Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Bakersfield Sound

By Pat Browning

“THEY SAY YOU CAN'T RUN FROM YOUR TROUBLES. But the "they" who say it--they ain't American. The whole history of the country is about packing up the buckboards and getting out of Dodge before the gunfights start up again. Indians, yellow fever, gangsters, sheepherders, locusts, Baptist crusaders, the buffalo herds ... there's always some kind of spur to light out and see the new territory.

“All music is a mnemonic device. All I have to hear is the dull thunk of Cash's guitar, and the bass quaver of his voice, to remember the sharp smell of crude oil from the rig in the front pasture, the bottomlessly mellow taste of my grandfather's Falstaff when I'd sneak a sip of it or the jungly, humid smell of Oklahoma in July.”
--- From California Country by Richard Von Busack,, a Silicon Valley newspaper

Ben Small’s post about empty stores and streets in Palm Springs and Bakersfield was a jolt. I suppose Palm Springs’ celebrities and high rollers have died. Today’s movie stars are more likely to be found in the Hamptons or Europe. As for Bakersfield, apparently it went that-a-way with The Bakersfield Sound.

Bakersfield was honky-tonk heaven in the 1950s and ‘60s. Times have changed, but even then not everyone liked what a friend of mine (native Californian) called “cry baby Okie music.” Never mind. The migrants who crowded in during the Depression and World War II and stayed, loved it.

It was Nashville country music with a rougher edge and a midwestern twang. Buck Owens and Merle Haggard were the twin pillars of the Crystal Palace, home of The Bakersfield Sound.

At Owens’ side was Don Rich, an equally talented performer who was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1974. By all accounts it took the wind out of Owens’ sails but he kept on performing almost until his death in 2006. Owens and Rich were a good team. One of their best live performances is on You Tube.

"Foolin’ Around," Buck Owens and Don Rich with The Buckaroos at the Crystal Palace, Bakersfield, 1961. It’s at

Merle Haggard is still singing, but time and hard living have taken a dreadful toll on his body. His voice is still the best. Diehard fans (like me) can listen to old records or go to You Tube.

Haggard’s life would make a good book. A born musician and a true living legend, he came from a dirt poor family, was a wild kid and even wilder as he grew up, doing time, escaping from various jails, finally ending up in San Quentin. Apparently Johnny Cash’s famous prison concert turned Haggard around and gave him the music bug. Paroled, he married and settled down with his bride in an old railroad boxcar. President Ronald Reagan later granted him a full pardon.

One of my favorite You Tube videos is a live performance of “Workin’ Man Blues” in the early ‘70s when Haggard was still young and drop-dead gorgeous. A band that really kicks it on down the road backs him. The piano player is smokin’ hot.

One note: I always read the Comments on You Tube. Haggard’s lyrics about working really touched a nerve. Comments on this video are about unemployment and politics. They’re so ugly I don’t know why You Tube doesn’t take them down. Ignore them. I know – that’s like telling a jury to ignore testimony they just heard – but I thought a warning might be in order.

Two of my favorite crime fiction novels are set in Bakersfield and incorporate country music.

In BLACKHEART HIGHWAY by Richard Barre, country musician Doc Whitney is paroled after a 20-year prison stretch for the brutal murders of his wife and children. Private investigator Wil Hardesty learns that Whitney may have been framed for the murders, and the local cops may have been part of the conspiracy. When Whitney is reported killed, Hardesty sets out to clear Whitney's name.

At the time Barre wrote this novel I pronounced it the best San Joaquin Valley novel since Steinbeck’s GRAPES OF WRATH. That may have been a bit of gush, but BLACKHEART HIGHWAY is one of my all-time favorite books. I guard my inscribed copy with my life, more or less.

I love the Doc Whitney character and always hoped Barre would feature him in a sequel. In the real world, a famous Bakersfield musician named Spade Cooley went to prison for murdering his wife. I wonder now if that’s where Barre got the inspiration for Doc Whitney. Back in the day, when I met Barre at a conference in Fresno, it never occurred to me to ask.

My other favorite is THE TUMBLEWEED MURDERS, begun by the late Rebecca Rothenberg and finished to perfection by Taffy Cannon. Here’s an excerpt from my review way back in 2002:


“THE TUMBLEWEED MURDERS is set in the ugliest part of the San Joaquin Valley, and one of the best characters talks like Granny in "The Beverly Hillbillies," but I kept going back to it anyway. Something about it just wouldn't let go. Maybe it's the music. … Rothenberg's protagonist, Claire Sharples, is a transplanted Easterner who feels the pull of that music.

