The Bakersfield Sound

Country music has always been a battleground between the traditional and the modern. Its songs are an attempt to fuse the values of past generations, including the acoustic instruments played by rural people for hundreds of years, with life in 20th and now 21st century America. That tension is what gives the best country its vitality and joy. And the “Bakersfield sound” might exemplify that tension better than any other style of country.

The Bakersfield sound, as its name suggests, developed in California. The performers who brought it to national attention, like Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, came up in the 1950s and early 1960s, but its roots go back to the 1930s and 1940s, when economic migrants from Oklahoma, Texas and the “dust bowl” came to California seeking farm work or jobs in the oil fields. Legendary “western swing” bandleader Bob Wills, whose Texas Playboys combined country songwriting and hillbilly fiddling with a jazz rhythm indebted to Count Basie, was in fact based in California after World War II. Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry didn’t allow performers to use drums onstage, but out in Bakersfield, the hard-drinking farmhands and oil patch workers wanted to hear a backbeat.

In the Forties and early Fifties, acts like Lefty Frizzell and the Maddox Brothers and Rose were making music with an intense, wired-up energy (the Maddox Brothers and Rose’s instrumental “Water Baby Blues” is a hillbilly rave-up with stinging electric guitar played at bebop speed) and a lyrical worldview that reflected their circumstances. Frizzell was a songwriter the equal of Hank Williams, but more romantic and less doom-haunted, focusing on songs of heartbreak, and his guitar-centric arrangements leaped out of radio speakers. Other key early figures included Tommy Collins, Billy Mize, Wynn Stewart, and Jean Shepard.

The song credited with creating the classic “Bakersfield sound” is Bud Hobbs’ “Louisiana Swing,” from 1954. Hobbs shouts out the pianist, “Billy Woods from Bakersfield,” before his solo, and then names the guitarist — Buck Owens. Beginning in the early Fifties, Owens was a session musician for Capitol Records, recording with Tennessee Ernie Ford, Wanda Jackson, Tommy Collins, and others. Eventually, he began recording as a leader, forming the Buckaroos; their song “Under Your Spell Again” was a #4 hit in 1959. Throughout the Sixties and into the early Seventies, Owens was a major hitmaker; songs like “Act Naturally” had the lyrical wit of the best country but set it to a rock ’n’ roll beat that allowed the Beatles to cover it without sounding like they were doing hillbilly kitsch. (Owens, in turn, played a Beatles-style version of the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout” when he and the Buckaroos appeared at New York’s Carnegie Hall.) Eventually, Owens was enough of a commercial powerhouse that he was able to produce hits for others, including Susan Raye, his ex-wife Bonnie Owens, Buckaroos guitarist Don Rich, and more.

Merle Haggard and his band the Strangers followed Owens up the charts, his hard-bitten songs inhabiting the perspective of the working class descendants of the Okies. Haggard’s people were people for whom the Great Depression was more than just a memory — the specter of poverty hung just over their shoulders every day, so if they turned to crime, it was sad but understandable. Another act with a similarly working-class perspective, albeit a uniquely focused one, was Red Simpson, almost all of whose songs were about long-haul truckers.

In the late Sixties and early Seventies, the Bakersfield sound, which had taken influence from early rock ’n’ roll, began in turn to influence newer rock acts. The Byrds made Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, an overtly country-fied album, and even the Grateful Dead (who covered Haggard’s “Mama Tried”) slid from amorphous psychedelic soundscapes into concise, twangy songs. And then in the Eighties, a new face emerged to bring the Bakersfield sound into the modern era.

