The Streets of Bakersfield: Maverick Music in California’s Nashville West

During the 1950s, this strand of country-western music, featuring drums, electric guitars (especially the California made Fender Guitar) and strains of mariachi music and rock n’ roll, flourished in honky-tonks and dance halls in and around working-class Bakersfield. By the 1960s, this outlaw strand of country had become mainstream

In 1952, country musician Joe Maphis and his wife, the singer Rose Lee, were driving along on a dark California road. They were a bit shell-shocked, having just finished a gig at the Blackboard Café, the darkest, loudest, rudest honky-tonk in Bakersfield, a rough and tumble oil and farming community in Kern County. The hooting, dancing, drinking audience at the show (especially during a set featuring a blistering guitar solo by Buck Owens) had been a far cry from the docile, polite crowds in their home state of Virginia. According to the country-western star Dwight Yoakam, Rose later told him about their conversation in the car:

“Joe Maphis just shook his head. He said, ‘Hon, I believe that was the loudest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.’ She said, ‘I know, they were great — but I can’t hear.’”

And so that very night, according to Robert E. Price, author of the definitive “The Bakersfield Sound: How a Generation of Displaced Okies Revolutionized American Music,” an inspired Maphis took out a pen and paper and wrote the country hit, “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (and Loud, Loud Music).”

The Bakersfield Arch in Bakersfield, California, USA | Nick Chapman/ Wikicommons
The Bakersfield Arch in Bakersfield, California, USA | Nick Chapman/ Wikicommons

Joe and Rose had just experienced what came to be known as the “Bakersfield Sound.” During the 1950s, this strand of country-western music, featuring drums, electric guitars (especially the California made Fender Guitar) and strains of mariachi music and rock n’ roll, flourished in honky-tonks and dance halls in and around working-class Bakersfield. By the 1960s, this outlaw strand of country had become mainstream, producing stars like Jean Shepard, Billy Mize, Bill Woods, Bonnie Owens and Jimmy Phillips.  By the late 1960s, Bakersfield’s two biggest stars, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, were dominating the country airwaves — and national television to boot.

See how country music reflects a changing America and witness Merle Haggard becoming “The Poet of the Common Man” in this episode of Ken Burns’ “Country Music.”

Many of these musicians were products of one of the darkest times in American history. During the Depression, thousands of farmers and laborers from Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas, driven by poverty, drought, and the punishing winds of the Dust Bowl, made their way out to the fertile valleys of California.

Many of these migrants, derisively called “Okies,” ended up in Kern County, an agricultural hub in the Central Valley. According to Price, Kern county’s population grew 64% between 1930 and 1940. Even more Okies would arrive in California during the 1940s, looking for jobs in booming war industries. Eventually, they would comprise 12% of the state’s total population.

As is often the case, these desperate migrants often met with ridicule and prejudice once they arrived in California. In Kern County, many families ended up in state-run relief facilities like the infamous Weedpatch Labor Camp. Here, the old-time music of the South and Midwest often called the “white man’s blues,” or hillbilly music rang out from the desolate camps’ lean-tos and community halls. “It cleared your head up, that’s what it done,” folk singer Woodie Guthrie, who spent time at the camps, recalled. “Caused you to fall back, and let your draggy bones rest, and your muscles go limber and relax.”

Music became a welcome escape in the years that followed — and a way to keep the migrants’ culture alive. As many Okies settled down in Kern County, finding jobs with the oil companies, railways and mega-farms, they clung to their tradition of expressive folk singing. “All those Okies and Arkies and Texans had a lot of hard times and good material for beer-drinkin’, tear-jerkin’ music,” performer Ferlin Husky told Price. “For them, it was just a natural thing.”

One of these migrants was a savvy iconoclastic performer named Buck Owens. Born in 1929 to Texas sharecroppers, Owens had endured a hardscrabble childhood, kicking around various farming communities in the Southwest. When he was ten, he went to the movies and understood only too well what he saw on screen. “[It was] a bunch of old people sitting on the porch,” he recalled. “The next thing I knew, they were piling their stuff on top of the car. Hell, it was `The Grapes of Wrath.’ I wasn’t going to watch that movie. I’d lived the damn thing.”

A promotional image of Bonnie Owens | Wikicommons
A promotional image of Bonnie Owens | Wikicommons

After following his ex-wife, singer Bonnie Owens (the daughter of a sharecropper from Oklahoma) to Bakersfield in the early 1950s, Buck quickly got a job in the house band of the infamous Blackboard. His loud, enthusiastic style of playing —he often said he wanted his music to sound like a freight train — electrified locals and shocked the established Nashville elite. “My problem with Nashville was simple,” Owens once said. “I don’t like the way they do talent, and I don’t like the way they cut records.”

