The new boxed set coming out soon from Germany’s great music anthropology-anthology label Bear Family is called The Bakersfield Sound and it focuses on the music emanating from the Southern California region known to industry insiders as “Nashville West.” This city was the commercial birthplace for a many great country western artists in the 1950s and 1960s including Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.
The Bakersfield Sound collection tells the full story in truly academic depth of how the city came to be the magnetic heart and soul for a next 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 what the town was all about. In Part One of this review we looked at the historical transition that led Bakersfield to become a music hub (click here in case you missed it). In this portion, we’ll spend some time exploring the music within.
As an end-to-end listening experience, The Bakersfield Sound succeeds in circumventing one of the big challenges I have always had with many country-western records. For lack of a better phrase, it breaks up the “same-i-ness” of many of the productions. Don’t get me wrong, Buck Owens (for example) made some wonderful records, especially the big hits which were crafted for radio. But his 1960s albums on Capitol Records tended to be short and — at least for me — were not always compelling album listens beyond the hits; I’ve had a bunch of them over the years and I wanted to like them more as album experiences than I did. In all fairness, this phenomenon was a problem with many pop records of the early 60s, an issue which didn’t start to change until The Beatles issued Rubber Soul and The Beach Boys Pet Sounds.. But that is a whole other story…
The point is: just hearing these songs presented in a thoughtfully sequenced retrospective anthology gives the music more contextual focus. Many of these records were designed for radio and juke box play so when listening to The Bakersfield Sound it is almost like you are tuning into a time capsule radio show from another time and place. All that is missing is a period DJ introducing each song! (note: someone really should do this for the streaming versions of this album!
It is also important to note that The Bakersfield Sound isn’t just a “best of” compilation. This is a very thoughtful and deep exploration of the music including previously unreleased performances, demos and radio broadcasts as well as many obscure regional releases which probably haven’t been in print since the original releases. So as a listening experience, this set remains continually compelling, interesting and even surprising.
The sound quality here is generally very good but do realize that there are some archival recordings presented, taken off of best available disc sources and such. That doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the music however and in fact helps to present more complete snapshot of not only the time and place but also the evolution of sound of the region. Generally the sound quality on The Bakersfield Sound is very high and enjoyable.
I am still making my way through this set but I’m going to cherry pick some nuggets that have both surprised and excited me thus far. I could write month’s worth of reviews just on The Bakersfield Sound but even that probably wouldn’t do it justice.
For example, an early recording by Wanda Jackson — “I Gotta Know” — swings between old country and proto Rockabilly in about two minutes time. It turns out Wanda’s family moved to the area when she was about five. After a return to Oklahoma for a spell as a young artist she eventually settled back in the area with her beau Leonard Sipes (who soon became Capitol Recording artist Tommy Collins). A series of events led them to meet Ferlin Husky and she even employed a young Buck Owens for one of his earliest sessions. She was even an influence on Merle Haggard, apparently. So, in some ways Wanda essentially helped to kickstart what became known as The Bakersfield Sound
Well, a lot of serious aficionados did, many of whom made this set happen including Grammy nominated historian Scott B. Bomar who created the in depth analysis in the 224 page book included with The Bakersfield Sound. The Foo Fighters’ Chris Shiflett is another fan who provides a forward to the set. They knew!!
An excerpt from the included book will give you some idea of the sort of time-capsule perspective offered in The Bakersfield Sound, this from a 1946 Time Magazine article about Bob Wills describing the scene:
“Inside Beardsley’s dance hall, near Bakersfield, the air was steaming with the exertions of 1,358 oil workers and farmers as they jived, jumped, or just jogged to the music. Without a local music scene yet fully established, Wills and his band were the main attraction in Bakersfield in the mid-1940s. “I got up one night and slipped out the window of our house when I was about 11 years old and rode my bike to Beardsley Ballroom to try to go see Bob Wills,” Merle Haggard recalled in 2010. “I set that bike against the building and climbed up to stand on the seat. …It was really a thrill. You know what I learned from Bob Wills? Everything!”
And now on The Bakersfield Sound you too can hear live recordings by Bob Wills from this period after he relocated to Bakersfield!
Buck Owens’ “Down On The Corner” was his first commercial recording from 1955 on the Pep Records label! Johnny Bond’s “I Like That Kind” is a neat little rocker (and yes, there is plenty of borderline rock and rock-a-billy styling going on here amidst the country twang). ‘Steady Lovin'” (probably by) Skeets McDonald is also a bit of rock ‘n rollin’ joy.
Guitarists will get a kick out of hearing the first single by Semie Mosley on Mos-Rite Records. Yes, that is the same Mos-Rite that went on to create acclaimed Mosrite Guitars brand that became popular with Surf guitar bands like The Ventures in the 1960s (and The Ramones in the 70s!). Here he breaks out “When The Saints Go Marching In.”
And the set goes on like this. It is really interesting how in very short order you hear The Bakersfield Sound emerge across these recordings, sounding immediately more modern and more rocking than earlier Nashville based productions. Even on the modern productions found on the later discs in the set the Bakersfield flavors can be heard quite clearly.
Indeed, The Bakersfield Sound is not just about a style of music, its about an attitude and it comes across all of these tracks.
This collection is essential listening if you love Country Western music.