The roots of country music are often associated with Appalachian hollers and sharecropper shacks in the Deep South. The uniquely American art form borrowed from European ballad traditions, African banjo music, gospel hymns, and the blues to emerge as a commercial genre known as hillbilly music in the 1920s. As Ken Burns illustrates in his ambitious new eight-part, 16-hour documentary series called—what else?—Country Music, it continued to spread, coming of age in honky-tonks, branching out into Texas swing, and giving rise to a subgenre called bluegrass. Thanks largely to the popular Grand Ole Opry radio broadcast—which spawned booking agencies, management firms, and music publishing houses—the country music industry consolidated in Nashville. It was there, in the 1950s and ’60s, that producers like Chet Atkins smoothed the music’s rough edges and perfected the “Nashville sound,” adorned by lush strings and layers of sugary-sweet background vocals.
During that same era, though, a different country sound was rattling the walls of the beer joints and dance halls of Bakersfield, California. Oil field workers and farm laborers—the sons and daughters of dust bowl migrants who had sought better lives in the Golden State but had often found themselves on the fringes of polite society—heavily populated the city. The Bakersfield sound was raw and immediate, fueled by the electrified twang of Fender Telecasters and pedal steel guitars. It wasn’t made for sitting and listening—Bakersfield’s country music was a soundtrack for dancing. Unconcerned with politeness, it was music made for blue-collar workers who needed to blow off steam on a Saturday night. The city’s best-known musical exports—Buck Owens and Merle Haggard—found remarkable commercial success doing things their own way. They recorded in Los Angeles with their own bands, a world away from Nashville’s studios and their cadre of polished musicians known as the A-Team.
The Bakersfield sound, and California’s larger contributions to the genre, factor into Burns’s excellent documentary, though they’re often hidden in the mix. We are told that Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys relocated to California in the 1940s, but get only a hint at the impact that move had in Bakersfield, where Wills disciples put together electrified combos to create their own stripped-down version of his sound. While the film notes that Owens and Haggard came from Bakersfield, it offers no real window onto the music community from which they both emerged. Because Country Music is presented in a roughly chronological fashion, the profiles of Owens and Haggard are separated into different segments, effectively diluting Bakersfield’s significance in country music’s story.
It’s not just Bakersfield. Burns introduces us to songwriters Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard, who wrote standards such as Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces.” We’re not told that they began their careers in Los Angeles before heading for Nashville. The same is true of Jeannie Seely, Barbara Mandrell, and Jean Shepard, the latter a Visalia resident whose “A Dear John Letter”—the first postwar country single by a female artist to sell a million copies—was recorded with a backing band of Bakersfield pickers at the Capitol Recording Studio in Hollywood.
In some sections, however, California’s contributions to country music shine through. The documentary acknowledges that Johnny Cash and Roger Miller both moved to the Golden State, and that Gene Autry set the template for singing cowboys when he relocated to Hollywood. A surprising amount of time is devoted to the Maddox Brothers and Rose, who “worked the bars and dance halls of the Central Valley, playing hillbilly music for others like them: economic refugees denigrated as Okies.” Though they never had a national hit, the film recognizes the group for its colorful rhinestone-studded stage wear, a look that was later perfected by North Hollywood tailor Nudie Cohen and permanently influenced country music’s visual aesthetic.
At other moments, California is present, but only to those who know to look for it. Burns selects archival footage of Cash and Wanda Jackson performing on Town Hall Party, a wildly popular Saturday-night “barn dance” that was staged in Compton and broadcast on Los Angeles television in the 1950s. No context for these performances is given, however, and neither the show nor its location is ever mentioned by name.
California figures more explicitly in the story of Gram Parsons, the L.A.-based singer who was converted to country music when a friend played him Owens and Haggard records. Parsons then converted folkie Emmylou Harris, who in turn inspired Dwight Yoakam to move to Los Angeles. Yoakam describes Harris’s first two albums as “the direct tissue connection, musically, to Buck Owens and Merle Haggard for my generation.” And it’s Yoakam who most clearly articulates how the Bakersfield sound and the migrant experience helped shape California’s country music heritage. Perhaps one day he’ll narrate an equally beautiful and well-made documentary with a different slant on the music’s rich history—one that brings California’s important legacy into sharper focus.
Scott B. Bomar is a Grammy-nominated writer, researcher, and music historian who has authored or coauthored six books, including Every Night Is Saturday Night (with Wanda Jackson) and Johnny Cash at Folsom and San Quentin.
• Directed by Ken Burns
• Premieres Sept. 15 on PBS and PBS Video
• 16 hours
Three ways to dig deeper into the Bakersfield sound
Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound, directed by William J. Saunders (2014): An intimate and touching documentary about a onetime West Coast country star who faced multiple personal tragedies. Featuring interviews with Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Ray Price, and Dave Alvin.
Buck ’Em! The Autobiography of Buck Owens, by Buck Owens with Randy Poe (2013): An inside look at the life and career of the often rebellious and always independent artist who dismissed Nashville’s trends and introduced the Bakersfield sound to the world.
The Bakersfield Sound: Country Music Capital of the West, 1940–1974, from Bear Family Records (2019): This 10-CD box set with an accompanying 220-page hardcover book is the only multidisc compilation to dive deep into the California city’s country heritage (disclosure: the author helped produce the set). Featuring a foreword by Chris Shiflett of Foo Fighters.