens was an all-ages dance hall. It’s where Buck Owens and Merle Haggard first saw their idols, Bob Wills and Lefty Frizzell, the two spiritual grandfathers of the Bakersfield Sound. That legendary hillbilly outfit from Alabama (by way of Modesto), the Maddox Brothers and Rose, played here too, as did Ferlin Husky, who in many ways got the whole scene started. Haggard, still just a teen, had an impromptu audition with Frizzell here prior to a show. Frizzell was so impressed that he allowed Haggard to go onstage from Maine. The main part of Oklahoma.” Accompanying song: “I Got Mine” by Tommy Collins (live version from the Country Music Hootenanny album).

Tommy Collins’s house, a white-with-green-trim two-story at the northwest corner of Twenty-First and Pine Streets. Don’t bother the occupants—just park across the street and imagine Collins, the great tragic figure of the Bakersfield Sound era, strumming on the veranda. Collins, whose real name was Leonard Sipes, had a solid run as a recording artist and a great career as a songwriter. Merle Haggard recorded more than thirty of his songs, and Owens another dozen. His most noteworthy songwriting credit, “If You Ain’t Lovin’ (You Ain’t Livin’),” recorded by George Strait and dozens of others, made him a small fortune. But Collins was tortured by the fact that he never hit it as big as his protégés, Owens and Haggard—his lovely mini-estate just west of downtown Bakersfield notwithstanding. Accompanying song: “You Better Not Do That” by Tommy Collins.

Buck’s house, 309 Panorama Drive. Buck Owens lived in this large, ranch-style house overlooking the Panorama Bluffs during his Hee Haw years, 1968–74. It was also where Owens was living when he had his final number one hit, “Made in Japan,” prior to his comeback hit with Dwight Yoakam in 1989, “Streets of Bakersfield.” Don’t bother the occupants. Accompanying song: “Made in Japan” by Buck Owens.

Buck’s other old houses. Back when Owens was sufficiently unknown and could safely list his home address in the phone book, he listed 206 Harding Avenue and 204 Jones Street at various times. Accompanying song: “The House Down the Block” by Buck Owens.

Buck’s North Chester studio, 1213 North Chester Avenue. This remodeled 1930s movie theater in the heart of Oildale was Buck’s headquarters back in the heyday, a place where Buck and Hag laid down many of their recordings. In 1971, twelve of the top one hundred country singles were recorded there. Goldie Hawn’s 1972 country album Goldie, recorded in part in Bakersfield, was one of the studio’s more amusing asterisks. The building later became Fat Tracks, a recording studio with an odd link to Bakersfield music: for years Rick Davis, father of Korn lead singer Jonathan Davis, ran the place. Accompanying song: “If We Make It through December” by Merle Haggard, who recorded the song in that studio.

Gary S. Paxton Sound Services Inc., 1201 North Chester Avenue. The quirky songwriter-producer lived in Bakersfield for four years and made his mark. His Oildale studio, created out of an abandoned bank just a few doors down from Buck’s studio, brought in artists of three general types: acts that had signed on with one of Paxton’s four record labels (Bakersfield International, Countrypolitan, GSP, and Garpax) or had production deals with Paxton; western Canadian rock bands, delivered by a Paxton associate (there were about thirty such bands); and local country and rock acts, including Bobby Durham and Chicano rocker Augie Moreno. Among the studio’s more unique features: an underground bank vault that was repurposed as an echo chamber and a control room that was built into a converted Greyhound bus, giving Paxton a mobile studio. Paxton Sound Services, perhaps the most musically eclectic studio of its time, produced at least one hit: the Gosdin Brothers’ “Hangin’ On,” which hung on to Billboard’s country charts for eleven weeks. The studio closed when Paxton, battling substance abuse problems, bad investments, and marital woes, moved to Nashville. Accompanying song: “Hangin’ On” by the Gosdin Brothers.

Buck Owens’s grave, Greenlawn Southwest Cemetery, 2739 Panama Lane. Buck is buried in the Buck Owens Family mausoleum, an elaborate, above-ground structure that is the largest building in the graveyard except for the Georgian mansion that serves as the office and mortuary. Buck is interred with his mother and the ashes of his first wife, Bonnie Campbell Owens. The image of an acoustic guitar adorns each of the heavy, rust-metal doors leading in to the mausoleum, and over the entrance are the words “The Buck Owens Family” and “Buck’s Place.” Accompanying song: “Dust on Mother’s Bible” by Buck Owens.

Don Rich’s grave, Hillcrest Cemetery, 9101 Kern Canyon Road. Rich, who sang high harmony on so many of Buck Owens’s hits, died in a 1974 motorcycle accident, marking the end of the Buckaroos’ most productive years. Rich is buried here in a modest grave. “Buck will tell you this: Don was as seminal a part of Buck’s sound as Buck,” according to Mitchell. “Don was extraordinary.” Bill Woods, a musician, deejay, and entrepreneur who gave Owens one of his first jobs at the Blackboard playing guitar, is buried nearby. Accompanying song: “Soft Rain” by Don Rich (from a live recording on KUZZ).