“Claire is a plant pathologist working in the field for the University of California. On her way to a peach orchard where the fruit is afflicted with brown rot, she meets Jewell, a reclusive, long-retired country singer once known as The Cherokee Rose. The chance meeting with Jewell is followed by discovery of a skull near the peach orchard. …

“Curiosity leads Claire into a labyrinth of lies and corruption, as an old murder brought to light leads to new murders. She narrowly escapes drowning, and almost meets her Waterloo at the hands of a runty tycoon named Tidwell, who disposes of enemies by tossing them into a hay baler. ...

“I hate to see Claire Sharples go. She was good company. Still, as one of Rothenberg's own songs says: "Now my life has led me on/ And left so many roads behind/ But I can still recall them all/ So clearly in my mind."

Good listening. Good reading.


Mark W. Danielson said...

Bakersfield brings back many memories. We didn't take many vacations when I was a kid, but we did find our way to Bakersfield where my aunt and uncle lived. The highlights were pulling crawdads out of the canals and taking trips to Sharks Tooth Mountain.

Buck Owens and Dwight Yoakam, both from Bakersfield, teamed up to sing "The Streets of Bakersfield", which was a darned good tune if you like country music. Many years ago, I played in a country band that thrived on Merle Haggard. The roots of country music run as deep as the blues. Country has changed over the years, but there are still singer songwriters that capture the Bakersfield sound.

Eileen Sisk said...

The Crystal Palace was not built until 1996. Merle Haggard is not one of the pillars of the Crystal Palace because it was built by Buck; Merle had nothing to do with it. Buck Owens and Don Rich never played at the Crystal Palace in 1961 because it did not exist then. How do I know, you ask? Because I wrote a biography on Buck Owens, forthcoming in August 2010.

Eileen Sisk said...

P.S. Haggard's life has been written up in two autobiographies already.

Chester Campbell said...

Not being a real country music fan, my exposure to Buck Owens was mainly through Hee Haw. My first wife as well as Sarah were/are big country fans, so I've had plenty of exposure. My tastes run mainly to the big band music of the 40s and 50s and pop music of the 60s and 70s. When the ballad went out of favor, I reverted to the classics and jazz.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I never danced at Bakersfield's Crystal Palace but my cousin sneaked me into The Rainbow Ballroom one summer as a teenager to see Lefty Frizzell who gave me an autograph picture, which I still have. My parents would have grounded me for life, if they had known. :-)

I also got to watch Buck Owens and Tennessee Ernie Ford perform in El Monte at a ballroom nicknamed "The Okie Stomp," that was televised every Saturday night. Pretty heady stuff for a 16-year-old. :-)

Anonymous said...

You were an adventuresome teenager. I'm so jealous that you still have your photo of Lefty Frizzell. When I worked for the Hanford Sentinel all the PR glossies from everywhere (mostly country singers) landed on my desk. I used or didn't use them and then tossed them. Now I wish I had them for blogs. Who knew? (-:

I still remember tossing a photo of Buck Owens. Drat!

Pat Browning

Anonymous said...


You continue to lead a fascinating life. Trying everything once, are you? (-:

I think Owens and Yoakam doing "Streets of Bakersfield" is on You Tube. I'll check it out.

I continue to be amazed at the influence American country singers have on musicians in other countries, from the Beatles on up and down. Echoes of Jimmy Rodgers and Merle Haggard, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison, are heard around the world.

Pat Browning

Anonymous said...

Eileen Sisk:

I was hoping to put this off until tomorrow but since you also brought it up on my personal blog, I'll do it now. (I looked you up and see that you are also on Twitter, My Space and Facebook.)

I spent hours last night researching the Baron of Bakersfield and all references to The Crystal Palace gave 1996 as the date it was established by Buck Owens. Frankly, I don't know where I got the wrong info that Owens and Rich performed at the Palace, since Rich died in 1974.

As to Owens and Haggard being "twin pillars," that was poor word choice. Haggard was long gone from B'field by 1996 but he played in Owens' band early in his career. One source I read said he gave the band the name "The Buckaroos."

What I meant by "twin pillars" is that Owens and Haggard are the two most famous pioneers of The Bakersfield Sound.

One of the most interesting things I read last night is that Owens was also a good businessman and worth $100 million when he died.

As to Haggard's autobios, I seldom read celebrity autobios. They are subjective, usually with a positive spin, and seldom tell you what you really want to know. That's often the whole point of an autobio.

I do like to read biographies. Good luck with yours.

Pat Browning