Buck Owens quickly became a local star in Bakersfield, and by the 1960s — thanks in part to his genius in business and marketing — his hard-hitting music had spread across radio stations around the country. “People would get upset if it wasn’t what they thought country was,” Owens explained. “And there’s no latitude for deciding that. I’ve had different influences from time to time in my life … but as I look back, my biggest influences might have been Bob Wills and Little Richard. What do you make of that combination? But that’s where I was coming from.”

Buck would also sing the song that would come to be his adopted home of Bakersfield’s anthem. In 1972, Owens, now a TV star due to his long-running variety show Hee Haw, recorded “The Streets of Bakersfield.” This hard-luck ode was written by songwriter Homer Joy, who had spent a few rough days at Weedpatch as a child many years earlier. “When we left Arkansas in 1949, the first place we came was Bakersfield,” Joy would remember. “We were flat told by people they didn’t want no more damned Okies. They wouldn’t even let their kids play with us.”

Unlike many of his Bakersfield brethren, the handsome, hedonistic cowboy poet Merle Haggard was a California native.  The child of Okies, Merle had been born in 1937 in Oildale, a rough community on the outskirts of Bakersfield. The family lived in a converted rail refrigeration car, and life was hard after his father’s early death. Merle took to a life of petty crime, and by his teens found himself in and out of institutions and jails. According to Price, one court appearance would stay forever seared in young Merle’s mind:

This mother has tried very hard,” [Attn.] McKnight says, nodding toward her deferentially. The Honorable Norman F. Main looks down at the lengthy rap sheet, glances across the courtroom at anxious Flossie Haggard, and then studies the wiry young punk sitting sullenly at the defense table. “If he had tried half as hard as his mother did …”

Merle would later turn this sad chapter into the hit 1968 country song, “Mama Tried.” A year later, he would follow up with nuanced hillbilly anthems like “Okie from Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me.” These hits would cement him as an outlaw country superstar, joining his friends Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings as a band of troubadour hellraisers who streaked across the 1970s entertainment industry like stoned comets.

Listen to Dwight Yoakam and Marty Stuart talk about Merle’s “Mama’s Hungry Eyes,” which draws on his childhood, in this clip from Ken Burn’s “Country Music.”

“It’s amazing to me the things that come out of Merle’s mouth when he’s writing,” his ex-wife Bonnie Owens remembered. “He’d say later, ‘Bonnie, I don’t ever remember saying those words. It’s like God put them through me.’ I knew he said them. I was there. I’d write them down. ‘Today I Started Loving You Again’ was one of them. ‘If We Make It Through December’ was another. I’d say, ‘Are you sure that’s what you want?’ And he’d say, ‘Yeah, read it to me.’ I would. Then he’d say, ‘I do not remember saying that line.’ He was just amazed.”

Merle Haggard, Country Music Association's performer of the year in 1971. | Country Music Association / Wikicommons
Merle Haggard, Country Music Association’s performer of the year in 1971. | Country Music Association / Wikicommons

As a young delinquent, Haggard would frequent the honky-tonks and dance halls in dusty Bakersfield that nurtured young, rough and tumble talent like himself. According to Price, during the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, hard-hitting country was everywhere in Kern County, percolating at places like Rainbow Gardens, Beardsley Ball Room, Pumpkin Center Barn Dance and Rhythm Ranch. But nowhere was more raucous or revolutionary than the Blackboard Café on Chester Avenue.

Originally a restaurant for oil field laborers, the eatery featured a long blackboard where job openings were posted in chalk. In 1949, Joe Limi (originally from Italy) and Frank Zabaleta (a California Basque) bought the restaurant and transformed it into the rowdiest honky-tonk the Central Valley had ever seen. The house band, the Orange Blossom Playboys, was led by the benevolent Bill Woods, whom Haggard called the “grandpappy” of the Bakersfield Sound. Buck Owens played in the band throughout the 1950s, and eventually Haggard would also play in the band.

While crooners and big bands performed for the upper crust of Bakersfield on Union Avenue (the area’s “Vegas Strip”) working-class folks crowded into the tiny Blackboard to party. “We were just playing old, loud country music at the Blackboard,” singer Red Simpson recalled.

One of the loudest and most charismatic performers was the legendarily rowdy Rose Maddox, who along with her brothers had come to California from Alabama in the ‘30s to pick cotton. Their show, which featured elements of slapstick, dance and swing, was one of the most popular at the Blackboard.