Dwight Yoakam moved to California from Ohio, and like the migrants of fifty years earlier, found himself struggling to break through. But once he started playing Bakersfield-style country in punk-rock bars, on bills with acts like Los Lobos, X and the Blasters, his nasal twang and barbed-wire guitar — and his sharp, creative songwriting — rapidly earned him a sizable fan base. On his third album, 1987’s Buenas Noches From a Lonely Room, he collaborated with Owens on a version of the latter man’s early ’70s non-hit “Streets of Bakersfield,” and after Owens died, he recorded an entire album of his songs, Dwight Sings Buck. Even today, the Bakersfield sound is at the core of Yoakam’s style, no matter how many weird turns his albums may take toward psychedelic rock or even punk-rock aggression, as on his 2012 version of “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (and Loud, Loud Music),” a song also covered by the Flying Burrito Brothers, Marty Stuart, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, the Beat Farmers, and many, many more. 

The Bakersfield sound is country at its most hardcore; it’s music for drinking, crying into your beer, and maybe getting into a fight, because you’ve got to be back behind the wheel of your truck the next morning. Its very un-slickness is its greatest virtue; it’s no surprise at all that when punk rockers get a little gray at the temples and start listening to country, their ears cock in the direction of Bakersfield, not Nashville.

Phil Freeman

Look What Thoughts Will Do

Lefty Frizzell
Look What Thoughts Will Do cover

Lefty Frizzell’s biggest hits date to the pre-album era; the double-sided single that opens this 1997 compilation, “If You’ve Got The Money (I’ve Got The Time)” and “I Love You A Thousand Ways,” comes from 1950, and while he had hit after hit in 1951 and 1952, his career cooled in the second half of the decade. But he made a moderate comeback in the mid ’60s; “She’s Gone, Gone, Gone,” also included here, is from 1965. Frizzell’s clear but twanging voice was richer than that of Hank Williams, with whom he toured, and his songs had the strong rhythmic pulse necessary to make an impression in crowded, noisy honky-tonks. His lyrics are witty and heartfelt by turns, and the deceptively simple arrangements built around guitar, violin, piano and upright bass are crafted like jewelry. His singing style has filtered down through generations of country performers; Merle Haggard wrote (in the foreword to a Frizzell biography) “No one could handle a song like Lefty…Most of us learned to sing listening to him.” There’s not a bad song here, and most of them are straight-up classics.

Sweetheart of the Rodeo

The Byrds
Sweetheart of the Rodeo cover

Though it was recorded in Nashville, the Byrds’ 1968 album Sweetheart of the Rodeo has a strong Bakersfield edge. Tucked in amid the Bob Dylan songs (“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and “Nothing Was Delivered,” which open and close the record) and gospel songs — the traditional “I am a Pilgrim” and the Louvin Brothers’ “The Christian Life” — there’s a stinging version of Merle Haggard’s “Life in Prison”, and many of the songs are fueled by sharp guitar leads and pedal steel. “The Christian Life” has a thumping beat and fierce twang, though Roger McGuinn’s goofy “hillbilly” vocal and the raggedy harmonies push it a little too close to Grateful Dead territory. But the version of Luke McDaniel’s honky-tonk weeper “You’re Still On My Mind,” Gram Parson’s “One Hundred Years From Now,” and the aforementioned Haggard tune put it firmly in the Lefty Frizzell-to-Buck Owens lineage.

Sings George Jones

Don Rich
Sings George Jones cover

Buck Owens was so hot in the 1960s that Capitol Records gave his backing band, the Buckaroos, their own contract. Between 1966 and 1971, they made a dozen (mostly) instrumental albums, with lead guitarist and sometime vocalist Don Rich up front. This album was recorded in about 1970, but somehow stayed in the vault until 2013. That’s too bad, because it’s killer. Rich’s guitar playing — on his trademark Fender Telecaster — is one of the most recognizable and thrilling elements of the Bakersfield sound, and the short but potent solos on these mostly uptempo, hard-driving honky-tonk songs will get your heart racing. Rich’s voice is nice and serviceable, if maybe a little too indebted to the boss’s style to truly stand out from the pack, but songs like “She Thinks I Still Care,” “White Lightning,” “The Race Is On,” and “Walk Through This World With Me” retain their power in his hands.

