Before Buck and Merle: Roots of the Bakersfield Sound

Updated on September 11, 2019
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Jim Dorsch has been a writer and editor for 25 years. He is a longtime devotee of progressive and avant garde rock music.

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Country music means Nashville to many fans, but the music developed all over the United States. California has a rich tradition of country music, and Bakersfield became known for a harder-edged sound that was rooted in rock and its cousin rockabilly as well as traditional country. Unlike the more upscale, urban Los Angeles, Bakersfield was a hardscrabble, working-class town. Named for an early settler, Colonel Thomas Baker, Bakersfield was founded in 1869. Its main industries are agriculture and oil.

The roots of the Bakersfield sound were planted with the migration of Okies to the area in the 1930s and '40s. The music developed in the town's many honky tonks. The sound came to be characterized by the electric guitar (typically a Fender Telecaster), pedal steel, fiddle and strong vocals. The music was simple and powerful, so as to be heard in a noisy bar. It was nothing like the lush sound developing in Nashville.

The first wave of Bakersfield country artists included the Farmer Boys, Wynn Stewart, Red Simpson and Ferlin Husky, along with bandleaders Bill Woods and Billy Mize.

The Farmer Boys

The Farmer Boys consisted of Bobby Adamson on lead vocals and Woody Murray on harmony and guitar. The two were born in Arkansas, just nine days apart in Sept. 1933. They became regulars on Herb Henson's television show on KERO in Bakersfield. Henson named them the Farmer Boys because they lived in Farmersville, about 75 miles to the north. The two recorded for Capitol from 1955 to 1957. Buck Owens was a member of their backup band, the Desert Stars, on their 1957 sides, for which he provided several songs, including “Yearning, Burning Heart”.

Wynn Stewart

Born in Missouri in 1934, Winford Lindsey Stewart did some local radio work before moving to California with his family. He formed a band while still in high school, and soon enlisted steel player Ralph Mooney and guitarist Roy Nichols, both of whom had played in Lefty Frizzell's band. After a slow start, Stewart signed with Capitol in 1956, where he achieved modest success. He signed with the Jackpot imprint of Challenge Records in 1958, scoring with singles in various styles, with “Wishful Thinking” going to number five in 1960.

Stewart moved to Las Vegas, Nev., in the early 1960s, where he had an interest in a nightclub at which he played six nights a week. A young Merle Haggard played bass in his band. He also hosted a television show. He returned to Bakersfield in 1965 and signed again with Capitol, where he had his biggest hit, “It's such a Pretty World Today”, in 1967.

Stewart softened his sound and enjoyed several hit records. He signed with RCA in 1972, then with Playboy Records in 1975. He started his own WIN label in 1978. Alcoholism hampered his progress, and he stopped performing in the early 1980s. He came back in the mid-1980s with a new album and tour, during which he died from a heart attack.

Red Simpson

Joseph “Red” Simpson would later be known for his trucker songs, but in the 1960s he had a reputation as a songwriter. Simpson wrote a number of songs with Buck Owens, and Merle Haggard cut some of his tunes.

Simpson was born in Arizona in 1934 and grew up in Bakersfield. He played in a country band while in the armed forces in Korea, and returned to Bakersfield, where he played in local clubs with the likes of Fuzzy Owen (who would become Merle Haggard's manager), Bill Woods and Buck Owens.

Simpson cut Tommy Collins' “Roll, Truck, Roll” (Capitol, 1966) after Dave Dudley had a hit with “Six Days on the Road”. He followed up with an LP when the record became a hit. After that came “The Man Behind the Badge” (Capitol, 1966), a tribute to law-enforcement officers, and then a return to big rigs with “Truck Drivin' Fool” (Capitol, 1967). His career hit a lull and he concentrated on writing before scoring a hit in 1972 with “I'm a Truck” (Capitol), a novelty song taking the point of view of the truck. “The Very Real Red Simpson” came out in 1972, and “Trucker's Christmas” (Capitol) in 1973.

Simpson released “Truck Driver's Heaven” (Warner Bros.) in 1976. His last chart appearance was with “The Flying Saucer Man and the Truck Driver”. He issued “Ramblin' Road” (51-West) in 1982. He had successful surgery for skin cancer in 1988. Junior Brown covered 'Highway Patrol” on his “Guit with It” album (Curb, 1993), and Simpson joined Brown on the song “Semi Crazy” on the album of the same name (Curb, 1996). Simpson's next recording was “The Bard of Bakersfield” (Windsor Music, 2005).

