Suburban Twang: When L.A. Was Country

From the late 1930s through the 1990s, country western music and the hybrid culture from which it came defined much of white working class Los Angeles.

COUNTRY MUSIC, a new 8-part, 16-hour documentary film series directed by Ken Burns, written by Dayton Duncan and produced by Duncan, Julie Dunfey and Burns, will premiere September 15, 2019 on PBS stations nationwide. 

Roots | Brent/Flickr/Creative Commons License
Roots |Flickr/ Brent/Creative Commons License (CC BY 3.0)

The death of country singer Kitty Wells at 92 and the 100th birthday of Woody Guthrie (had he outlived Huntington’s disease in 1967) fell only days apart in mid-July 2012. Between Guthrie’s first radio performances in 1937 and the end of Wells’ career in the 1990s, “country western” culture defined much of white working-class Los Angeles.

Get a sneak peek at Ken Burns’s new sweeping series on the history of country music – from its roots in ballads, hymns and the blues to its mainstream popularity. Watch this preview.

Guthrie sang with his cousin Leon “Oklahoma Jack” Guthrie and later with Maxine “Lefty Lou” Chrissmanon on KVFD radio when so-called hillbilly bands performed on nearly every station from Bakersfield to San Diego. Wells, at the height of her career in the late 1950s, performed with her husband at the Palomino in North Hollywood and other country western clubs in the suburban communities that gathered around the auto plants, refineries, and aerospace industries of Southern California.

Guthrie wrote the grit of Depression Los Angeles into topical songs like “Fire in Los Feliz Hills,” “Fifth Street Blues,” “Lincoln Heights Jail” and “Los Angeles New Years Flood.” Wells remixed the regrets and romances of country music from a woman’s perspective in songs like “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” “Paying for That Back Street Affair,” and “Your Wild Life’s Gonna Get You Down.”

L.A. radio hybridized Guthrie’s wry ballads of bad times and Wells’ laments for relationships gone wrong with traditional folk music, written-in-Hollywood cowboy songs, and jazz-based western swing. Stations KFOX, KFI, KXLA, KRKD, KEHE, KMTR, KFWB, KMPC, KGER. KZLA, and KRLA all featured country western performers; some programmed only country western music, often by unpaid bands hoping to turn airtime into bookings at L.A.’s many dance clubs.

“Country” radio yoked the backwoods of Georgia and Tennessee and the llanos of west Texas and Colorado to a local industry of country western music that exploited and consoled the tens of thousands of working-class migrants from the South and Southwest who poured into Los Angeles just before and during World War II.

Many of them were like Steinbeck’s Joad family from “The Grapes of Wrath,” completing a migration that led from the Dust Bowl, through the labor camps of the Central Valley, to a house in Hawthorne or Lawndale or Torrance and a job in an aircraft plant. In 1941, columnist Ernie Pyle called them “Aviation Okies.” Billboard magazine, in describing their music preferences, called them “khaki and overalled Okies.” In time, they became my neighbors.

In 1910, Dominguez Field hosted the first air meet in the United States. Composite photograph courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.
Learn why Southern California is the undisputed aviation capital of the world on “Blue Sky Metropolis” S1 E1: Wings: Aviation Takes Flight in Early Los Angeles. Watch now.

The roots musician Dave Alvin, who grew up in Downey, remembers how pervasive “county” was on the suburban fringe of Los Angeles:

From the 1940s up into the early 90s, there was a thriving country barroom scene on the southeast side of Los Angeles County where I grew up. Joints like The Tumbleweeds in Bell Gardens, Nashville West in El Monte, The Dodge Saloon in Norwalk and The Blue Bayou in Bellflower. Long Beach had more than its share of clubs with places like George’s Round-up, Hollywood by the Beach, Nashville Beach and, up on Signal Hill maybe the greatest of them all, Bonnie Price’s Foothill Club. … These were neighborhood clubs that catered to the local blue-collar factory and oilfield workers and what was left of the old dairy and agricultural workers in the area. As tastes changed in country music and the customers and jobs moved on or, sadly, as the old timers passed away, so did these honky tonks and the music scene they supported.

Between the Dustbowl and the end of aerospace, “country” gave Los Angles a distinctive style of music, language, and cultural preferences, but it also saddled Los Angeles politics with additional layers of southern-inflected populism and racial antagonism. Today, it’s hard to say how much of that remains, with the passing of first-generation migrants and the blurring of “country” culture into the cultural generalities of L.A.’s Anglo minority.

Almost entirely gone (although not completely) are the dance clubs and the radio programs that brought “country” into the lives of lonesome and displaced Okies, Arkies, and their southern kin.

Price’s Foothill in Long Beach turned from Billy Mize and The Tennesseans to salsa and reggaetón. After switching to rock and funk in the 1980s, the Palomino closed. KZLA, once the dominant country music station in Los Angeles, abandoned the format. “We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause,” was the station’s last web posting.

This story was originally published on KCET. You can find the original story here.