ARCHITECTS AND FOUNDERS
Against a backdrop of postwar prosperity, and after two decades of migration to California's fertile San Joaquin Valley by Dust Bowl refugees and job seekers from Oklahoma, Texas, and elsewhere, Bakersfield emerged in the 1950s as a hotbed of country music. The town's many honky-tonks and dance halls catered to Kern County's oilfield roughnecks, farm laborers, 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.
Maddox Brothers & Rose
Maddox Brothers & Rose were one of the first country music acts to attain widespread popularity in California. Similarities between the Maddox family and the Joad family of John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath were undeniable. From their hometown of Boaz, Alabama, the Maddoxes made their way to California in 1933 by hitchhiking and jumping box cars. Once there, they led the life of "fruit tramps," picking fruit up and down the state. To escape a hard life of migrant labor, the Maddox siblings formed a band in 1937 and began performing on radio.
With Rose singing lead and her brothers Cal, Cliff, Don, Fred, and Henry playing various instruments, Maddox Brothers & Rose developed a raucous musical blend of boogie-woogie and western swing that made them hugely popular in California's honky-tonks in the 1940s. Sporting vibrantly colored and embroidered matching stage costumes, designed by Hollywood tailor Nathan Turk, the group was billed as "America's Most Colorful Hillbilly Band."
Their stage wear included a set of striking Turk-designed Grapes of Wrath suits, a prideful reference to their humble beginnings.
A transplanted Texan and former sideman with western-swing crooner Tommy Duncan, Bill Woods began performing in Bakersfield clubs in the late 1940s. He worked as a disc jockey at the town's first all-country radio station, KAFY, and was active in recruiting talent for the local honky-tonks and dance halls.
From 1950 to 1964, Woods led the house band at the Blackboard, where he was at the forefront of the electric guitar-driven blend of western swing, honky-tonk, and rockabilly for which Bakersfield would become famous. He nurtured the raw talent of numerous pickers and singers as they passed through the ranks of his Orange Blossom Playboys. Among those he mentored early in their careers were Merle Haggard, Red Simpson, and Buck Owens.
Some have called Woods the "Father of the Bakersfield Sound," and Haggard paid tribute to him in 1971 when he recorded Simpson's song "Bill Woods from Bakersfield."
Listen to Merle Haggard sing "Bill Woods from Bakersfield"
Bonnie Owens never had a Top Ten hit, but she was a central figure in Bakersfield country music. At various times, her personal and professional lives became intertwined with those of Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and key Bakersfield Sound architect Fuzzy Owen.
Born in Oklahoma City on October 1, 1929, Bonnie Maureen Campbell joined the Dust Bowl migration when her family moved to Arizona. Inspired by yodeling cowgirl Patsy Montana, Campbell set her sights on a singing career while still a young girl. When she was fifteen, in 1945, Bonnie met Buck Owens at a Mesa, Arizona, roller rink, and they married three years later.
The Owenses' marriage was in trouble by the time they arrived in Bakersfield in 1951. They divorced two years later, but remained friends. A single mother, Bonnie worked as a car-hop and a cocktail waitress to support her young sons. She was also a gifted vocalist and budding songwriter. Bonnie became known as the "singing waitress" because she often took breaks from serving drinks to sing with the band at the Blackboard and the Clover Club.
Owens achieved her greatest success as duet partner and backup singer with her second husband, Merle Haggard. The Academy of Country Music named her Female Vocalist of the Year in 1965. With Haggard she won the ACM award for Vocal Duet of the Year from 1965 to 1968.
Jean Shepard and Ferlin Husky
Bonnie Owens launched her recording career in 1953 when she and boyfriend Fuzzy Owen cut "A Dear John Letter." The song's writer, Billy "Hillbilly" Barton, had traded it to Owen and Lewis Talley for a car. One of the first records cut in Bakersfield, in a primitive studio, it was released on a local independent label but did not chart.
Two other Bakersfield artists, Jean Shepard and Ferlin Husky, recorded their version of "A Dear John Letter" for Capitol Records. Bakersfield musicians Tommy Collins, Fuzzy Owen, Lewis Talley, and Bill Woods played on the session, produced by Ken Nelson. Released in June 1953, it topped the country charts for six weeks and was a crossover pop hit. Their follow-up duet, "Forgive Me John," was also a success.
Although Husky and Shepard would move away to pursue their careers elsewhere, they made Capitol Records aware of Bakersfield's pool of talent, while showing other country artists from the area that national success was not out of reach. "We were happy for them," Bonnie Owens said. "It told us we were on the right track."
Listen to Jean Shepard and Ferlin Husky sing "A Dear John Letter"
Twenty-one-year-old singer and songwriter Leonard Sipes visited Bakersfield in 1952 with his girlfriend, aspiring singer Wanda Jackson. Impressed with the local music scene, Sipes stayed in Bakersfield when Jackson returned to Oklahoma. He roomed with singer and disc jockey Terry Preston, who was on the verge of becoming a star under his own name, Ferlin Husky.
Husky took Sipes under his wing, recording his songs and advising him to change his name to Tommy Collins. Signed to Capitol Records in 1953, Collins sought to replicate in the studio the exciting sounds he heard in the Bakersfield honky-tonks. To do so, he took local musicians Fuzzy Owen, Buck Owens, Jelly Sanders, Lewis Talley, and Bill Woods to Hollywood to record with him. In particular, Collins was a fan of the piercing treble sound Buck got with his Fender Telecaster.
Owens contributed raunchy guitar licks to some of Collins's biggest hits, including "You Better Not Do That," which reached #2 in 1954. Merle Haggard later credited Collins with helping create the Bakersfield Sound, "because he had enough sense to use Buck on guitar."