The clips in this section comprise a short documentary on Red Simpson.

Ferlin Husky

Ferlin Husky was born in Dec. 1927, on a Missouri farm. He played clubs around St. Louis after World War II, then moved to Bakersfield. He worked as a DJ, played bass for Big Jim De Noone and the Melody Rangers and performed with Gene Autry's sidekick, Smiley Burnette. Husky performed under some smoother sounding stage names before reverting to his real name. He also sang a smoother brand of music than some Bakersfield contemporaries, although he started his career singing honky tonk.

Cliffie Stone, who led a band and hosted the Hometown Jamboree , helped Husky get a contract with Capitol Records. His first big hit was “A Dear John Letter”, a duet with Jean Shepard about a romance that ended during a soldier's tour in Korea.

The 1957 release “Gone” made Husky a star. He recorded the song in Nashville with backing by the Jordanaires and a crude echo. Husky supported his releases by touring with his band, the Hush Puppies, and appeared on TV and in movies. He stayed with Capitol until 1972. His career having slowed, he recorded with ABC, Cachet and MCA. Husky passed away in 2011.

Bill Woods

Bill Woods was born in May 1924 in Denison, Tex. His family moved to California when he was 16. He worked in San Francisco Bay shipyards, and then went south to play music in Bakersfield and Las Vegas. He played piano and fiddle in the 1940s for Tommy Duncan, who had sung with Bob Wills.

His band, the Orange Blossom Playboys, played at the BlackBoard Cafe in Bakersfield from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s. He performed on KERO TV in 1955 and was a DJ on local stations KERN in 1956 and KUZZ in 1960. He never achieved great fame, but helped others to do so, among them Ferlin Husky and Buck Owens, who played his Telecaster with the Playboys.

Red Simpson wrote the song “Bill Woods from Bakersfield”, which Merle Haggard recorded in 1972 on his album, “Let Me Tell You About a Song” (Capitol).

Billy Mize

William Robert Mize was born in April 1929 in Arkansas City, Kan., and grew up in California's San Joaquin Valley. He played guitar as a child, and took up the steel guitar upon receiving one on his 18th birthday.

Mize moved to Bakersfield, put together a band and worked as a DJ on KPMC. He put together a television show in 1953 with Bill Woods and Herb Henson. The Cousin Herb Trading Post Show on KERO featured national acts as well as local musicians. Mize did the show for 13 years.

He worked on a number of shows in Los Angeles, and recorded for Decca, Challenge and Liberty. He had a 1966 country hit with “You Can't Stop Me” (Columbia). Mize hosted and performed on the Melody Ranch show with Gene Autry on KTLA and had his own syndicated show which was produced in Bakersfield. He put almost a dozen songs on the charts in the next 10 years as well as writing songs for several artists, including Dean Martin.

Mize was the Academy of Country Music's “TV Personality of the Year” from 1965 through 1967. He played on many of Merle Haggard's hits.

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Questions & Answers

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      • giocatore profile imageAUTHOR

        Jim Dorsch 

        7 years ago from Alexandria, VA

        You're welcome, KF! I am not an expert on this topic myself, and I learned about Stewart while researching this story. Cheers.

      • KF Raizor profile image

        KF Raizor 

        7 years ago

        Thank you SO MUCH for including Wynn Stewart in this great Hub. He's one of the forgotten greats in country music. Merle Haggard said once that there would never have been a Buck Owens OR a Merle Haggard without Wynn Stewart.

      • giocatore profile imageAUTHOR

        Jim Dorsch 

        7 years ago from Alexandria, VA

        Thanks very much. There certainly is much to learn in this world!

        I see you are from Wales. I came close to Wales once while visiting the English apple country, but didn't get across the border. Cheers.

      • Eiddwen profile image

        Eiddwen 

        7 years ago from Wales

        Very interesting indeed;

        I learn something new every single day here on HubPages and this one as interesting as any other.

        Therefore an up up and away in order.

        Take care and enjoy your day.

        Eddy.

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