Mama Tried

Merle Haggard & The Strangers
Mama Tried cover

Haggard’s seventh album (eighth when you count Just Between The Two Of Us, his collection of duets with Bonnie Owens) was his third of 1968. Its title track was of his biggest hits, and one of his best songs, period; its portrayal of a narrator who “turned 21 in prison, doing life without parole” was tragic but clear-eyed. Although he only wrote four of its 12 songs, the other eight were extremely well-chosen, and included a version of Dolly Parton’s “In The Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)” that predates her own recording, as well as Mel Tillis’s “I Could Have Gone Right” and Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” The Strangers back him with pure Bakersfield honky-tonk precision; the guitars are as taut as barbed wire, and Eddie Burris’s drums have a minimalist snap.

Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc.

Dwight Yoakam
Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. cover

Dwight Yoakam was born in Kentucky and grew up in Ohio, but was an almost immediate sensation when he hit Los Angeles and began performing his unique blend of Bakersfield country, bluegrass, and rock ’n’ roll in the city’s clubs alongside bands like Los Lobos, the Blasters, and X. His debut is a brilliant synthesis of styles, with lead guitar and fiddle and an almost punk-rock beat, the product of Yoakam’s songwriting genius (seven of its 10 tracks came from his pen) and producer Pete Anderson’s taut, deceptively minimalist arrangements. “It Won’t Hurt” is a classic barroom weeper, while “I’ll Be Gone” is a kind of punk bluegrass sex-brag, and the title track is a bitter lament about “a naïve fool who came to Babylon” and seeks solace in country music. The three covers — Johnny Horton’s “Honky Tonk Man,” Johnny Cash’s “Ring Of Fire,” and Harlan Howard’s “Heartaches By The Number” — seem like exactly the kind of thing that would rile up a half-drunk crowd. Yoakam’s a rare talent who’s never made a truly bad album, but this debut came out like a rocket.

Guit with It

Junior Brown
Guit with It cover

Singer/guitarist Junior Brown’s from Texas, but his guitar-heavy style fits right in with the Bakersfield sound and feel. His second album featured one of his wittiest songs, “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead,” with a guest spot from Fabulous Thunderbirds guitarist Jimmie Vaughn. It also included versions of king of trucker country Red Simpson’s “Highway Patrol” and Hank Garland’s instrumental “Sugarfoot Rag,” but ten of its twelve tracks were Brown originals. “You Didn’t Have To Go All The Way,” “Party Lights,” “Still Life With Rose,” and “Holding Pattern” are lyrically witty, expertly sculpted honky-tonk songs that always leave room for his trademark guitar and steel solos, while “So Close Yet So Far Away” is a heartfelt ballad sung as a duet with his wife Tanya Rae. The biggest, most self-indulgent surprise here, though, is the more than 11-minute “Guit-Steel Blues,” a slow-burning demonstration of his phenomenal skills on his trademark twinned instrument (an electric guitar fused to a lap steel guitar, played from a stand).

Serving 190 Proof

Merle Haggard
Serving 190 Proof cover

Haggard was in his forties when Serving 190 Proof was released in 1979, and while he’d always been an introspective songwriter, verging on morose at times, this was a startlingly dark record. It opens with “Footlights,” a song about the emotional hollowness at the heart of show business; he said it was inspired by having to hit the stage five minutes after learning of the death of his hero, Lefty Frizzell. “Heaven Was A Drink Of Wine” paints a stark and terrifying portrait of self-destructive alcoholism, and while “I Can’t Get Away” is set to an Urban Cowboy-esque country-disco beat, the lyrics are about running away from life even as he knows how futile that is. The instrumentation is mostly stripped-down, ready for the nightclub stage, though some surprises (like saxophone) pop up here and there.

