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Before Buck Owens and Merle Haggard: Roots of the Bakersfield Sound

Jim Dorsch has been a writer and editor for 25 years. He is a longtime devotee of progressive and avant garde rock music.

Buck Owens took Bakersfield to the Country Music Hall of Fame, but the Bakersfield Sound emerged in the 1950s & '60s by combining rock 'n' roll, rockabilly, and country.

Buck Owens took Bakersfield to the Country Music Hall of Fame, but the Bakersfield Sound emerged in the 1950s & '60s by combining rock 'n' roll, rockabilly, and country.

This is Bakersfield Country

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 rooted in rock 'n' roll, its cousin rockabilly, as well as traditional country.

Unlike the more upscale Los Angeles, Bakersfield was a hardscrabble, working-class town. Named for Colonel Thomas Baker, an early settler, 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 vocals and guitar. The two were born in Arkansas, just nine days apart in September 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. By the time they cut “Yearning, Burning Heart” in '57, they were backed by The Desert Stars. That band included Norm Hamlet, Merle Haggard's future steel guitarist in The Strangers, and on guitar, the song's writer, one Buck Owens.

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 with Lefty Frizzell. 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 hits with singles in various styles. “Wishful Thinking” went all the way up to #5 in 1960.

In 1961, Stewart moved to Las Vegas. He was partner in a club called the Nashville Nevada, where he owned 33% in exchange for being the regular attraction. A young Merle Haggard played bass in his band for about a year and a little later he hosted his own 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 of 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 ("Sam's Place) and Merle Haggard cut some of his tunes ( "You Don't Have Very Far to Go" and "Huntsville" most famously).

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 (Merle Haggard's future 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.” When the record became a hit, he recorded a full album with that same title. After that came the LP 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 songwriting before scoring an unexpected 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) followed 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 the Ramblin Road LP (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).

Ferlin Husky

Ferlin Husky was born in December 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 secure a contract with Capitol. 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.

But, it was the 1957 single, “Gone,” that 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, Texas, and his family moved to California when he was 16. He worked in the San Francisco Bay shipyards, and then left to play music in Bakersfield and Las Vegas. He played piano and fiddle in the 1940s for Tommy Duncan, Bob Wills' longtime singer in the Texas Playboys.

His band, the Orange Blossom Playboys, played 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 do so, among them Ferlin Husky and Buck Owens, who played Telecaster with the OB Playboys.

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

Billy Mize

William Robert Mize was born in April 1929 in Arkansas City, Kansas, and he 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 also created 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, and Mize worked on the program for 13 years. He later hosted and performed on the Melody Ranch show with Gene Autry and had his own syndicated show in Bakersfield.

As a recording artist, Mize worked for Decca, Challenge, and Liberty, finally scoring a country hit in 1966 with “You Can't Stop Me” (released on Columbia). He put almost a dozen songs on the charts over the next 10 years and wrote songs for several artists, including Dean Martin. Mize was the Academy of Country Music's “TV Personality of the Year” from 1965 through 1967 and played on many of Merle Haggard's hits.

Reading Country Music

  • Country & Western Music: The Singing Cowboys: The singing cowboy summons images of the solitary men who worked the range. Cowboy music was first documented in two books in the early 20th century. Movie cowboys started singing in the 1930s, and cowboy singers still perform today.
  • The Trucker Song in Country Music: Trucker music rode high in the 1960s, came back a decade later and is still made today. We survey the genre from its roots in 1939 to current practitioners.


Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on January 15, 2012:

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 on January 15, 2012:

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.

Jim Dorsch (author) from Alexandria, VA on January 05, 2012:

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 from Wales on January 05, 2012:

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.