Pumpkin Center Barn Dance, eight miles south of Bakersfield on Taft Highway. This old Quonset hut, once the stomping ground of the Ozark Squirrel Shooters, is well disguised amid the borderline blight of this old farmers’ supply town, but you can pick it out if you look closely. Accompanying song: “Punkin Center Barn Dance” by David Allan Coe. (I doubt this song was written about Cousin Ebb’s place because the United States has at least seven places on the map called Pumpkin Center or Punkin Center—three in Texas alone, as well as Arizona, Kansas, Louisiana, and Missouri—but for this musical tour we just can’t ignore a song with such a name.)

Trout’s, 805 North Chester Avenue. This is perhaps the last authentic Bakersfield Sound–era honky-tonk. It was originally a bar/café, but according to Vern Hoover, who bought Trout’s in 1956, the fiddle player, guitarist, and TV host Jelly Sanders, one of the great sidemen of the era, started playing here regularly around 1970. Keyboardist-songwriter Red Simpson also had a decade-long Monday-night run at Trout’s—and he still shows up now and then. Ask him, and he’ll probably play some of the greatest Bakersfield Sound songs of the period—Simpson-penned tunes such as “You Don’t Have Very Far to Go,” recorded by Haggard, and “Close Up the Honky Tonks,” recorded by Owens. Simpson had a dozen hits of his own too, many in the truck-driving subgenre popular in the late 1950s to mid-1960s. Accompanying song: “(Hello) I’m a Truck” by Red Simpson.

Louie Talley Cafe, 2111 Edison Highway. The music entrepreneur was also in the coffee shop business, and he made a go of it at several locations, including this spot just down the street from those two famous Edison Highway honky-tonks. A few years later he ran a café in the Padre Hotel, back in that landmark’s pre-pre-pre-renovation era, when Milton “Spartacus” Miller was the benevolent if slightly off-kilter landlord. Accompanying song: “Arkie’s Got Her Shoes On” by Fuzzy Owen with Lewis Talley.

KUZZ Studios, 910 Chester Avenue. The original office of Bakersfield’s most famous radio station is just a block down the street from the Big Shoe, a clog-shaped shoe repair shop and landmark from what some have called the Disneyland school of architecture. In 1960, Valley Radio Corp. bought KIKK radio, switched its format to country music, and hired Henson as president and general manager. The station’s call letters were changed to KUZZ to play on Henson’s celebrity, and Cousin Herb, whose TV show continued to make him a fixture in living rooms throughout the Central Valley, became “Kuzzin Herb.” Accompanying song: “Y’all Come” by Cousin Herb.

Beer Can Hill, 5001 North Chester Avenue. Actually, that’s the address of Bakersfield Speedway, the dirt-racing track north in Oildale. Beer Can Hill, a cultural touchstone for many Bakersfield Sound–era participants (translation: a good place to loll about and drink beer), is just north. The hangout was the inspiration for the only recording to ever feature Haggard and Owens together. Accompanying song: “Beer Can Hill” by Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, and Dwight Yoakam.

Merle Haggard’s mansion, 18200 Highway 178. Hag’s expansive home along the Kern River, near the mouth of the Kern Canyon, was the scene of more than a few wild parties attended by country music royalty. It later became a private medical facility after its celebrity owner moved to Northern California, and then it fell into abandoned disrepair. Tours are decidedly discouraged, but you can get a feel for the surroundings where Haggard lived throughout most of the 1970s. This is the place he called home during his heyday. Accompanying song: “Kern River” by Merle Haggard.

Tommy’s hilltop, 3000 China Grade Loop. The top of the China Grade Loop coming east from Oildale was a point of inspiration for Tommy Collins, who sat in a car parked alongside the road here and wrote “High on a Hilltop,” which became a hit for his friend Haggard. Accompanying song: “High on a Hilltop” by Merle Haggard.

Fred & Gene’s Cafe, 3317 State Road. This is the café that rowdy teen Merle Haggard tried to burglarize late one night, stone drunk, in December 1957—despite the fact that it was still open for business. His conviction following that arrest, along with his previous record of incorrigibility, led to his incarceration at San Quentin State Prison. Accompanying song: “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” by Merle Haggard.

There. Feel the giddy chill of proximity to greatness? Try rolling up the windows. If that doesn’t work, wrap yourself up in a Buck Owens replica bolero-style suede fringe jacket, available at the Bakersfield Sound Tour gift shop, which, in our more fanciful moments, we envision opening one day. A splash of cold water in the face usually fixes that though.

Robert Price's column appears Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Reach him at rprice@bakersfield.com or @stubblebuzz. The opinions expressed are his own.

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