Rose would bring a new sass and bold sexuality to country music. According to Price, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton idolized Rose for her bawdy ways. They also loved her flashy, Hollywood inspired stage costumes. “When western swing and honky-tonk, the dominant styles of country music in the 1940s, took over…” writes Price, “they adopted the clothing styles of…heroic, Saturday-morning-movie cowboys, rather than the overalls of the hillbilly singers who drew laughs at the Grand Ole Opry.”

Legends like Glen Campbell, Patsy Cline, George Jones, Tex Ritter and Connie Smith would all play sets at the Blackboard, dodging broken bottles and nightly fights that made the club infamous.

“We had one fight this Saturday night … where the whole place was going at it,” the owner’s nephew Greg Limi told Price. “The sheriff was there, the highway patrol, you name it. They were dragging people out by their feet and stuffing them into patrol cars, four at a time. We went to break up this one fight — these two women were fighting — and a guy stepped in and tapped us on the shoulders. He says, ‘Nah, let ’em fight. The gal on the bottom is my wife, and she deserves it.’ So, we let ’em go at it for another couple of minutes.”

Slinging drinks between sets was singer Bonnie Owens, whose early marriage to Buck Owens and later marriage to Merle Haggard has often overshadowed her own important career. “I was a follower; Buck and Merle were leaders,” she once said modestly. “I did what was needed, and I did what I could. It was a great time though. We thought we were as big as Nashville. We didn’t have their recording studios, and we didn’t have the big radio stations, but we had the thing that was more than anything: we had the music.”

Throughout the 1950s, Bonnie worked at both the Blackboard and the Clover Club.  “Bonnie would write songs right there on the job,” one friend recalled. “If her section was slow, she would stop and grab a cocktail napkin and write down a few lines right there. Then, later on some different night, she’d get up on the bandstand and sing it.”

Bonnie would later remember the first line she wrote at the Blackboard:

“No Tomorrow: For me there will be no tomorrow. The sun in my life went down today” … That’s the very first line I wrote in Bakersfield, and it started there at the Blackboard, I’d think of a line. I’d hear something, a little piece of a song, and I’d say, “Well, I haven’t heard that before,’ and I’d write it down.”

“She’s got a real unusual voice,” Haggard said fondly. “Once you hear her talk, you’d know her in the dark 300 years from now.” That voice got Bonnie a regular gig on the local Bakersfield variety show Cousin Herb’s Trading Post, which throughout the 1950s and early ‘60s would feature performers including ten-year-old Barbara Mandrell, Johnny Cash,  Ernest Tubb, and Merle Haggard, who would eventually perform five nights a week.

Hear songwriter Jeannie Seely talks about how the way women were represented in country songs in this clip from Ken Burn’s “Country Music.”

It was Uncle Herb’s, along with other local TV  shows, which would help draw the attention of nearby Hollywood. By the early 1960s, big labels began courting Bakersfield musicians. A slick talent scout and producer named Ken Nelson would eventually nurture musicians including Jean Shepard, Red Simpson, Wanda Jackson, Rose Maddox, Tommy Collins and Merle Haggard. By 1969, when “Hee Haw,” starring Buck Owens, premiered (it would run until 1992), many of these musicians, once barely scrapping by, had gone Hollywood and had made Nashville take notice.

The Bakersfield Sound is credited with influencing everything from the musical genre known as Americana to Tejano music to rock n’ roll. According to Dwight Yoakam, its influence cannot be overstated:

‘Bakersfield’ really is not exclusively limited to the town itself but encompasses the larger California country sound of the ’40s, ’50s and on into the ’60s, and even the ’70s, with the music of Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons, the Burrito Brothers and the Eagles — they are all an extension of the ‘Bakersfield sound’ and a byproduct of it. I’ve got a poster of Buck Owens performing at the Fillmore West in 1968 in Haight-Ashbury! What went on there led to there being a musical incarnation called country rock. I don’t know if there would have been a John Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival had there not been the California country music that’s come to be known as the ‘Bakersfield sound.’

Although the originators of the Bakersfield Sound have mostly passed on, their footprints can still be spied in dusty Bakersfield — like Merle Haggard’s childhood home, at the exceptional Kern County Museum. But the best place to get a little Bakersfield Sound schooling is Buck Owen’s Crystal Palace, a museum/performing venue opened by the Owens family in 1996. Buck played there every week, giving it his all, until he died in 2006, only hours after one last rowdy show.