Roots Watch: Bakersfield, Nashville, and That “East vs. West” Thing
Country fans have long since noticed (and sometimes complained) that the ACM and CMA awards shows feature pretty much the same star acts and hits of the year. That was hardly the case back in the mid-1960s, as pointed out in the Country Hall of Fame and Museum’s major new exhibition, The Bakersfield Sound: Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and California Country. The “Academy of Country Music” was founded then to spotlight acts from the West Coast, especially the Bakersfield contingent, because of the perception that Nashville was not giving credit to the country music industry, performers included, based far from Music City.
Lingering memories of tensions from those days may lead to thoughts on the Nashville museum’s exhibit focus of the “Well, imagine that” and “at last” varieties. But I’ve got to say, having spent time with this extraordinary (and for me, often moving) exhibit, and listening to participants at the remarkable panel and performance sessions that have already accompanied it in these opening weeks, my own central takeaway is how much the notion of a split between dialectically clashing “Bakersfield country” and “Nashville country” has been exaggerated.
There’s no doubt that the Southern California scene had its own history, and that it wasn’t being given a whole lot of attention elsewhere as it grew. When I heard that this was likely the next major focus at the Hall, I wondered if the curators were going to be able to find enough saved artifacts to show: Who’d been paying attention? Well, with cooperation from folks like Buck Owens’ family (he was something of a collector, it seems) they’ve got them. You come around a bend and encounter a matching pair of gray Fender solid bodies used by Buck and Don Rich and, now, it can take your breath away. Over there is Speedy West’s legendary but long thought lost groundbreaking steel guitar, and artifacts, too, of the Bakersfield names that were not Buck or Merle or Bonnie—Wynn Stewart and Billy Mize , Tommy Collins, Cousin Herb Henson, the local double-necked Mosrite guitar makers, and Nudie and Turk—the tailors who stitched together the look.
Participants in the opening weekend panel and Deke Dickerson-led performances on March 24—Red Simpson, Dallas Frazier, Rose Lee Maphis and Don Maddox (last of the Maddox Brothers) among them— made it abundantly clear that Bakersfield acts got to have the style and attitudes they had from the nature of the scene, based as it was not on porches or in church pews, but in loud saloons like the Blackboard Café that had opened to appeal to rowdy oil field works, with Hollywood cowboys and Fender Telecasters lurking nearby. The performers did not get up in the morning asking “How can we be different from Nashville today?” or have to. The scene simply was different, as noted in Joe and Rose Lee Maphis’s “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke,” a perfect evocation of the reaction to the scene found there by those transplanted Virginians. (Rose Lee, who’s not performed much since husband Joe died, and Don Maddox, who’d stopped since the Maddox Brothers & Rose act broke up decades ago, were in great performing shape and virtually stole the show. If Don lived closer, he’d be a dynamic, funny Opry Host tomorrow.)
Longtime Strangers Norm Hamlet (steel player) and Don Markham (horns), joined on a memorable panel discussion last Wednesday by Merle Haggard himself, a surprise, talked about the players who’d directly inspired them, whose already veering-towards-edgy styles they built on—and names came up like Bashful Brother Oswald, dobro player with Roy Acuff, and Ray Price, and Ernest Tubb’s Troubadours—all Nashville acts. (So many of those louder and more rhythmic Music City players had roots in the Texas or Tulsa honky tonk and Western Swing scene, as did so many around Bakersfield, that the “our Texans versus your Texans” aspect can remind you of the rise of the American and Russian rocket programs, a fight for supremacy between “our Germans” and theirs, speaking of West Vs. East.)
Capitol Records producer Ken Nelson, who recorded Buck and Merle and so many from Bakersfield down at Hollywood & Vine, never hesitated to record the same acts in Nashville from time to time. Merle, as he often reminds us, was a great admirer of Nashville-based Lefty Frizzell and Marty Robbins. L.A.’s classic Town Hall Party TV shows not only welcomed guests from the East, but their regulars often covered songs that were Music Row hits. This exhibit is not a sign of musical detente—but a recognition of mutual interests and history that was also shared.
If you can possibly get to the Country Hall to see this exhibit, I highly recommend that you do it. If you can’t, there are excellent clips of the panels online and the new book that the Hall has published to accompany the show (same title as the exhibit) has glossy color pics of many of the key artifacts on display, and informative, fresh writing on the subject. (Randy Poe on Buck and the Buckaroos is especially good.) There will be many more exhibit-related events to shed light on all of this over the next year and a half-plus, and I know that I look forward to them.
By the way: If this exhibit brings enough new attention to the Maddox Brothers and Rose, and to Don Rich as an instrumentalist, to get them inducted into the Hall of Fame, well—good!
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