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Bakersfield Country

How a small town in California changed the sound of country music.

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album cover buck owens greatest hits
Image courtesy of Rhino Records

A new style of country music emerged in Bakersfield, California, in the 1950s and rose to popularity in the ‘60s. Dubbed "the Bakersfield Sound," it challenged the popularity of the Nashville Sound with its gritty mixture of Western swing, honky-tonk, rockabilly, and rock ‘n’ roll.

It's best typified in the music of Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and Wynn Stewart.

Depression-era Origins

In the 1930s, migrant workers fled hard times at home and went west. Many of these Dust Bowl refugees flocked to California and the farm belt of the San Joaquin Valley. Of those, a good number settled in Bakersfield, known for both its agricultural and oil wealth. Recent transplants from Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas carried with them their rustic music.

On the Rise: 1940s and '50s

In the years following World War II, Bakersfield had plentiful honky-tonks including the soon-to-be-famous Blackboard Cafe. People drank, danced, and even fought to Western swing music made famous by Bob Wills. Though born in Texas, Wills is often credited with being a primary influence on the emerging Bakersfield sound.

While the arrangements of Nashville were smooth with harmony singers, Bakersfield country was made of harder stuff. Stewed in the cauldron of the local roadhouses, the music was powered by explosive lead guitar, a honky-tonk beat, and a rockabilly attitude.

The Boom: 1960s and '70s

The Bakersfield sound went mainstream in the 1960s, thanks to hit songs by new artists Merle Haggard and Buck Owens.

But the sound never proved as popular as many hoped, and "Nashville West," the hopeful phrase used to refer to the city, fell into disuse by the '70s.

Legacy

The Bakersfield sound has continued to be an influence in country music, for both rock-oriented groups to Los Angeles-based country artists such as Dwight Yoakam.

Given that Bakersfield country artists often recorded in Los Angeles (where Capitol Record was located), many have found it more useful to refer to the Bakersfield sound as "the California sound." Either way, Bakersfield country had a huge influence on the emerging California country-rock groups such as The Flying Burrito Brothers and Poco.

In 2012, the Country Music Hall of Fame opened of an exhibit dedicated to the Bakersfield Sound.

Musicians Associated with Bakersfield Country

  • Tommy Collins
  • Merle Haggard
  • "Cousin" Herb Henson
  • Ferlin Husky
  • Billy Mize
  • Bonnie Owens
  • Buck Owens
  • Fuzzy Owen
  • Red Simpson
  • Wynn Stewart
  • Lewis Talley
  • Bill Woods and the Orange Blossom Playboys
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