Following a religious conversion in 1956, Collins never quite regained his former momentum as a recording artist. He continued to be held in high esteem in Bakersfield, however. Buck recorded an entire album of Collins songs, which went to #1 in 1964, while Merle scored #1 hits with Tommy's "Carolyn" (1972) and "The Roots of My Raising" (1976). Haggard's 1981 hit "Leonard" was an ode to Collins, his fishing buddy and hero.
Watch Tommy Collins perform "You Better Not Do That" on the Buck Owens Ranch Show from 1966.
Fuzzy Owen and Lewis Talley
Charles "Fuzzy" Owen and his cousin Lewis Talley made significant contributions to the evolution of the Bakersfield Sound. After Owen, a steel player, and Talley, a singer and guitarist, arrived in town around 1949, they began performing at the Clover Club and other honky- tonks. Regulars on TV show Cousin Herb's Trading Post, they also played on numerous 1950s recording sessions in Hollywood, behind Tommy Collins, Buck Owens, Jean Shepard, and others.
In 1956, Talley and Owen started their own label, Tally Records, and began releasing recordings by Bonnie Owens and other Bakersfield artists. They formed their own music publishing company, Owen Publishing, and built one of Bakersfield's first recording studios. Buck Owens was among Lu-Tal Studio's first customers, cutting two rockabilly numbers as Corky Jones for Pep Records.
Owen and Talley became best known for the crucial roles they played in Merle Haggard's career. One of Merle's first jobs following his release from prison in 1960 was as a guitarist in Lewis Talley's band. Owen engineered and produced Haggard's first five singles, issued on Tally Records, including his 1965 Top Ten hit, "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers."
After securing a recording contract with Capitol for the up-and-coming singer, Owen continued to work closely with Haggard as his co-producer and manager. Talley played guitar on dozens of Merle's recordings and produced his 1981 album Big City.
Fender 1000 double-neck pedal steel guitar owned and played by Fuzzy Owen.
Los Angeles-based singer and songwriter Wynn Stewart became a Bakersfield favorite, performing often in the clubs there. His 1950s recordings for Capitol helped lay the foundation for the Bakersfield Sound with a stripped-down approach that emphasized wailing pedal steel guitar and a driving beat. Musicians on these recordings included Bakersfield stalwarts Buck Owens, Jelly Sanders, and Lewis Talley. Stewart's distinctive vocal technique also made a powerful impression on Owens and Merle Haggard.
The high-pitched steel guitar runs on Stewart's records were played by Ralph Mooney, another innovative West Coast musician. Mooney would further define the Bakersfield Sound with his distinctive work on classics such as Buck Owens's "Under Your Spell Again" (1959) and Merle Haggard's 1966 hits "Swinging Doors" and "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down."
In 1961, Stewart opened his own nightclub in Las Vegas, where he employed Haggard as his bass player and relief singer for several months. Merle's recording of Wynn's "Sing a Sad Song" became his first Top Twenty hit, in 1964.
Watch Wynn Stewart perform "Wishful Thinking" on the Buck Owens Ranch Show from 1968.
Only two hours away, Los Angeles was where Bakersfield's country stars went to make records, buy stage clothes, and appear on syndicated television programs. Hollywood tailors Nudie Cohn and Nathan Turk outfitted Buck Owens and others in colorful and flashy couture, while Capitol's Ken Nelson oversaw the recording of dozens of hits by Bakersfield artists in the label's Hollywood studio.
The symbiotic relationship between Bakersfield and Los Angeles was epitomized by Billy Mize. The handsome singer, songwriter, and steel guitarist got his start in 1953 as a co-star on the TV show Cousin Herb's Trading Post. Through his frequent appearances on Town Hall Party and other Los Angeles TV programs in the 1950s and later, Mize built a fan base in that urban market.
In the mid-1960s, Mize put countless miles on his Cadillac, driving back and forth between Bakersfield and Los Angeles five days a week to host two daily country music TV programs: Gene Autry's nationally syndicated Melody Ranch and the Trading Post, which he continued to helm after Henson passed away. Mize received the Academy of Country Music's Personality of the Year award each year from 1965 to 1967. He recorded for Columbia, United Artists, and other labels, while enjoying success as a writer of hits for Marty Robbins, Charlie Walker, and others.
Billy Mize's boots made by Nudie's Rodeo Tailors
Known as the dean of country songwriters, Harlan Howard achieved early success as Buck Owens's songwriting partner. Their lifelong friendship began at the Blackboard club, when Howard was introduced to Owens while visiting Bakersfield. In 1957, they formed Blue Book Music to publish their songs, including Owens's early hits "Foolin' Around" and "Under the Influence of Love."
In 1958, Howard and his wife, singer Jan Howard, moved to Nashville, where he became the archetype of the professional Music City songwriter. His many standards include "Heartaches by the Number," "I Fall to Pieces," and "I've Got a Tiger by the Tail." Elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1997, Howard passed away in 2002.
Underwood SX-100 typewriter made c. 1952 and used by Harlan Howard to type lyrics to his songs.
Red Simpson is one of the most outstanding and prolific songwriters Bakersfield has produced. Buck Owens and Merle Haggard recorded dozens of his songs, including "Sam's Place" and "Close Up the Honky Tonks."
Joe "Red" Simpson was born in 1934 and raised in Bakersfield. In the 1950s he began working as a guitarist and piano player at the Blackboard and other night spots. Buck Owens recognized Simpson's songwriting talent, and came to rely on him for material throughout the 1960s.
In 1965, Simpson launched his career as a recording artist with Roll, Truck, Roll, an album of trucker songs. His biggest hit was "I'm a Truck," in 1972.
Listen to Red Simpson sing "The Hightway Patrol"