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, www.metroactive.com, 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 http://tinyurl.com/br48n3
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. http://tinyurl.com/md4q3r
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.