LOS ANGELES — Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and other pioneers of West Coast country music are getting a much-deserved salute in Nashville with an expansive new exhibition at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Recognition of this scope — especially in the country music capital — was unthinkable during the 1950s and ‘60s when the snappy and rebellious style known as “the Bakersfield Sound” was in its heyday.
That sound, marked by a youthful, maverick spirit, was an important alternative to music coming out of Nashville at the time, which was growing sonically lush and thematically adult-focused.
The exhibit explores the distinctive music, performers, venues, recording studios, fashions, instruments and cultural factors that came together to make the California town a force in country music. The main focal points, of course, are the two musicians cited in the title of the show, “The Bakersfield Sound: Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and California Country,” which is slated to run through the end of next year.
Owens and Haggard catapulted the image and public awareness of Bakersfield far beyond the borders of a town otherwise best known for oil fields and farms. But they weren’t the only ones.
“We were just playing old, loud country music at the Blackboard,” said Red Simpson, who followed Owens’ and Haggard’s successes with a string of his own hits in the mid-’60s, mostly songs about trucks and truck drivers. Simpson has also written hundreds of songs, many of which were recorded by both of those artists and numerous others.
Simpson, once described by Bob Dylan as “the forgotten man of the Bakersfield Sound,” made the 2,000-mile trek to Nashville last week for the opening of the exhibition, including a concert Saturday night featuring other notables such as Jean Shepard, Buddy Mize, Rose Lee Maphis, Dallas Frazier and Don Maddox (of the Maddox Brothers and Rose family band).
“I think this story needs to be told from the ground up,” said Michael Gray, museum editor at the Country Hall of Fame and co-curator with colleagues Mick Buck and Tim Davis of the Bakersfield show, the first of this magnitude at the hall. “A lot of people will know the names of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, but a lot of people just know Buck from when he was on ‘Hee Haw’ and don’t know about the incredible music he was making before that with (band mate) Don Rich and the Buckaroos.
“Their talent and career didn’t occur in a vacuum: There’s a rich musical heritage to the whole region. When people discover that there was a regional music scene strong enough to bolster such high-caliber artists as Buck and Merle, they’ll also learn about Billy Mize, Wynn Stewart, Tommy Collins and Herb Henson.”
Indeed, conditions that created the Bakersfield Sound stretch to the 1920s and ‘30s, when hundreds of thousands moved to California in search of work during the Depression and the Dust Bowl-era storms that ravaged portions of the Midwest. With them came old folk songs, traditional country, gospel and blues.
Hits started trickling up from the Bakersfield dirt like oil from an underground seep with Shepard’s “A Dear John Letter” in 1953, Tommy Collins’ “You Better Not Do That” the following year, and Wynn Stewart’s “The Waltz of the Angels” and “Wishful Thinking” a few years later.
But with his Texas twang, crackling electric guitars, punchy bass and drums and an arsenal of hook-infested songs such as “Under Your Spell Again,” “Above and Beyond” and “Excuse Me (I Think I’ve Got a Heartache),” Owens started the gusher flowing in 1959-’60 with a string of hits that made him the most successful country act of the 1960s, a decade in which he scored 19 No. 1 singles. The chart-toppers included “Act Naturally,” which the Beatles covered, “Love’s Gonna Live Here,” “My Heart Skips a Beat” and “Together Again.”
Hot on his heels came Bakersfield native Haggard, who had played bass in Owens’ band for a time, adding rich thematic substance with classics such as “Mama Tried,” “Okie From Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me.” Haggard took over as the second most successful country act of the 1970s, behind only Conway Twitty, establishing himself as arguably country’s greatest songwriter since Hank Williams, but also among the most influential singers of his generation.
Bakersfield music in turn influenced rock musicians who were trying new styles 100 miles south in Los Angeles, among them members of the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons, the Eagles, Rick Nelson, Linda Ronstadt and the Monkees’ Michael Nesmith.
The Bakersfield connection can be heard today in artists such as Brad Paisley, longtime California country music cheerleader Dwight Yoakam and Haggard, who, at 74 still tours and records.
Of his reception in Nashville this week, 78-year-old Simpson said, “That was something else. I didn’t know anybody back there even heard of me,” an impression dispelled when he was given a standing ovation at the Hall of Fame.