We're Gonna Get Together

Buck Owens, Susan Raye
We're Gonna Get Together cover

Susan Raye was an important part of Buck Owens’ country music empire; she had hits on her own in the late ’60s and early ’70s, including “Put A Little Love In Your Heart” and “L.A. International Airport,” but they also recorded four duet albums together. This is the first, and it’s occasionally gentler than his Buckaroos material; “Everybody Needs Somebody” and “Cryin’ Time” are gooped up with strings, and there are more ballads than uptempo numbers generally. There’s also a cover of Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange,” but the opening title track and the closing “Foolin’ Around” have a welcome energy, and Owens and Raye’s voices mesh together very well.

Roll, Truck, Roll

Red Simpson
Roll, Truck, Roll cover

Red Simpson was a songwriter who wrote hits for Buck Owens in the early 1960s, and a performer with a clean, low singing voice and a twang he could apply or remove as needed without ever seeming dishonest or showbizzy. Four of the songs on this, his debut album, are co-written with Owens, while the title track is by Tommy Collins. Every one, no matter who wrote it, is about driving a truck, or the sorrows of being a truck driver, and some — “Nitro Express” and “Runaway Truck” — tell stories that will particularly excite your average ten-year-old boy. The music has a twitchy energy, with clean Telecaster lead lines, a sharp Bakersfield backbeat, and the odd splash of piano, particularly on “Big Mack.” With only “Truck Driver’s Blues” passing the three-minute mark, this album flies by in under half an hour.

The Carnegie Hall Concert

Buck Owens and His Buckaroos
The Carnegie Hall Concert cover

In March 1966, Owens and his band became the second country act to ever perform at New York’s Carnegie Hall, and they came in red-hot. The performances of hits like “Act Naturally,” “Waitin’ In Your Welfare Line,” “I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail,” “The Streets Of Laredo,” and “Love’s Gonna Live Here” are thrilling — the rhythm section of bassist Doyle Holly and drummer Willie Cantu give every song a twitching, bouncing energy — and the medleys of close to a dozen other songs give a good overview of Owens’ astonishing catalog. There’s a lot of country showbiz hokum here, too, of course. Owens would start hosting the TV show Hee Haw just three years later, so there’s goofy banter between bandmembers and with the audience, and they blast through a 90-second cover of “Twist and Shout” in the style of the Beatles (who’d covered Owens’ “Act Naturally” the year before).

Songs of a Love Affair

Jean Shepard
Songs of a Love Affair cover

Jean Shepard’s debut album, recorded between 1953 and 1955 and released in 1956, is a milestone in a few ways: It was one of the first full-length LPs by a female country singer, and may be the first concept album in the genre’s history. All the songs are about relationships doomed by infidelity, written from various perspectives, including the sorrowful “Girls In Disgrace” and the blindly optimistic “Tell Me What I Want To Hear,” concluding with the bitter “It’s Hard To Tell The Married From The Free.” Buck Owens and Tommy Collins both played guitar on the album, which has a hard-edged honky-tonk sound, and Collins wrote the single “Did I Turn Down A Better Deal,” which was released in 1960. The album was not a hit upon release, but its importance has grown over the decades, and now it’s easy to see as a crucial step in country music’s artistic evolution.

Willy Jones

Susan Raye
Willy Jones cover

Susan Raye released 13 albums on her own, and four duo albums with Buck Owens, between 1970 and 1976. This, her second solo release, features several Owens compositions — “Heartbreak Mountain,” “In The Arms Of Love,” “Happy Times Are Here Again,” the title track — but she wrote “Baby Sittin’ With Baby” and “I’ll Love You Forever (If You’re Sure You’ll Want Me Then)” herself. The biggest hit, “L.A. International Airport,” came from Leanne Scott; a brokenhearted song about flying away after a breakup, it became Raye’s signature song. This is country music that’s in tune with pop trends of its time; while “Heartbreak Mountain” is a hillbilly stomp, many of the slower songs travel the path of singer-songwriter folk-rock, somewhere between Judy Collins and John Denver, with just a little extra twang. This isn’t a honky-tonk album; it’s a Sunday-morning puttering-around-the-house album.

