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History of the Bakersfield Sound

First printed in the Spring 2002 issue of the Historic Kern published by the Kern County Historical Society

By Jeff Nickell, Assistant Director
Kern County Museum

When people around the country think of Bakersfield they will probably think of its association with country music. More precisely Buck Owens and Merle Haggard may come to mind. However, the Bakersfield Sound is much more than Owens and Haggard.

Of course, there are many theories on how the Bakersfield Sound developed. Former Oildale resident and retired Sonoma State University professor Gerald Haslam's book Workin' Man Blues indicates one such theory. Haslam states that the Bakersfield Sound grew out of several different styles of music and that performers picked and chose the styles they liked to create their own brand of music. Kurt Wolff of the All Music Guide states that the Bakersfield Sound was marked by the sharp, loud, high-end sound of the electric and steel guitars, fiddles, and lead and harmony vocals influenced by rock and roll and rockabilly as well as traditional country.  This was a direct contrast with the production style of the Nashville Sound, at the time filling the country airwaves with crooning voices, lush string arrangements, and background choruses. The Bakersfield Sound was a reaction to the early ('50s and) '60s sweetening of country music epitomized by the Nashville Sound. Country Roots on a Budget Collection indicates that Bakersfield music was, by comparison, rawer, twangier and rocked more than just a little.

One of the established facts, no matter whom you talk to, is that the Bakersfield Sound was created in the honky tonks.  Performers such as Cousin Herb Henson, Bill Woods, Billy Mize, Oscar Whittington, Eugene Moles, Jelly Sanders, Johnny Cuevelo, and a host of others crafted their trades within the smoke-filled honky tonks in and around Bakersfield.  The Blackboard Café, Bob's Lucky Spot, the Rainbow Gardens, the Pumpkin Center Barn Dance, the Beardsley Ballroom, the Clover Club, Tex's Barrel House, Trout's, and a number of other establishments offered music seven nights a week.  This provided enjoyment for the patrons, but more importantly allowed the musicians to hone their skills.

The influence of the performers on one another should not be discarded. Owens and Haggard are household names, but what made their careers was a drive to succeed, talent, and the ability to work with and learn from others.  Haggard would not have enjoyed the success he has earned without the likes of Fuzzy Owen, Bonnie Owens, and Lewis Talley.  Likewise, Buck Owens rise to fame includes associations with Don Rich, Bonnie Owens, Bill Woods, Red Si, and Rose Maddox.

The migration of the Okies to California in the 1930s and 1940s is really where the Bakersfield Sound started.

"The (Bakersfield) music was simple but powerful, played by simple-living people who had to leave their farms to come west," said Tommy Collins, an Oklahoma native who wrote his first hit songs after moving to Bakersfield in 1951. "There's quite a history to the camaraderie that developed between those Dust Bowl people. They weren't apt to go for fancy music."

Not all of the musicians who fueled and fostered the Bakersfield Sound were actually the children of those itinerant dirt farmers, but many of them were - and every last one of them, poor or not, understood that sort of life and that sort of desperation. Legendary guitar player Eugene Moles indicated that the Bakersfield Sound was formed from many phases of singular parts and that no one person can really take sole credit for coming up with the sound.  Moles adds that the sound, to the best of his recollections, started in 1949/1950.  He remembers piano player George French (whom he said was the ultimate professional), Billy Mize, Fuzzy Owen, Lewis Talley, Tex Butler, and Bill Woods as leaders of the movement.  It should be noted that the Bakersfield Sound was driven by the piano, steel guitar, and of course the Telecaster guitar.

When asked about the Bakersfield Sound, Jimmy Phillips said, "it had a simple sound ... to me it was simple ... they did a-lot of playing behind the vocalist ... it had a busier sound ... instruments filled behind the vocalist ... complimenting the vocalist."  Phillips, who played drums on several records and performed on KERO-TV's The Jimmy Thomason Show, agreed with Eugene Moles that the Bakersfield Sound got its' start in 1949 or 1950.  He added that Bill Woods was at the forefront of the movement and that Woods is known as the "Father of the Bakersfield Sound."

