The children of Dust Bowl migrants who’d resettled to Southern California in search of farm and oil production jobs redefined their cultural significance (c. 1951) and fostered a music scene born from the worker’s camps, dance halls, and dive bars in and around the Bakersfield, California area. These first-generation Californians, often referred to as Oakies, spent their evenings and hard-earned cash dancing, drinking, and fighting to a soundtrack of local musicians performing their unique, displaced brand of country music that would ring in the golden age of honky-tonk.
In Robert E. Price’s The Bakersfield Sound, we learn that Buck Owens had more number one hits than The Beatles, but before that we get his theory on what sonically might define the Bakersfield sound: the ‘50s Fender Telecaster guitar. At that time, this cheap bolt-on neck electric guitar was not a fixture in most Nashville recordings. Price purports that the Telecaster introduced an iconic harmonic signature in many Bakersfield artists’ recordings by providing a noticeable bite-y twang in spite of the arguably mellower, jazzier, and traditionalist flavor heard in Nashville recordings of that time. Buck Owens, Merle Haggard – and later Dwight Yoakam – are obviously the more popular names we attribute to Bakersfield, but the importance and influence of Roy Nichols (the “Chicken Picker”), Don Rich, Bonnie Owens, "Lefty" Frizzell, Gene Moles, Billy Mize, Rose Maddox, and many others are also covered here.
The Bakersfield Sound is a documentation, study, and field guide to this once burgeoning music scene in the middle of California’s forgotten nowhere (between Los Angeles and Las Vegas). As laid out in historical anecdotes, articles, and references, Robert E. Price (columnist for the Bakersfield Californian) educates us on the history of Bakersfield’s music scene while at the same time arguing its impact on American music in general – expertly supported and endorsed with a thoughtful foreword from country music icon Marty Stuart. But this book isn’t just about country music. The Bakersfield Sound breaks down a “perfect storm” scenario of how a music scene comes together, flourishes, and then dies –accompanied by analysis and theories that try to explain the music scene phenomenon and American art movements in general. It’s this recurring secondary theme that kept me engaged as a reader.
Extensive Notes, Appendix, and Bibliography sections prepared by the author are all executed in the manner of a well-written history textbook, and I found it important during my read to be able to quickly gain context on certain subjects. The book doesn’t unravel as a story about any single performer – it’s really a collection of published articles and papers presented as a historical reference guide that slowly builds a case for Bakersfield’s importance in American music history. The Bakersfield Sound doesn’t cover recording processes or studio techniques, but for music enthusiasts and history buffs, it’s a key guide to have in your library. A favorite chapter of mine, called “Landmarks,” includes a written tour guide of historical locations to visit accompanied by playlist suggestions from the author. Though I did not visit Bakersfield during reading, I did download and purchase many of Price’s suggestions to play while reading – “They’re Tearin’ the Labor Camps Down” by Merle Haggard definitely transported me! At times I would’ve liked to see more pictures – especially of the clubs where artists performed, but the book implies on many occasions that the best way to get a handle on the history of Bakersfield’s music is to listen to the music and come visit – a crafty way to bring it back to the locals! There’s a wealth of additional information sources listed in the book, and Bakersfield has its own Music Hall of Fame with regular events.