Friends and fans remember Tommy Hays as a gentleman and a gentle man. But he had a mischievous side, too, and a gleam in his eye that made you think he knew something that you didn't. And he probably did.
A working guitarist, band leader and vocalist since his arrival in Bakersfield in 1947, Hays would become a living link between the western music of the late-1940s and the electrified country and honky-tonk sounds of the 1950s and ’60s that would give rise to what we now know as the Bakersfield Sound.
Many thought he would live almost forever, but the music lover and music maker died early Saturday at a local hospital after a heart problem worsened. He was 93.
"Tommy looked amazing on the outside. He never looked near his age. But he was 93 on the inside," said his wife, Kim Hays, who was with him for more than 46 years.
"He was our Tommy all the way to the end," she said of her beloved husband.
When word got out about Hays’ passing Saturday, social media was soon filled with sorrow, sympathy and praise for the unique musician.
"For us, Tommy's passing represents the end of an era for Bakersfield's country music," said Zane Adamo, instrumentalist, vocalist and leader of the Soda Crackers, a Bakersfield-based band that plays much of the western swing and Bakersfield Sound music that Hays championed.
"Tommy was the last musician and frontman from the earliest days of Bakersfield country music," Adamo said in a text, echoing the band's Facebook tribute to Hays.
"We were fortunate enough to have Tommy join us for our first two editions of our 'Pioneers of The Bakersfield Sound' concert series, and Tommy was scheduled to perform alongside us for our third show coming up in July," Adamo said.
They know their friend will still be with them in spirit, he added.
Reached Monday, author and music historian Scott B. Bomar agreed that Hays was the last of the Bakersfield musicians who straddled both sides of the development of the Bakersfield Sound.
But measuring Hays' influence is difficult.
"Music history is so rooted in recording," Bomar said.
One of the interesting things about Tommy Hays is that he didn't record much at all, Bomar said, especially in the early days when changes were coming fast to the music itself and how it was delivered.
From a historian's perspective, there's not a lot of material to pull from, particularly during the Bakersfield Sound era.
"But it's a reminder how important live music in Bakersfield really is," Bomar said.
For every musician working in recording studios, there were likely others honing their chops live in the taverns and bars, influencing or experimenting with the development of the sounds that became available to them with the advancements in guitar amplification.
Bands got smaller. Dance halls faded away.
And the stages in the bars and taverns were the music laboratories as Bakersfield's reaction to the softening Nashville sound was to kick up the volume, twang up the Telecasters and sing about things that didn't require orchestral strings.
Kim McAbee-Carter, co-founder of the Bakersfield Music Hall of Fame, and a longtime local singer who has shared stages with Hays, had a hard time believing he was gone.
"It seems like I've always known Tommy," she said.
"He was such a gentleman. His arms were always open."
Hays, born in Oklahoma in 1929, the year the stock market crashed, was a child of the Great Depression.
But tough times or not, he got his first guitar when he was 10. And as he matured, his concept of the instrument and what it can do changed dramatically when he heard guitarist Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers.
By the time Hays was 22, he was living in Bakersfield, working as a regular performer on Billy Mize's television show at night, and holding down a day job as a milk man. He had started his own group, the Western Swingsters, and along with Buck Owens, the Maddox family, Red Simpson, Billy Mize, Fuzzy Owen and others, Hays helped create the brand of western music that would indeed come to be known as the Bakersfield Sound.
He played his guitar on live country music television and radio shows.
And he performed in local clubs and night spots that are now just memories: joints like the Lucky Spot, the Beardsley Ballroom, the Blackboard and Rainbow Garden — and sometimes places more low down, like The Roundup.
In his 1999 book, "Workin' Man Blues: Country Music in California," Oildale-born Gerald Haslam quoted Buck Owens:
"When I first came here, I went to work at [The Roundup] … there were four guys playing music out there: Dusty Rhodes, Tommy Hays …" Owens told Haslam.
The band members were each making $10 per night, but they were willing to take a pay cut to invite the newcomer and future country music superstar into the band.
"The Roundup was … kind of like, it was the bottom of the line," Owens recalled. "You start there; you want to get somewhere else if you can."
Despite his pioneering status, Hays always said defining the Bakersfield Sound was difficult, if not impossible, because of its diverse styles and influences. But the music evolved alongside the migration of millions of Americans and the music they brought with them.
“So many times I’ve been asked to define the Bakersfield Sound, and I don’t know how you actually define it,” Hays told this reporter in 2006. "We brought what was in our hearts and what we knew with us when we came out."
Inducted into the Western Swing Society Hall of Fame in 2010, Hays began getting the historical recognition that many believed he deserved.
That recognition continues to this day.
Hays is survived by 4 grown children (two from each side of the family), seven grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandson.
Services are pending.