About the Bakersfield Sound

How a small town in California changed the sound of country music

album cover buck owens greatest hits
Image courtesy of Rhino Records

In the 1950s a new type of country music was emerging in Bakersfield, Calif. Dubbed the "Bakersfield sound," the genre rose to prominence by the late '50s and challenged the popularity of the Nashville sound with its gritty mixture of Western swing, honky tonk, rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll.

It's best typified in the music of Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and Wynn Stewart.

Origins

During the Great Depression families moved west to look for work.

Many of these migrant workers were Dust Bowl refugees who flocked to California and the farm belt of the San Joaquin Valley. Of those migrants, a good number settled in Bakersfield, known for its agricultural and oil wealth. These recent transplants from Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas brought along their rustic music.

In the years following World War II, Bakersfield became home to several honky-tonks, including the now-famous Blackboard Cafe. People drank, danced and even fought to the Western swing music made famous by Bob Wills. Though he was born in Texas, Wills is often credited as a primary influence on the emerging Bakersfield sound.

The Bakersfield sound was a direct response to Nashville's arrangements that were smooth, polished and harmonized. Bakersfield country was made of much harder stuff. Stewed in the cauldron of the local roadhouses, the music was powered by an explosive electric guitar, a honky tonk beat and a tough, rockabilly attitude.

The Bakersfield sound hit the mainstream in the 1960s, thanks to hit songs by new artists like Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, but the sound never proved as popular as many hoped. It was later dubbed "Nashville West," but it had fallen into oblivion by the 1970s with the arrival of newer, more profitable country styles.

Legacy

Although the Bakersfield sound doesn't dominate country music like it used to, it's remained incredibly influential over the past several decades. Much like contemporary rock groups owe their success to pioneers like Elvis Presley, contemporary country acts can attribute their success to the Bakersfield sound.

The musical style continues to be influential for acts ranging from rock bands to Los Angeles-based contemporary country artists like Dwight Yoakam. Given that Bakersfield sound artists often recorded in L.A., it developed a reputation as "the California sound," and influenced the music of The Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco, the Eagles, Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons and Creedence Clearwater Revival, to name a few. Chances are any kind of California country rock group was likely influenced by the Bakersfield sound.

In 2012, the Country Music Hall of Fame opened of an exhibit dedicated to the Bakersfield Sound.

Bakersfield Sound Singers:

  • Tommy Collins
  • Buck Owens
  • Merle Haggard
  • "Cousin Herb" Henson
  • Ferlin Husky
  • Billy Mize
  • Bonnie Owens
  • Red Simpson
  • Wynn Stewart
  • Lewis Talley