There is a new boxed set from Germany’s great music-anthropology-anthology label Bear Family and its a doozie! Focused specifically on the music emanating from the Southern California city of Bakersfield — also known as “Nashville West” to industry insiders — the city was the commercial birthplace for a number of great country western artists in the 1950s and 1960s including Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.
But the story starts many years earlier as Middle American “Dustbowl”-affected families moved westward seeking new opportunity. Even music legends like Bob Wills eventually claimed California as his home despite his established branding as leader of “The Texas Playboys.”
The Bakersfield Sound aims to tell the full story of how the city came to be the magnetic heart and soul for a new wave of contemporary Country Western music. Across 10 CDs and a 224-page hardcover book included in the set, you will get a great snapshot of not only the music but the people and personalities behind the songs. As I’ve come to expect having reviewed a couple recent Bear Family releases — genuinely, passionately scholarly sets on The Louisiana Hayride and Battleground Korea — this new set is comprehensive and exhaustive.
Yet, it is never exhausting.
No, in fact The Bakersfield Sound is a fascinating listen. From the book we learn that the first six tracks on the set are “field recordings of migrant workers captured in the San Joaquin Valley labor camps by Charles Todd and Robert Sonkin for the Library of Congress during the summers of 1940 and 1941. The recordings reflect the folk and commercial musical influences that working class people from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, and other Southern and Great Plains states brought with them to California.”
Some of these field recordings are incredibly poignant…
It makes sense that a town like Bakersfield would become a hotbed for musicians being closer to Los Angeles’ music industry corporate offices than Nashville was even to New York. But it wasn’t just the location. Bakersfield was a perfect storm of people — from oil workers to farmers — coming together to create a scene of musicians supporting one another on sessions and gigs.
Emerging technologies played a big role in Bakersfield’s growth as a music center. Again, The Bakersfield Sound book connects some important dots for us here:
“With the advent of better sound systems and solid body electric guitars like Fender’s iconic Telecaster, small groups of four or five musicians could cut through the din of the honky tonks and keep a crowd dancing all night. That guitar had a tremendous effect on the sound because it’s a sharp sound, a treble sound.
“Musicians joked that the heavy Telecaster was the instrument of choice, both because the solid body construction minimized feedback at loud volumes and the sturdy instrument could double as a weapon in the rough and tumble honky tonks.”
In Part 2 of my review of The Bakersfield Sound we’ll look at some of the mesmerizing music spread across the 10-disc set. Stay tuned!