Bakersfield Bound

Herb Pedersen, Chris Hillman
Bakersfield Bound cover

Chris Hillman, formerly of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, had an overly slick country act, the Desert Rose Band, in the ’80s; in 1996, he reunited with one of his partners in that group, Herb Pedersen, for this album, which is pure Bakersfield country. Their voices twine around each other in a pleasing harmony on lyrics about drinking and heartbreak, as their guitars do just as much singing and bassist Leland Sklar and drummer Willie Ornelas (Hollywood studio pros rather than pure country players) lay down a subtle but strong backbeat. The album includes versions of Red Simpson’s “Close Up the Honky Tonks” and two Buck Owens songs, “He Doesn’t Deserve You Anymore” and “There Goes My Love.”

Just Between The Two Of Us

Merle Haggard, Bonnie Owens
Just Between The Two Of Us cover

Bonnie Owens was the more famous performer at the time this 1966 album was released; she was Buck Owens’ ex-wife and her own debut, 1965’s Don’t Take Advantage Of Me, won her the Academy of Country Music’s first Female Vocalist of the Year award. Haggard is a more technically accomplished singer than Owens, to whom he was married from 1965 to 1978, and he’s singing in a somewhat clean, showbizzy style, but their voices mesh together well, and the songs — a mix of lovers’ anthems and heartbroken weepers — are tightly arranged and performed by his backing band, the Strangers. The title track and “That Makes Two Of Us” were written by Liz Anderson, who also wrote “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers” and “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive” for Haggard, and two others, “Forever And Ever” and “I’ll Take A Chance On Loving You,” were by Buck Owens; the album also includes a version of Hank Williams’ “A House Without Love Is Not A Home.”

The Lightning Fingers Of Roy Clark

Roy Clark
The Lightning Fingers Of Roy Clark cover

Roy Clark spent years as Buck Owens’ partner on the country variety show Hee Haw, telling the corniest jokes imaginable and singing sappy love ballads. But long before that, he was one of the hottest guitarists in country music, and this 1963 album of instrumentals lives up to its title. On the opening “Twelfth Street Rag,” he plays unbelievably fast, and on “Texas Twist,” he hurls some almost Dick Dale-esque pyrotechnics at the listener. Several of these tracks, which are often set to a jumping backbeat, blur the lines between country, rock ’n’ roll, and honking R&B — there’s a fairly scorching saxophone solo on “Weepin’ Willow Twist,” for example, and they tear Glenn Miller’s swing-era jazz anthem “In The Mood” into shreds and set the pieces on fire. “Dented Fender” and “Chicken Wire” are savage displays of fretboard ferocity, too. Roy Clark was a beast, and this album will please any fan of serious guitar pickin’. 

I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail

Buck Owens
I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail cover

This 1965 album was a #1 country hit, but it also hit #43 on the pop charts and was named Billboard’s Country Album of the Year. Owens’ exuberant, hiccupping vocals are perfectly backed by the sharp, stinging guitars of the Buckaroos, particularly Don Rich’s Fender Telecaster and Tom Brumley’s pedal steel. The title track, “Trouble and Me,” and “Wham Bam” (sung by Don Rich) are uptempo romps, despite their lovelorn lyrics, while “Let the Sad Times Roll On” and “Cryin’ Time” are classic barroom weepers. The album concludes with two covers, one more surprising than the other. Fiddler and bandleader Bob Wills’ arrangement of “Maiden’s Prayer,” by 19th century Polish composer Tekla Badarzewska-Baranowska, is a Western swing classic, and the Buckaroos do a creditable version, but the album-closing version of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” is a real bolt of lightning, emphasizing the links between the Bakersfield honky-tonk sound and rock ’n’ roll.