Bill Woods, originally from Denison, Texas, came to the San Joaquin Valley at the age of 16.  By the age of 26, Woods was the bandleader at the Blackboard Café.  During that ten-year interval he lived in Arvin, Woodlake, and Richmond (during the war) playing guitar and singing at church and performing in local bands.  His big break came in the late 1940s when he was hired by former Bob Wills vocalist Tommy Duncan to play piano and fiddle.  Tommy Hays, a guitarist and bandleader who still plays in Bakersfield, once said that Bill Woods could darn near play anything including keyboards, guitar, and fiddle.  Woods was a key factor in many performers careers including Buck Owens, Ferlin Husky, and Cousin Herb Henson among others.

The Bakersfield Sound, although resoundingly popular in Bakersfield and Kern County, became notable throughout the Central Valley and Los Angeles as performers began to spend time playing in those areas.  It is important to note that these areas already had country music and much of the same type of music was being played as it was in Bakersfield.  Again, the influence of performers on each other is significant.  Further widening the popularity was the session work being done in Los Angeles recording studios.  Some of the notable instrumentalists were Eugene Moles, Buck Owens, Jimmy Phillips, Bill Woods, Oscar Whittington, and Roy Nichols.  In fact, Moles was such a talent that Nashville guitar pickers starting copying his style.  Moles, however, never achieved the success of Nichols because he was unwilling to tour and leave his family behind.  In fact, Moles turned down a multi-year contract with Capitol Records.  Nichols, on the other hand, performed with such legendary stars as Lefty Frizzell, Wynn Stewart, and finally for twenty-two years with Merle Haggard.

Another reason for the popularity of the Bakersfield Sound was radio and television.  KUZZ radio broadcast could be heard up and down the San Joaquin Valley.  Meanwhile, Cousin Herb and his Trading Post Gang could be seen every week on KERO-TV.  Folks tuned in even from the Central Coast and Fresno to watch the show.  The guest talent on the Trading Post Gang was every bit as good as what Nashville was producing at the time.  Entertainers such as Joe and Rose Lee Maphis, Dallas Frazier, and Barbara Mandrell performed on the show and for some it was their springboard to stardom.  Cousin Herb Henson hosted the show for ten years until his untimely death at the age of 39 on November 26, 1963.  I have long argued that the Bakersfield Sound would have been much more popular if Cousin Herb had lived longer.  This, of course, may or may not be true.

But, Henson's replacement was a success in his own right.  Billy Mize began playing on KBAK's The Chuck Wagon Gang in the 1950s with Cliff Crofford.  He had already begun performing on the Trading Post Gang when Cousin Herb had his fatal heart attack.  Mize then took over as host of the show.  In fact, Mize also hosted Gene Autry's Melody Ranch for a number of years.  For two years, he even hosted both shows racking up over 3,000 miles per week driving between Bakersfield and Los Angeles.  Billy Mize won the Academy of Country Music's TV Personality of Year from 1965-1967.  Mize recorded for Columbia, Decca, United Artists, Zodiac and other record labels.  However, he like many of the Bakersfield Sound crowd was an excellent songwriter.  Vern Gosdin reached #1 on the country music charts with Just Enough to Keep Me Hangin' On, a song credited to Mize.  Dean Martin also recorded three of his songs including Terrible Tangled Web.

Songwriting is an important part of the Bakersfield Sound equation.  The poetic writings matched with the instrumentation are what made it a success.  One songwriter that cannot go unmentioned is Dallas Frazier.  Frazier is thought of as one of the all-time great songwriters having composed songs that have been hits in several genres.  He got his start at a children's talent show in 1952 that was hosted by Ferlin Husky.  From that point, he became a member of Husky's band, and began appearing on Cousin Herb's Trading Post Gang.  It was from that association that he learned to play guitar being taught his first chords by another band member, Tommy Collins.[9]  Frazier, who spent most of his career working in Nashville, wrote hits such as Alley Oop, There Goes My Everything, and Elvira.  Artists such as Elvis Presley, Merle Haggard, Eddy Arnold, Willie Nelson, The Beach Boys, Charley Pride, and George Jones recorded his songs.  In 1976, Frazier was named Country Music Songwriter of the Year.  He has also been inducted into the National Songwriter's Hall of Fame.

With all that being said, the impact of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard on country music is historic.  Both are prolific songwriters in addition to their musical talents.  The success of the two is evident in the fact that the American Country Countdown included both in the top ten artists of the century.  Haggard came in third and Owens was tenth (based on number of weeks the artists had songs on the charts compiled by Billboard Magazine).  Think about that for a moment ... only two country music performers in the history of country music have had more weeks on the charts than Merle Haggard.  Together they have more than sixty number one records, and that is only counting the songs they performed.