The Sound Of Bakersfield

Bakersfield, Calif.--Buck Owens came to this city, 100 miles north of Los Angeles, at the southern end of the prodigiously fertile San Joaquin Valley, to pick cotton, not a guitar. He came for the same reason lots of others came west from Texas and Oklahoma: happiness was the Dust Bowl in their rearview mirrors.

The Owens family's rearview mirror was on a 1933 Ford sedan. In 1937, when Buck was 8 and John Steinbeck was just beginning to write "The Grapes of Wrath," 10 Owens family members packed into it and headed west. His parents had been sharecroppers on the southern side of the Red River that separates Texas from Oklahoma. Because the trailer hitch broke in Phoenix, the family lived there for a few years, sometimes traveling to the San Joaquin to pick carrots in Porterville, peaches in Modesto, potatoes and cotton in Bakersfield. During such work he got the idea that picking a guitar might be more fun.

Which he is doing at 73, in his Crystal Palace nightclub, where he recently began a rollicking hour set with "Okie From Muskogee," a '60s--actually, an anti-'60s--anthem by another Bakersfield boy, Merle Haggard. (Has there ever been a better name for a country-music singer?)

By 16 Owens had begun playing in Phoenix honky-tonks, sometimes with the young Marty Robbins, earning whatever change he could collect by passing a soup bowl. In 1951 he moved to Bakersfield, in Kern County, which produces more oil than Oklahoma, and had plenty of roughnecks to appreciate the country music of rising stars like Bob Wills and Ferlin Husky, who were honing what has come to be called the Bakersfield sound.

That is identified with Owens's solid-body Fender Telecaster steel guitar. It produces the sharp, twangy, driving, biting sound that seems especially suited to the subjects of what is called "hard country music." Such music sometimes teeters on the brink of self-caricature, or embraces it ("I was drunk the day my momma got out of prison"), but its essential message is that life is difficult and so are most of the people we meet, including those we marry.

The life that drove many people down Steinbeck's road to California was hard, and so was the life Owens led chasing stardom. After touring hard--sometimes 300 nights a year--Owens got off the road in 1980. And he spent too many years associated with the instant kitsch of the television program "Hee Haw." As a result, too few fans of country music appreciate how much his Bakersfield sound helped give that music a steely integrity and propel it to the point that Owens could play a much-praised concert in President Johnson's White House in 1968.

By 1980, however, when the John Travolta movie "Urban Cowboy" helped make country music fashionable, country music was beginning to lose its edge. More to the point, the Nashville music establishment set out to rub the edge off, to envelop it in a syrup of strings and softening production techniques, the better to appeal to a broader audience that wanted country music that was close kin to soft rock.

But some "new traditionalists" were, and are, having none of that. These include Randy Travis, George Strait, the Dixie Chicks and Dwight Yoakam--another nifty name for a country singer. Yoakam was born in Kentucky and spent a while in Nashville, but says, "I was drawn to Los Angeles by my earlobes... the country-rock sound, and the Bakersfield sound."

A related development is the recent emergence of a new category of old-style music called "Americana," which is the most popular radio format for Internet listeners. Although Americana is not strictly defined (see, a good sampler is the soundtrack of the movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" a mixture of blues, bluegrass, gospel, folk and mountain music. Sales of that CD, released in 2000, are heading toward 7 million. Americana encompasses new performers, such as Alison Krauss's Union Station and Nickel Creek, and hardy perennials like Johnny Cash. One song written years ago by Homer Joy probably would qualify as Americana:

When Buck Owens is onstage, singing that song, the years fall away. He is as energized by the audience as his guitar is by electricity, and the young man in flight from the cotton fields is present again.

Parts of his life resemble hard-country lyrics (his fourth divorce is not going well) but he is now an icon in the community he first saw when picking cotton. Today, as he drives the streets of Bakersfield, he can steer his pickup truck down Buck Owens Boulevard.

Bakersfield, although prosperous, is still a place where billboards proclaim, tough times never last but tough people do. So does hard-country music, and Buck Owens's Bakersfield sound.