Dwight Sings Buck

Dwight Yoakam
Dwight Sings Buck cover

Buck Owens was a major influence on Dwight Yoakam; his first #1 single, “Streets of Bakersfield,” was a duet with Owens, remaking one of the older man’s early ’70s non-hits. After Owens died in 2006, Yoakam recorded 15 of his classic songs for this album, including versions of “Act Naturally,” “Love’s Gonna Live Here,” “Crying Time,” “Down On the Corner of Love” and more. For the most part, the arrangements are straightforward, hard-edged honky-tonk, with Yoakam’s longtime guitarist, Eddie Perez, delivering stinging if economical leads. Yoakam often likes to get a little weird, though, and that impulse is indulged on a percussion-heavy version of “Close Up the Honky Tonks” (written by Red Simpson) that lasts more than six minutes, as well as a version of “Only You (Can Break My Heart)” that begins with Yoakam singing over a mournful organ drone. This is a brilliant album that will appeal to anyone who loves great country songwriting, whether they’re familiar with Buck Owens going in or not.

Strangers

Merle Haggard
Strangers cover

The kinda sorta title track to this 1965 album, “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” didn’t just give Merle Haggard his first hit, it also gave him the name of his backing band. While the majority of its 12 songs — which fly by in just 28 minutes, exhibiting a Ramones-ish economy — have a hard-edged honky-tonk sound, some of the ballads (“Falling For You,” “Sing A Sad Song,” “You Don’t Even Try”) are sweetened with Nashville-style strings. Haggard’s voice and persona aren’t fully formed yet; he’s in an overly sweet crooner mode here and there, but “If I Had Left It Up To You,” “The Worst Is Yet To Come,” “I’m Gonna Break Every Heart I Can,” and the stinging version of Ernest Tubb’s “Walking The Floor Over You” that closes the album are glowing neon signs pointing toward what was to come.

The Dynamic Tommy Collins

Tommy Collins
The Dynamic Tommy Collins cover

Tommy Collins was a key figure in the early development of the Bakersfield sound. (Buck Owens served as Collins’ lead guitarist early in his career.) He was well-known as both a songwriter and a performer; his “If You Ain’t Lovin’ (You Ain’t Livin’)” was a hit for Ferlin Husky in 1954 and again for George Strait in 1988. He also worked extensively with Merle Haggard in the 1970s. He didn’t record that often, partly because, like Little Richard, he abandoned his career early on to join the ministry. The Dynamic Tommy Collins was a 1966 comeback effort, featuring compelling versions of 11 original tunes like the almost rockabilly-ish “If You Can’t Bite, Don’t Growl,” the sorrowful “Be Serious, Ann,” the Merle Haggard co-write “Poor, Broke, Mixed-Up Mess Of A Heart” (which Haggard recorded the same year on his I’m A Lonesome Fugitive album), the semi-novelty songs “Skinny” and “Big Dummy,” and the religious “The Two Sides Of Life.”  

3 Pears

Dwight Yoakam
3 Pears cover

Dwight Yoakam’s 18th studio album was his first in five years, and his most adventurous and stylistically wide-ranging since 1995’s Gone. He worked with Kid Rock on the literally sha-la-la-ing opening track, “Take Hold of My Hand,” and two other songs, “A Heart Like Mine” and “Missing Heart,” were produced by Beck. The album includes a raucous cowpunk version of the 1950s honky-tonk anthem “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke” that’s propelled by jackhammer piano and a thundering backbeat; the weird and psychedelic “Waterfall”; the Tom Petty-ish “Long Way to Go”; and the title track, which attains an almost Bruce Springsteen-esque grandeur. This is the album to listen to if you think Dwight Yoakam is “just” a country singer — he’s absolutely that, and the Bakersfield sound still pops up here and there, but there’s an astonishing diversity here, and not a single false note.