A perfect storm of postwar prosperity, immigrant workers and tough-minded individuals combined in the 1950s to create the Bakersfield Sound. The California spot became a hotbed of country music.
Today, that unique sound is so popular that an exhibition on it has been held over for another year at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tenn.
Opened on March 23, 2012, The Bakersfield Sound: Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and California County was originally scheduled to close at the end of this year. Now it has been held over through December 2014.
"The Bakersfield Sound exhibition has been incredibly popular with our visitors," said museum director Kyle Young. "By extending its run, we are ensuring that even more music fans can learn about a key component of music history.”
The exhibition has also been rich with live programming opportunities, Young said. The exhibition is accompanied by an ongoing series of school and family programs, including live performances, panel discussions, films, instrument demonstrations and more.
“We’ve had Kay Adams, Country Music Hall of Fame members Merle Haggard and Jean Shepard, Red Simpson, members of Buck Owens' family and many more here since the opening,” Young said. “This extra year will allow us to further expand on the exhibit story with more great programs."
Narrated by Dwight Yoakam, the exhibit explores the roots, heyday and impact of the Bakersfield Sound, the loud, stripped-down and radio-ready music most closely identified with the careers of Country Music Hall of Fame members Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.
Bakersfield’s many honky-tonks and dance halls catered to Kern County’s oilfield roughnecks, farm labors and blue-collar workers with money to spend. These people flocked to Bakersfield's nightspots to play pool, flirt, dance, drink, fight, and hear music that reflected their tough-minded, independent spirit.
Bakersfield musicians, including bandleader and guitarist Bill Woods, drummer Johnny Cuviello, pianist George French, guitarist Gene Moles, steel guitarist Fuzzy Owen, and fiddler Oscar Whittington, turned up the volume and emphasized the beat, to be heard above the crowd noise and to keep couples dancing and beer taps flowing. These musicians and many others helped to shape and build the Bakersfield Sound.
Alvis Edgar "Buck" Owens Jr. fit the profile of many Bakersfield Sound artists. Born near the Oklahoma border in Sherman, Texas, on August 12, 1929, he experienced hardship and poverty. As a boy, Buck worked the fields on his sharecropping father's farm and resolved that "when I get big, I'm not going to go to bed hungry. I'm not going to wear hand-me-down clothes."
The Owens family left Texas for the promise of California in 1937, but when their trailer hitch broke, they settled in Mesa, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix.
Music became a central part of Buck's life after his parents gave him a mandolin for Christmas. At 16, Owens landed a 15-minute program on Mesa radio station KTYL, performing in the duo Britt & Buck. In January 1948, he married Bonnie Campbell, the girl singer in their group, Mac's Skillet Lickers.
Buck, Bonnie, and their two boys moved to Bakersfield in 1951, and within a few months, Bill Woods hired Buck to play lead guitar at the Blackboard. Owens supplemented his Blackboard income with session work in Hollywood. His guitar playing caught the attention of Capitol Records A&R man Ken Nelson, who used him to add a raw edge to 1950s recordings by Tommy Collins, Wanda Jackson, Wynn Stewart, Gene Vincent, and others.
In the 1990s, the reissue on compact disc of his classic Capitol recordings helped restore Buck Owens's reputation as one of country music's most innovative and influential artists. His music was embraced by a new generation of fans and musicians, including Brad Paisley and the Derailers.
Owens overcame health problems, including a bout with oral cancer. He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1996. That year, he opened Buck Owens' Crystal Palace, a 500-seat dinner club and museum in Bakersfield, where he performed weekly with the Buckaroos.
On Friday, March 24, 2006, Owens performed for 90 minutes at the Crystal Palace, determined to give his all to his fans. Early the next morning, he died from heart failure at age 76.
In his own words, Owens wanted "just [to] be remembered as a guy that came along and did his music, and did his best and showed up on time, clean and ready to do the job, wrote a few songs, and had a hell of a time."
Merle Haggard is one of the few country stars who actually hails from Bakersfield. His parents and older siblings left Oklahoma for California in 1935, and Merle was born April 6, 1937, in a Bakersfield hospital.
His family lived in a converted railroad boxcar in Oildale, an unincorporated working-class town just across the Kern River from Bakersfield.
His father, James, a railroad carpenter and musician, died of a stroke when Merle was nine, forcing his mother, Flossie, to find work as a bookkeeper. In his autobiography Sing Me Back Home, Haggard recalled the years as "a time of blank, dark periods with constant pain inside my head."
Merle Haggard taught himself to play music on a guitar given to him by his brother when he was twelve. By then he was showing some of the restlessness and rebellion that would lead him into crime. "I would have gotten a life sentence early in life, and died young, if music hadn't saved me," he said in later years
Haggard served nearly three years, from 1958 to 1960, in San Quentin State Prison. He was sentenced for attempted burglary, but prior convictions for theft and other nonviolent crimes, and numerous escapes from jails and rehabilitation facilities, weighed against him when the California Corrections Department determined his assignment.
Haggard's experiences at San Quentin-spending a week in solitary confinement, seeing a friend executed-inspired him to turn his life around. Haggard determined to improve his lot by focusing on music after seeing Johnny Cash perform for San Quentin inmates.
Haggard was granted a full pardon in 1972 by Ronald Reagan, who was then governor of California. The singer considered the pardon to be his "greatest award."
For more information: Visit the County Music Hall of Fame and Museum at www.countrymusichalloffame.org or call (615) 416-2001.